Multi-Ethnic Church Planting

Not every church planter needs to think hard about how to plant a multi-ethnic church. Many of them around the world will only be dealing with one people group, one culture, one nation, and one language. In these contexts, a multi-ethnic church is really not an option at all simply because there are not multiple ethnicities or cultures living in their communities. This is certainly stating the obvious, but it is an important point that needs to be established in the beginning of a paper advocating multi-ethnic church planting. We must remind ourselves of this reality because it protects us from making an idol of ethnic diversity. Faithfulness to God’s word is the most important goal of church planting—that may result in ethnic diversity or it may not.

In situations where ethnic diversity is not possible on a local level, these churches should focus their energy on reaching those whom God has placed in their community. In all other situations where ethnic diversity is possible, it should not only be desired but also intentionally pursued. A church or church planter that does not have a heart for all the different people in their community is out of line with the biblical norm . As Daniel Hays explains in his book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race:

The New Testament demands active unity in the Church, a unity that explicitly joins differing ethnic groups together because of their common identity in Christ…While there may be practical and sociological reasons for creating and maintaining churches that are ethnic specific, this division into ethnically based worshipping communities is contrary to the imperatives of Paul.[1]

So, we need to understand that in some contexts a church that is pursuing biblical faithfulness will by default also be pursuing ethnic diversity. A multi-ethnic church is a glorious thing when God makes that happen, but it should never replace our pursuit of faithfulness to God’s word as our primary goal. Some church leaders who are passionate about racial harmony and ethnic diversity do not always communicate this clearly.

For example, John L. Thompson in his book Urban Impact says, “if you are going to plant a church in the city, you will undoubtedly have to plant a church that will attract people of minority ethnic descent.”[2] This is not always the case even in the city of Chicago where Thompson has been doing ministry for almost thirty years. There are plenty of neighborhoods in the city of Chicago that are almost entirely mono-ethnic and mono-cultural. In these neighborhoods, church planters will not need to plant a church that attracts people from a minority ethnic descent.

Yet, most of the time Thompson’s statement rings true. Almost all of the major cities in the world are incredibly diverse and most of the neighborhoods in Chicago are as well. Therefore, for the remainder of this post I will focus on how to plant a multi-ethnic church in an ethnically diverse community. As John L. Thompson asked in Urban Impact, “How can we develop a ministry that will most effectively reach people of different ethnic groups?”[3] Basically, there are two primary ways churches have tried to accomplish this goal. The first approach we will look at is the multi-congregational church approach. The second approach we will look at is the multi-ethnic church approach. Plenty of variations exist within each of these categories, but these are the two basic strategies.

A MULTI-CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH

What is a multi-congregational church? Jerry Appleby has done a great deal of research on this subject and he has provided a clear and succinct definition of this term. According to Appleby a multi-congregational church is “any church organization where there is the existence of more than one congregation, whether recognized as separately organized or not. This distinction as a congregation is usually for language reasons but can be for racial or ethnic reasons.”[4] In the multi-congregational model, a church desires to reach the different ethnicities in their neighborhood, but for various reasons, they do not try to permanently bring all the different ethnicities together. Some multi-congregational churches will bring the different congregations together maybe once a month or a few times throughout the year.

As was mentioned earlier, there are a variety of variations to the multi-congregational approach. Thompson describes a few of them in Urban Impact.[5] The first one he describes he calls “Mono-ethnic House Churches.” In this variation one established church reaches out to their community by starting house churches, bible studies or small groups that will sometimes grow large enough to become their own separate church. In sum, this is a homogeneous, ethnic approach to church planting. The next approach he calls the “Autonomous Mono-Ethnic Church within an Anglo Church.” This model is similar to what Manuel Ortiz calls “The Renting Model” or “The Celebration Model.”[6] In these models, one established church tries to start a new ethnic service within its own building. Ortiz explains that some churches will simply rent out their building to help out ethnic churches while others want to do more than just rent the building out. In the celebration model they want to have more of a relationship with those coming to the new ethnic church and encourage them in their growth. So in this model the two churches may be closely connected or they might not, but the main idea with this model is to help ethnic churches by allowing them to use their church’s facilities. The third multi-congregational approach Thompson describes he calls it “Multisite Ethnic Congregations Inhabiting a Single Church Building or at Various Sites.” With this approach the different congregations see themselves as one umbrella church with multiple ethnic congregations that may all meet in the same church building or various parts of a city. Each congregation contributes to the others and they are connected through shared finances, ministry distinctives, and church government. However, each congregation will meet separately from the others, they will have their own pastor and other lay leaders. In sum, this model is similar to the multi-site church planting movement, but with these churches, the different congregations/sites would each be targeting different ethnicities.

