April 4, 2008
Choosing Multi-Ethnic Over Mega
Is having an ethnically diverse church a biblical mandate?
I recently returned to my native Arkansas - a world much less ablaze with all the conversations about emergent, missional, monastic, anti-institutional, and ancient-future Christianity. As much as I appreciate those dialogues, a heavy dose of them can obscure the fact that there are many local congregations nationwide that are not clinging to a sinking institution, are not confronted with a thoroughly postmodern youth culture, and are not terribly concerned with relevance (as such). They are, nevertheless, participating in great advances for the kingdom of God.
Take Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, for example. Located in the University District of Little Rock's south midtown, the church enjoys a prime location - for burglary, murder, and carjacking. It's in that part of town you wouldn't loiter in on Saturday night (I suppose all the evildoers sleep late on Sunday morning). But its location is strategic. In neither inner city nor suburb, and just across the street from the Little Rock campus of the University of Arkansas(UALR), the church's neighbors represent a diversity of ethnic and economic backgrounds. More importantly, the church's membership faithfully reflects the district's demographics.
As a lifelong Arkansan, I can testify that the joyful multi-ethnic and economically diverse fellowship that takes place at Mosaic is a monumental accomplishment.
The small town I lived in nearby not long ago was home to a white First Baptist Church and a black First Baptist Church, each of which was located appropriately on its own side of town. Keep in mind it was only 50 years ago that Little Rock's Central High School defied a federal order to integrate. And while laws have changed in that half century, many - perhaps most - hearts have not.
That's why I was so surprised during my experience in worship at Mosaic to discover that, while it is a healthily intergenerational bunch, the congregation is not led by young, inclusive postmoderns, but by middle-aged, working class black, white, and Latino men and women. According to the latest buzz, these folks are supposed to be dying for lack of vision.
Teaching pastors Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li are quick to attribute Mosaic's growth and vibrancy to God's blessing. In fact, in a generation when traditional churches are dying, they are doing nearly everything wrong - they meet in a building, they hand out bulletins, they have a mission statement, and they run programs. But they leave success in the Lord's hands. DeYmaz, who spent nearly a decade on staff at a large, homogeneous church in town, explained, "The hardest thing about this ministry is that we know how to grow a church big and fast, but we refuse to do it. We don't use church-growth strategies; we don't market ourselves. We could grow the ministry fast. But we'd rather grow it biblically."
DeYmaz explains what he means by biblical growth in his 2007 book Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church (Jossey-Bass). Based largely on John 17, Ephesians 2, and the pattern of the church at Antioch (Acts 13), DeYmaz argues that "a house of prayer for all people" is best led by a ministry team made up of "all people." Because a church led by a white pastor will likely only reach white people, Mosaic is committed to maintaining an ethnic balance on its staff (for more on this, see "Ethnic Blends" in the upcoming issue of Leadership). They do this because they consider the multi-ethnic church as more than an effort at racial reconciliation or liberal dogoodism. It is a biblical mandate - a New Testament commandment that, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, then God's church should look like God's kingdom: full of people from every ethnic and economic class (and, in Mosaic's case, with physical and mental disabilities).
DeYmaz is careful not to criticize homogeneous churches in his book, but he does warn, "I believe the homogeneous church will increasingly struggle in the twenty-first century with credibility, that is, in proclaiming a message of God's love for all people from an environment in which a love for all people cannot otherwise be observed" (14).
What do you think? Is inter-ethnic ministry a biblical mandate? Or is it simply a new strategy (however noble) for church growth? And what does all this mean for your church if, like mine, it's full of white folks who welcome worshipers of other ethnic backgrounds, but only (as DeYmaz observes) they agree to worship the way we do and not cause a fuss?