The blessings and challenges of multiethnic churches

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

A few years ago, I attended a Christian worship concert called Open Heavens. The event brought to life John’s global vision of heaven as recorded in Revelation 7. Each segment of worship and Scripture reading was led by a different host country. A video of a plane cruising through cloudless skies appeared on screen between segments, simulating our travels from one continent to another. There was a palpable buzz in the large concert centre as the crowd waited for our imaginary flight to land.

Familiar hymns were sung in unfamiliar tongues, giving us a taste of worship unrestrained by language. Yoruba percussionists told stories through talking drums and Chinese dancers commanded attention with their seamless movements. It was a vibrant expression of the diversity in unity made possible in Jesus Christ alone. I distinctly remember thinking, “I wish it were like this every Sunday.”

I have seen the fulfillment of my wish in the multiethnic church. Multiethnic churches, composed of congregants and ministry leaders from various ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, are tangible examples of the redemptive and reconciling work of the gospel.

Healthy multiethnic churches celebrate ethnic and racial identity while submitting such identity markers to our collective identity in Christ. In his 2008 paper, “Unity and Diversity: The Church, Race and Ethnicity,” historian Sujit Sivasundaram highlights multiethnic churches as a powerful resource for evangelism in a post-modern world. He writes,

“The post-modern onlooker might reduce Christianity to the needs of a particular local community, or might explain it in terms of the attractiveness of its symbols and ideas for individuals. They might seek to differentiate black Christianity from white Christianity. The multiethnic church challenges these assessments by presenting the gospel as something that holds for people everywhere, and which is visibly followed by all ethnicities.”

The road to establishing healthy multiethnic churches is not a smooth one. Competing preferences, biases, and prejudices have always challenged church unity, with a desire for homogeneity often surrounding such tensions.

As Sivasundaram goes on to write, “At times the church has successfully campaigned against the dehumanising treatment of peoples on the basis of ethnicity. At other times it has lost sight of the Bible’s unique message of unity and diversity.”

In the 1970s, North American ministry leaders were captivated by the Church Growth Movement, developed by missiologist Donald McGavran in light of his mission work in India. What began as a quest to understand church growth disparities in India became the template for the modern megachurch.

A prominent aspect of the Church Growth Movement was The Homogeneous Unit Principle that proposed ethnic and racial homogeneity as the most effective model for church growth. In summarizing this principle, Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism, writes, “In an attempt to draw individuals into the church, barriers needed to be removed, and that meant that dealing with racial differences which would detract from the real work of church growth would not be considered.”

Under the influence of this model, many Canadian pastors and ministry leaders were ill-equipped, and in some cases unwilling, to adapt to their increasingly multicultural contexts. Immigrants were commonly excluded from predominantly white mainline churches, leading to the establishment of homogenous minority ethnic churches.

Whatever successes the Homogenous Unit Principle promised, its resulting segregation isolated many mainline churches from the needs of an increasingly diverse and heterogeneous society. Statistics Canada figures from 2018 report that Canada has the highest foreign-born population of any G8 country (23.6 per cent).

The Holy Spirit has convicted and inspired church leaders to lay aside the limitations and blind spots of older church growth models in pursuit of diverse gospel-centred churches. According to the 2015 Large Canadian Church Report, “if multiethnic is defined as a church with no more than 80% of one race, then 62% of large Canadian churches are multiethnic.”

Given the unique opportunities and blessings of the multiethnic church, there is a temptation to elevate these churches as spiritually superior to monoethnic churches. This view ignores the ways God has worked and continues to work in homogeneous spaces. Predominantly white rural churches offer fellowship and comfort to otherwise forgotten and isolated towns. Monoethnic immigrant churches are a source of comfort and belonging for newcomers navigating an unfamiliar culture. Historically Black churches nurture the spiritual needs of marginalized members while advocating for social and political change.

Monoethnic churches bridge generational and socioeconomic divides within their communities. In his sermon on ethnic harmony, Matt Chandler affirms the legitimacy of the monoethnic church. “Does Jesus dwell and abide in an all African-American church?” he asks, “Absolutely He does. Does He abide in powerful ways in an all Latino, all Asian, all White church? Absolutely. Do you get a full expression of God’s delight when that happens? No. Christ is present in homogenous spaces, He just wants something more from us if it’s possible.”

The power of the multiethnic church is not in the diverse appearance it presents. An aesthetic of diversity is insufficient to address the tensions, inequalities, and spiritual needs of our communities.

Gospel reconciliation cultivates the fruit of diversity by challenging communities to engage in a continual process of repentance, forgiveness, and sacrificial love.

Paul outlines this process in his response to ethnic divisions in the Galatian church. Many Jewish believers argued that Jewish practices like circumcisions were a requirement for the salvation and full acceptance of Gentile believers. Paul explained the incompatibility of such requirements with the gospel message, reminding the Galatians of the sufficiency of Christ for the salvation of all believers, regardless of ethnicity. Paul implored Jewish and Gentile believers to ground their identity in Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to reshape their patterns of thinking and behaviour toward one another.

The modern multiethnic church faces similar challenges to the Galatian church. Korie Little Edwards, author of The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches (Oxford, 2021), highlights some of those challenges in an article for Christianity Today. She writes that people who are “ethnically similar share similar ideas of how church should look: the length of worship services, the music sung, the preaching style, the appropriate clothing, the languages spoken, and the food served are just some examples. Without this commonality, more conflict arises, and those with more power set church culture and structure.” 

Some may dismiss service length and worship style as secondary issues, but power imbalances in the decision-making processes that shape church culture will invariably legitimize one expression of worship at the cost of others. Misunderstandings and miscommunication are also likely to occur between church members with different social norms and customs.

Addressing these challenges will require the same honesty and humility that Paul impressed upon the Galatians. Multiethnic churches can pursue leadership teams that reflect the diversity of their congregations while upholding biblical leadership qualifications. Diverse leadership teams can model the fruits of racial reconciliation and ethnic harmony for their congregations.

This process will involve asking hard questions. Have we added cultural requirements or barriers to the gospel? What ethnic and racial wounds exist within our communities? What do repentance and forgiveness look like as we seek to heal those wounds? What sacrifices will need to be made to create a culture of unity and inclusion? Compromises around worship preferences must be made, sometimes pleasing one party and disappointing others, but the Holy Spirit will provide the wisdom and courage needed to make such adjustments.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul boldly declared, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). A multiethnic church whose members die to themselves will live in the fullness of God’s delight as the unified body of Christ.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.