Ethnic diversity:

A current and significant opportunity for the church

John W. Telman, DMin, author, serves as pastor of New Beginnings Fellowship in Fort Francis, Ontario, Canada.

In recent years, because demographics have changed so dramatically, among other challenges, churches have tried to discover new ways to work with ethnic diversity within their congregations. Many have researched and explored ways that would turn these types of challenges into opportunities that would lead to church growth. Research companies have come up with a variety of ideas on how to positively deal with these changes. Bob Smietana, a former senior writer for Lifeway Research, notes, “Most pastors say Christians should lend a hand to refugees and foreigners, and believe caring for refugees is a privilege.

“But pastors say their churches are twice as likely to fear refugees as they are to help them.

“ ‘Pastors believe Scripture tells Christians to care for refugees and foreigners. . . . Yet many admit their church is not involved in such ministry.’ ”1

In view of this and inquiries conducted by groups such as Lifeway Research, Pew Research, the Barna Group, and World Vision, the church may need renewed vision and fresh strategies to fulfill the Great Commission across ethnic lines.

Migration

Gemma Cruz, senior lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, notes, “The twenty-first century has been called ‘the age of migration’ essentially because there are more migrants in the world today than ever before. To be sure, it is in the context of an understanding of contemporary migration as a ‘sign of the times,’ that Christian churches are compelled to respond to this phenomenon, which brings both immense gifts as well as tremendous challenges.”2

These challenges include redefining church and how it is to function with biblical integrity in the twenty-first century. One could see such a redefinition as helpful to the missional efforts of the church, but with the rise of terrorism and a possible mistrust of others, the task of making disciples of all people may be, ironically, very difficult.

Ethnic diversity in communities surrounding the church has increased exponentially and has, in turn, created a test as well as an opportunity for the church. Dr. Sadiri Joy Tira, speaking at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, stated: “It is very interesting how God is orchestrating missions today.”3 How should the church respond? Suspicion and hesitation can be pervasive temptations. Additionally, the church may be tempted to be indifferent to other ethnic groups or may choose to address the challenge by planting a monoethnic congregation.

It is common to encounter people of differing ethnicities working in fast-food restaurants or in service-related industries. In an atmosphere that may include worry and fear of people who look different and are greater in number than in past decades, some may see other ethnic groups not as potential recipients of the gospel but as people to be wary of, avoid, or leave to their own pursuits of God.

Inclusive salvation and fellowship

During 25 years of ministry, I have served as a pastor in three countries (Canada, the United States, and Singapore). Each congregation included many ethnic groups. The undeniable message in each church was that God loves and seeks the salvation of all people and that, to please Him, pastors and congregations would not, and should not, be exclusive with the good news or with fellowship.

My ministry in Singapore included planting a church to reach out to expatriates from around the world. The pastor of the mother church felt that my wife and I would be suited to evangelizing people from differing ethnicities. In the metropolitan city/state of Singapore, the prevailing ethnicities are Chinese and Indian. That mother church, Victory Family Centre (VFC) is unique. It has planted over 1,500 churches worldwide over the past 40 years. VFC has grown to over 6,000 members.

In response to the growth of the country and the global migration of workers, the church has created 22 congregations within one church. Chinese congregations (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien), Indo-Sinhalese congregations (Tamil, Sinhalese), Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and English congregations compose this one church. Each congregation meets separately on Sunday morning. Sunday evening, however, the church meets in two locations that are linked through video, with language translation available. Twice a year, the entire church meets together in a stadium with language translation. Each congregation receives the same ministry philosophy. It seems to work in Singapore, but would this be an effective and inclusive way to lead the church in other parts of the world?

My ministry also included serving as an associate pastor at a church in Kansas City, Missouri, for 11 years that was roughly 30 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American, 30 percent Caucasian, and 10 percent Asian. The staff was equally mixed ethnically. It took years for this to be a reality. The pastor, Dr. George W. Westlake Jr., stated that his desire was to pastor a church that, in his words, “looked like the kingdom of God.” This rationale greatly influenced my thinking as a pastor to be inclusive.

God’s love is for all

I passionately believe that the love of God is for all people. Current sociological realities facing the church in the twenty-first century include communities that look different than they did 20 years ago.

Ethnic diversity exhibited by the church can be a positive testimony to the world about God’s love manifested among the believers—an example to a community that struggles with fear related to those who are different ethnically. Some churches may desire ethnic diversity but are unsure how to become ethnically diverse.

Mark DeYmaz draws attention to the need for intentionality toward ethnic inclusiveness, and DeYmaz has taken the challenge further by teaching and empowering pastors to initiate churches with an inclusive footing. He states, “There are two gospels referenced and explained in Romans and, with reference to Paul, elsewhere clarified throughout the New Testament: The gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news of eternal salvation. The good news of Paul: the gospel of Gentile inclusion in an otherwise ‘only for the Jews’ gospel of Jesus Christ, local church, and kingdom of God.”4

DeYmaz adds, “In the twenty-first century, local church pastors seeking to position the church for effective community engagement, evangelism, discipleship, growth, health, development, and ultimately, measurable impact, can no longer afford to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ apart from Gentile inclusion.”5 Recognizing Gentile inclusion in the economy of God is vital. The salvation of human beings is at stake; whether they have the same skin tone or not, the salvation of people that God loves is at the root of the discussion.

Concerning inclusion of those different from ourselves, David T. Olson, director of the American Research Project, writes: “In the monoethnic world, Christians, pastors, and churches only had to understand their own culture. Ministering in a homogenous culture is easier, but monoethnic Christianity can gradually become culture-bound. . . .

“. . . While Israel was predominantly a monoethnic nation, God had called them to be a light to the Gentiles. A multiethnic church reflects this heart of God for all people.”6

David Burnett, former academic dean at All Nations Christian College, United Kingdom, aptly states, “Today we are experiencing the greatest contact and interaction between societies that has ever occurred. The nation states of the world are struggling to deal with the multi-cultural context of their populations.”7 This may be true, but as the church of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century, we should approach the topic as a wonderful opportunity. The world will take note of our intentional acts of ethnic inclusion.

Possibly the most compelling statement of salvation reaching beyond the Jew alone is this one: “ ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ ” (Rev. 5:9, NASB). The purchase of all people, regardless of ethnicity, is explicit in the song sung to Jesus Christ. Will the church view missions as equally vital for all groups? My prayer is that it will.

  1. Bob Smietana, “Churches Twice as Likely to Fear Refugees Than to Help Them,” Lifeway Research, February 29, 2016, https://research.lifeway.com/2016/02/29/churches-twice-as-likely-to-fear-refugees-than-to-help-them/.
  2. Gemma Cruz, “Christian Mission and Ministry in the Context of Contemporary Migration,” International Journal of Practical Theology 20 (2017): 242.
  3. Sadiri Joy Tira, “Ministering to Scattered Peoples—Diaspora,” Lausanne Movement, October 29, 2010, https://www.lausanne.org/content/ministering-to-scattered-peoples-diaspora.
  4. Mark DeYmaz, Disruption: Repurposing the Church to Redeem the Community (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017), 37.
  5. DeYmaz, 37.
  6. David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 169, 170.
  7. David Burnett, Clash of Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2002), 17.

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John W. Telman, DMin, author, serves as pastor of New Beginnings Fellowship in Fort Francis, Ontario, Canada.

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