The world today is shrinking. The era of globalization has been ushered in, and the surge of migration into America has vastly changed the urban landscape. The church stands in the middle of this gushing torrent, staring nervously at the rising waters. Where the waters once held a homogenous sheen, it is now a dizzying mosaic of colors.
In light of redemptive history, how should the urban church deal with this unprecedented multiplicity of ethnicities? Is the multiethnic church model commonly espoused today as the biblical paragon really the answer, or does the answer lie elsewhere? Or, in other words, does Pastor Wong of CCCCC (Chinese Christian Church of Californian Chinese) really have to cower in shame at his critics, feeling like his church is less than the biblical ideal?
It is my contention that because ethnic diversity is so biblically affirmed and valued by God, the multiethnic church model is – paradoxically – in fact less biblical than the monoethnic church model. Chin up, Pastor Wong!
God’s love for ethnic diversity is progressively revealed through Scripture, and is seen most dramatically in the multiethnic focus of his redemptive plan. From the very moment when his plan began to fashion itself (e.g., the call of Abraham), there is an embracing and exaltation of all the world’s ethnicities. See e.g., Isaiah 66:18, 21.
And by way of the redemptive work of Christ, there is an accentuation of the brilliance and color of each ethnicity. Rather than diminishing ethnic distinctives, the New Testament appears to exult in the contrasting tones of God’s people. During the Pentecost, for example, what is notable is the deliberate manner in which God reaches out to an ethnic potpourri. In the ensuing cacophony of diverse languages lies a singular harmony: a celebration of each ethnic group as important, valid and beautiful in God’s eyes. For God is no demolisher of the wonderful and unique aspects that make one ethnic group different from another. He rejoices in them, finds beauty in them, redeems them.
This celebration and heightening of the ethnic diversity among God’s people reaches a stirring climax in the book of Revelation. Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 14:6-7 intensify – and not diminish or dilute – the ethnic differences. Every “nation, tribe, people and language” cry out in worship to God; and the fourfold ethnic emphasis hammers home the sanctity of ethnic diversity. Far from being a soupy swamp of indistinguishable ethnicities, heaven will have a diversity of ethnicities that better reflects the richness and depth of God. A brilliant panoply of sparkling color and flavor, each ethnicity reflecting a different aspect of God’s multifaceted glory. Unity with diversity; diversity within unity. It is a glorious vision.
The multiethnic church destroys that wonderful diversity.
It is unintentional, yet inevitable. For the multiethnic church faces the difficulty of trying to be all things to all people. Cultures are so radically different from one another, that to accommodate all of them is like trying to squeeze a square peg into a circular hole. Indeed, cultural and linguistic differences are anathema to the functioning of any church which attempts to be multiethnic. Which language to sing in? preach in? fellowship in? What food should be served during lunch or church picnics? Sushi or spaghetti? Should we greet one another in a manner which is demonstrative and expressive, or one which is more restrained? Should we bow, shake hands, hug, or kiss? Should we take off shoes at the house of worship, or will our bare feet be offensive to those of another culture? These are practical – as opposed to theological – issues that the church can only futilely attempt to surmount. Only the pastor who is attuned to the vast cultural/ethnic differences and wishes to be sensitive to each group can appreciate the sheer impossibility of the task. Cultural/ethnic imperialism becomes almost a necessity.
What one usually finds in multiethnic churches is a dominant ethnic culture presiding over almost everything – the worship style, preaching style etc. – to which the minority ethnicities simply acquiesce to. And it is this acquiescing which is the most tragic since it results in a relinquishing of those very cultural and ethnic distinctives that are precious to God. The front door of the multiethnic church is, tragically, a ruthlessly effective ethnic filter.
It is ironic that the very ethnic diversity which the multiethnic church seeks to nurture suffers such a swift demise within its walls. Those in the ethnic minority may have a few token gestures thrown its way by the presiding dominant (ethnic) culture, but they are inevitably forced to assimilate to the presiding culture. This is not (usually) carried out with malice or racism; it is simply a fact of life. For it is simply impossible to impose upon the strictures of the church the heavenly vision of full integration as recorded in Revelation – which is probably why the only time the New Testament paints a picture of such a multiethnic congregation is at the idyllic beginning (Pentecost) and at the climaxing conclusion (Revelation).
Times Square Church, for example, has a congregation over eight thousand with over a hundred different nationalities represented. While many describe the worship experience as that of Revelation 5:9, it is, in fact, decidedly a niched Pentecostal and African American experience(notwithstanding its two white pastors!). While it inculcates a cultural fit for someone Pentecostal and/or African American, an immigrant from Fujian province in China will feel like he has landed on an alien planet. For him to fit, he will need to strip away all that is ethnically his. Redeemer Presbyterian Church has also been espoused as a multiethnic church which has somehow been able to reach out to the postmodern demographic. Yet its multiethnic reach is limited to white and second generation Asian Americans, and typically well-educated and professionally successful ones, at that. Although professing to reach out to a spectrum of ethnicities, it has actually only been able to (with great success, in any case) reach out to a decidedly limited niche.
Although proponents of the multiethnic church paradigm claim they stand on biblical ground, it is the monoethnic church which has a better stake to that claim. Of note, the New Testament church planters emerged with a decidedly monoethnic ministry paradigm targeting specific ethnicities. Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, while Peter was apostle to the Jews. The early church (certainly Paul and Peter, anyway) demonstrated a sensitivity to the wide swath of cultures, and of the need to approach each one differently. Paul spelled out his strategy by declaring that to the Jews he became a Jew, and to the Greek he became Greek. He understood that the diversity of ethnicities was not something to be tamed and diluted down, but something to be celebrated. And this celebration was reflected in his ministry pattern, one which gave due respect to each culture, gave it room to breath, and one which did not impose a dominant paradigm which would stifle the God-given ethnic distinctives.
Pastor Wong, chin up! Your church is more biblical. You have nurtured the very ethnic distinctives that delight God. Inasmuch as you have loved and delighted in your people and in your culture, the earth is all the better for it, the heavens all the more brighter for it, God all the more joyful for it. I salute you; no, I bow to you. Xie Xie.