Ortiz lists five elements that he found were common of multi-congregational churches. He researched several multi-congregational churches and shares the results in his book One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church.[7] (1) The multi-congregational church uses one facility for several language groups (congregations). (2) Language, more than anything else, seems to be what keeps congregations separated. There are certainly cultural issues, but language is what most churches have indicated as the dividing line. (3) There are different levels of inter-involvement in each congregation. Some churches come together more often than others. (4) Usually the English-speaking church owns the church building and determines the use of the facilities and the events for any kind of combined effort. The other language groups tend to go along with the request from the English-speaking church. (5) There is very little sharing of ministry projects. This is not always true, but it seems to be more common than not.

In the conclusion of this post, I will compare the strengths and weaknesses of multi-congregational model versus the multi-ethnic church model. This section is simply a definition of the model, a list of variations within this model and five common elements among multi-congregational churches. In the next section, I will define and describe a multi-ethnic church.

A MULTI-ETHNIC CHURCH

What is a multi-ethnic church? Manuel Ortiz describes it this way, “the multi-ethnic church includes culturally diverse people who meet together as one congregation, utilizing one language, usually English. This kind of congregation, which meets on Sunday mornings with numerous ethnic and racial groups on display.”[8] The goal of this model is not just reach the different ethnicities in the neighborhood, but to bring them all together into one church family. As Ortiz explained in his definition it is necessary to utilize one common language and usually in the United States that common language will be English.

Those who advocate for this model will often times provide biblical and theological arguments to support this approach. David Anderson is the pastor of a large multi-ethnic church in Columbia, Maryland. He has written some books on multi-ethnic church ministry and started an entire ministry from his church to help encourage the church toward greater unity among racial and cultural diversity. In his book Multicultural Ministry, he argues from Colossians 3 “that we are first and foremost children of God. Race, class, culture, social status, denomination, and so on, are all secondary to this one truth.”[9] Throughout Anderson’s book, he points to the storyline of Scripture as the basis for multicultural ministry. Therefore, he does not see his church model as a pragmatic issue, but as first and foremost a theological issue.

Similarly, Rodney M. Woo in his book The Color of the Church also begins his argument for the multi-ethnic church model by looking at the Scripture. In the first section of his book, he points readers attention to the book of Revelation and believes that our churches here on earth should work harder at reflecting the diverse heavenly assembly we see in Revelation.[10] In the Bible, we see that God’s heart from Genesis to Revelation is to save people for himself from every tribe, tongue, and language. One day all of the redeemed will gather to bow their knee to king Jesus.

Mark DeYmaz also appeals to the diversity of the universal church in his book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, but he also has three chapters on three different passages of Scripture.[11] He devotes one chapter to Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 and shows how Christ prayed for unity in the church. There is another chapter that traces the ethnic diversity patterns of the church of Antioch in the book of Acts. Then in the third chapter he goes to Ephesians to unpack even further some of the theological foundations for multi-ethnic churches.

Therefore, as we consider what is being advocated with the multi-ethnic church we need to realize that in some respects it is more than just a model or an approach. The men writing these books would not see this as “a way” to plant and grow churches, rather they would see it as “the way” to plant and grow churches. There is a strong biblical and theological thrust behind all that these multi-ethnic church leaders are suggesting. They all believe that a proper biblical understanding of ethnicity will lead to tremendous implications for how we will practically do ministry. That is why each of them have several chapters in their books about how to practically become a multi-ethnic church.

As there were with the multi-congregational model there are several common elements in the multi-ethnic church model.

