A house of worship for all people

How should the body of Jesus face ethnic diversity?

Joel Sarli, D.Min., is the former associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.

Call it by any name or all its names but it is the single most disturbing issue of our time. Black and White, Hispanic and Asian, Bosnian and Serbian, Arab and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, Tutsi and Hutu. Only the geography is different---the tragedy remains the same: the passionate division of humanity into warring camps in the name of religion or tribe or ethnic origin.

Out of that tragedy arises a question for the church. How should the body of Jesus face ethnic diversity? There are those who argue for ethnic congregations in the name of the homogeneous principles of church growth. We say with some accuracy that church ties become stronger and their melding more natural and rapid when people of one ethnic group reach out to members of the same group. Christians who fully identify with the special social, linguistic, and cultural setting of a group can meet the needs of that group. And in meeting that need, there is a sense of mission accomplished.

To a point the argument for homogeneous congregation and witness can be justified. But at a deeper level, we need to raise another important question: the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Is the establishment of ethnic congregations consistent with the gospel of reconciliation? Cannot people of many nations worship together and form one congregation united in Christ? Are cultural nuances stronger than the unifying and transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus? What is the motivation behind the existence of any congregation---culture or Christian mission?

Intentional outreach

The church must be intentional in planning the outreach strategy of fulfilling its mission to people of diversity. That was the force behind the growth of the apostolic church: Pentecost drove the disciples to carry the gospel to every nation and tribe, crossing all the frontiers between people. The mission of Christ, not culture, was their driving force. Indeed the power of their Christ and His mission broke down all walls of partition and created one body in which the glory of the risen Lord could be witnessed.

The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn't justify the creation of a local congregation on the basis of ethnic isolation or identity. Indeed, the assertion of such ethnic exclusivism is an insult to the reconciling genius of the gospel. If we worship the same Creator God, and if we believe in the same transforming Saviour, what prevents us from worshiping together under the same roof and sharing the oneness of fellowship? Isn't this the reason the apostle Paul argued for a reconciling and unifying ministry to the Christian church: "And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18, 19).

Where there is the ministry of reconciliation, the true body of Jesus triumphs. Antioch showed us the way. Made up of people from different ethnic origins, the body of Jesus emerged there under the name "Christian." Today's ethnic challenge to the Christian church is not to build separate churches to serve various ethnic groups, but to bring all ethnic groups under the overarching imperative of Christian proclamation and mission. Where the church is so intentionally united, there arises the motivation for evangelism and mission. Was this not the case in Antioch, where the Christian mission was born?

The Antioch effect can grip your church, if your church is intention ally multicultural in its fellowship, worship, and mission. The procedure, of course, is not easy. Pastors must take the lead and relate themselves to people of diversity. The worship service may need adjustments to include elements that would honor diversity while worshiping in a spirit of unity. Members may need to develop a spirit of unconditional acceptance. The entire church will need to yield itself to the movings of the Spirit in order to catch the vision of Isaiah: "Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people" (Isa. 56:7).


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Joel Sarli, D.Min., is the former associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.

May 1996

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