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The Ethnic Church

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this." King's Speech at WMU Whatever we might think of King, Jr.'s politics or theology, or even his reasons for making this statement, there is a sound biblical principle that militates against the formation of an ethnic church. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. With respect to our identity in Christ, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Ga 3:27-28 ESV). The very concept of the ethnic church seems to circumvent one of the powerful aspects of what Christ accomplishes at the cross, the abolition of racial distinction as a criteria for salvation and a relationship with God. Certainly a multi-ethnic church is a powerful testimony to the power of the cross.

Furthermore, every church, whether ethnic or not, has a responsibility to take part in the Great Commission and be a witness for the gospel within her community. Without ministry or testimony accessible to her local community, the ethnic church fails a significant part of her God-given responsibility. So why then have an ethnic church? Primarily because though the power of the gospel transcends ethnic and linguistic boundaries, those whom God has entrusted with the gospel, and those who need its power are much more limited. Though Paul is speaking in the context of not claiming his rights in 1 Cor. 9:19-23, we can at least discern an attitude of not allowing non-essentials to hinder us from sharing the gospel. Language is one of those non-essentials. So although there are benefits to requiring everyone to read the Bible in its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, translations to common tongues are justified, contrary to the policy of the medieval church. When we bring the gospel across ethnic lines, there are not only linguistic, but also cultural barriers that must be overcome. Ethnic churches serve the cause of the gospel by bridging these barriers to communicate the power of the gospel.

What about English-speaking congregations in an ethnic church? With no linguistic barrier and far lower cultural barriers are the members of such a congregation better served in joining a non-ethnic church? On the one hand, we might seek to justify this kind of church by noting the importance of familial ties that exist across the language and cultural differences, and the importance of family ties within a church - even after adulthood. We might note that second gens come with their own significant cultural baggage to whom such congregations are suited to minister. But to think that a church must choose to either fail either in reaching out to ethnic minorities or fail in her responsibility to the Great Commission assumes an either/or condition that is not true. First of all, multi-ethnic churches are not the goal of the gospel, merely the consequence of the gospel. This is a point that is often lost in the rush toward multi-ethnic models of church. If you happen to be in a church in the interior of China, you do not fail the Great Commission by not flying in other ethnicities to join your church. Rather, every church ought to strive to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transcend racial barriers, and every church ought to strive to fulfill the Great Commission. In other words, there is no one "right" way to proceed. The non-ethnic church begins with the work of the gospel in a majority constituency and works to fulfill the Great Commission to her whole community. The ethnic church begins with filling the need of a minority community for the gospel and works to do the same. Where the difference comes in is the kind of challenges each church will face. The non-ethnic church must think of ethnic minorities within her community, and carefully consider how to bring the gospel to people who often live, think and communicate in much different ways. My own experience is that even the best of these churches face significant challenges in learning sensitivity to ethnic minorities. The ethnic church has very different challenges. On the one hand, she has a huge built-in advantage. She does not need to stretch in order to envision the challenges that many minorities face. Furthermore, as she grows and matures, she will naturally encompass multiple cultures and languages. The Great Temptation, however, is for her to create a little cultural enclave for her comfort, and largely neglect the community around her. Chinatown works as a community, but not as a church. The ethnic church demonstrates the power of the gospel to transcend racial and cultural differences, and fulfills her part in the Great Commission in large part through her English-speaking ministry (in this country). But this does not mean simply establishing an English-speaking congregation. Rather, unless the church desires to present a distortion of what God intends a church to be, there must be close and meaningful engagement between the congregations. Particularly, the ethnic church must act deliberately to foster close fellowship between its various groups, and act in concert to engage her local community. How to do this? The following situations are some the biggest challenges for the ethnic church. 1. Lack of meaningful engagement between language groups within a church. In every church, people prefer hanging out with the people who are like them. But that is not what the gospel is about. Yes, language can often be a bit of a barrier, but there are many kinds of things that a church can do where this difficulty is not insurmountable. And having to work at it is not a bad thing. 2. The primary language group assuming a dominant role within the church, and conveying an attitude, whether spoken or not, that the other group is "just the kids." That kind of attitude comes out in many different ways. The model of the church in Acts is that a majority group should be especially careful and considerate to the minority group in her midst. And we should all be considerate to one another. 3. The English-speaking group must embrace its role as the bridge for their ethnic group to the community. Instead of finding the ethnic group hard to understand and out of touch with culture, understand that the gospel calls us to reach across those barriers. 4. When there is a dominant group in the church, there is the desire to sit back and let them bear the brunt of the work because they have the most resources and people. Every part of the body is necessary. We need to come alongside one another and find ways to work together. Second generation members must recognize that there are leadership roles within the church that God calls them to fill. These are significant challenges. But we must also recognize that many of the challenges are born out of our own sinful desires. On both sides of the equation, living in obedience to the Great Commission is not an easy path. But if we follow in obedience, it is also the path of blessing where God will work in and through us, and the path where we will experience his blessing.


Reprinted with permission from a contributing author, Hans Sun. The original post is from his blog: In Praise of Worship. We gratefully thank all our contributing authors.

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