(1) The first and probably the most important aspect of a multi-ethnic church plant is being intentional about reaching people from different ethnicities. In order to be a multi-ethnic church there needs to be a deliberate plan in place. It does not happen by accident. Ethnic minority groups do not easily assimilate into a church that has a strong ethnic majority. John L. Thompson observes, “many churches say they are open to people of all ethnic groups to attend their church. But what do they mean? They may welcome visitors but they are basically saying that if they are to continue coming, they must assimilate, to fit in, and ‘become like us.’ There will be little attempt to alter the ministry or adjust to the needs and preferences of other cultures.”[12] Multi-ethnic churches will intentionally and deliberately adjust to the needs and preferences of other cultures and these adjustments are what make up the remaining elements of a multi-ethnic church.

(2) Multi-ethnic leadership is another one of the common elements. If a church desires to be multi-ethnic then its leadership should reflect that desire. This is a key issue because it protects the church from having one culture’s preferences being dominant in the life of the church. Many of us are blinded by our cultural preferences and do not realize how they affect those from other cultures. These blind spots make it extremely important for multi-ethnic churches to have multi-ethnic leaders who can evaluate the life of the church from the perspective of their ethnic culture. Rodney M. Woo makes this assertion, but he also gives an extremely important warning. In chapter eleven of his book The Color of Church he encourages churches to never select leaders solely based on their ethnicity, but on the biblical qualifications for leadership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.[13]

(3) Another element involves the Sunday morning corporate worship. In multi-ethnic churches everything about the corporate worship is geared toward reaching a diverse audience. This affects the preaching style and the preachers. Some churches will try to have a variety of preachers to bring the word so that the church is unified around the word of God rather than the personality and ethnic culture of the preacher. This also impacts what kinds of songs are being sung and how they are being sung. In some form or fashion a multi-ethnic church “seeks to include every group to its worship and ministry.”[14]

(4) The final element that is consistent among multi-ethnic churches is an intentional pursuit of cross-cultural relationships in the community. Churches that are multi-ethnic are typically that way because they went out and met people from those ethnicities. There is often a deliberate evangelism strategy put in place that helps train the members in how to think and live among people of different ethnic groups.

At the 2012 Send North America Conference Brian Galloway led a workshop entitled “Connecting With A People Group.” At the end of the workshop he gave these nine practical strategies for reaching out to those people in your community who do not share the same ethnicity or culture as you do:

– Be a regular by going to the same place for gas, groceries, coffee, haircuts, and eating out. Try to get to know the staff on a personal level.

–  Explore different parts of the community, city, or county. Find things to do in places you have not yet explored. Shop in a different part of town or try a new coffee house. Go to local restaurants that capture the local culture.

–  Pray each day for a people group. The more you pray for people groups, the more you will love them, the people and their culture. God supernaturally does a work in your heart.

–  Sports! Become a fan of the sports that the people group likes and go to all their games. Get involved with their sports club and join or coach a team.

–  Embrace their history. Learn the historical narrative in order to better understand them and what they have experienced.

–  Be a part of the people group’s community. Live where they live. Go to their local festivals, concerts, or fundraisers. Participate missionally. Strike up conversations. Pray for the people you encounter.

–  Engage in a hobby or activity they have. Tai Chi, Cooking, Walking, Drinking Bubble Tea, etc…

–  Make them a relationship not a project or a program. People come to Christ through relationships more than they do events.

–  Learn and listen. As you live with them learn and listen to them.[15]

These are the sort of practical strategies and deliberate plans that are common among multi-ethnic churches. Within each of these elements are an endless number of ways to implement these elements, but these four elements are the foundation for multi-ethnic churches. Now we will turn our focus on comparing and evaluating these two models.

CONCLUSION

It was said above that both of these models have the same end goal in mind, namely, to reach the different ethnicities in their community. Yet, they each take a different approach to accomplish that goal. The multi-congregational approach basically tries to reach these people by planting separate and mono-ethnic churches that will reach each of the different ethnicities represented in the community. Whereas the multi-ethnic approach aims to bring as many different ethnicities into the same church as it possibly can. Is one model better than the other? Or are they a matter of preference? The answer to these questions is not so simple. Each model has some great strengths and some glaring weaknesses.

For example, the multi-congregational model is easier in the beginning but more difficult in the long run. With this approach there is no need to cross language or cultural barriers. These churches do not need to deal with a lot of the problems and difficulties facing the multi-ethnic church. At least they do not need to deal with them at first. The problem is that in the long run the second and third generations very often to not always embrace the full ethnic and cultural life of their parents and grandparents. Therefore, there may be a lot of success early on in reaching people from different ethnicities, but after ten or twenty years the church will begin dealing with how to effectively disciple the children and young adults who in their own congregation. Many of these young people will not speak the ethnic language of their parents and will be in American English-speaking schools their entire childhood. So it is only a matter of time before the new ethnic church now has two different ethnicities in their midst and must figure out a strategy for training up their children who essentially their own cultural group. Consequently, the multi-congregational church model is strong at reaching first generation immigrants and anyone who is foreign born. The multi-ethnic church is weak in this area because of the natural cultural and language barriers. It would normally take a very spiritually mature person to choose to go outside of their comfort zone of their ethnic culture and seek to join a church that does not look and act like them. As a result, the multi-ethnic church is not the best model for reaching first generation peoples, but it is a good model for reaching the second and third generations.

One of the clear strengths of the multi-ethnic model is its biblical and theological basis. The multi-ethnic church has some strong support from many of the passages given above. I believe that because of these biblical and theological arguments the multi-ethnic church should be the ideal that every church in a diverse community should strive toward. This approach to church planting is more consistent with the New Testament teaching of the church than the multi-congregational approach. There is some confusion among the multi-congregational leaders about what exactly a church is. Some of the advocates for multi-congregational churches speak of being many congregations who are all part of one church. This was not true of all the variations presented above, but it was true of some of them. When we look at the New Testament the literal meaning of a church is a congregation. This means they are creating their own definition of the church and not giving any biblical support for their definition. I also have a hard time believing that each of these congregations do not function as a completely separate church. Therefore, we should be careful of redefining what the church is if we are going to employ the multi-congregational model for reaching the ethnicities in our community.

Although the multi-ethnic church approach may be harder in some way I believe it will display the power and beauty of the gospel in ways that a multi-congregational approach cannot do as well. The gospel declares that when we become united with Christ that we form an entirely new people. The cross of Christ destroys the barriers between ethnic groups as people from different ethnicities realize that we are all now one in Christ. A church that is full of unity even amidst its ethnic diversity makes the gospel shine brighter to the watching world. The world understands that people like to spend time with other people who are just like them. What the world does not understand is why a black man and a white man would sacrificially love each other. I believe this is a greater witness to the truths of the gospel and gives the church a greater testimony in the community. Therefore, as I plan to move to an extremely diverse community in Chicago I will be trying to plant a multi-ethnic church. I do not want to make an idol of diversity and I will not be upset if ten years from now there is a church in Chicago that is full of white, bearded, Abe Lincoln looking men. I will be upset if ten years from now I have not shared the gospel with countless people from dozens of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. For, I can only be faithful to share the gospel and build relationships with people who are not like me. Jesus is the one who build the church and he is the one who will draw people from different ethnicities to himself. As I established in the beginning of this paper the end goal of church planting is faithfulness to God’s word. We plant the seeds, but God gives the growth. Therefore, as a church planter I must be intentional and deliberate in planting seeds among all the different people groups represented in my community and work hard to not be blinded by my own cultural preferences.


[1] J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (IVP Academic, 2003) 204-205.

[2] John L. Thompson, Urban Impact: Reaching the World Through Effective Urban Ministry, ed. Dena J. Owens (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010) 157.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jerry Appleby, The Church Is In A Stew: Developing Multicongregational Churches (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1990).

[5] Thompson, Urban Impact, 159-163.

[6] Manuel Ortiz, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church (IVP Academic, 1996).

[7] Ibid, 65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Anderson, Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm (Zondervan, 2004), 82.

[10] Rodney M. Woo, The Color of Church (B&H Books, 2009).

[11] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2007).

[12] Thompson, Urban Impact, 157-158.

[13] Woo, The Color of Church, 203.

[14] Thompson, Urban Impact, 168.

[15] Brian Galloway, “Connecting With A People Group” at the Send North America Conference on July 31, 2012.http://namb.s3.amazonaws.com/video_downloads/SNA_Conference_2012/breakouts_audio/SendNA12_Breakout_Bryan_Galloway.mp3

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Filed under Chicago, Church Planting, Evangelism, Missions, Pastoral Ministry, The Church

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