Multiethnic churches are on the rise. In 2010, a study found that the number of multiethnic churches in America had nearly doubled to 14 percent since 2000, and this number is expected to climb.
Many Christians desire to be a part of a church that reflects Heaven where “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” worship God together, according to Revelation 7:9.
But “multiethnic” churches are more easily labeled than lived. It takes little effort to advertise a multiethnic church on on a website and in promotional materials.
It is important to probe deeper about why a church considers itself to be a “multiethnic church” when becoming a member or joining the staff.
“But ‘multiethnic’ churches are more easily labeled than lived.”
I have attended multiethnic churches around the country, and read about them and talked about them in one-on-one conversations with friends of color in person and online. Although the following list is not exhaustive, I have found that six markers of multiethnic ministry always emerge.
It might be helpful to ask yourself or your church’s leadership the following questions when joining a multiethnic church.
1. Is the church actually multiethnic?
Sociologists define a multiracial or multiethnic congregation as one in which 80 percent or less of its congregants are one ethnicity. (Others define it as one with no more than 60-70 percent of its congregants being of a single ethnicity.)
If you visit a church for a couple of weeks or glance at photos on its website or social media, you can quickly conclude whether a church is “multiethnic” by this definition. Although this is not always reliable as you will read under the next question, this is a starting place.
If a church does not have an online presence, try calling the office or meeting with someone on leadership. Ask about the church’s demographics both on Sunday mornings and in smaller settings. You can also ask why the church considers itself to be multiethnic.
2. Does the church represent the demographics of its community?
In a community largely consisting of Black and White people, a multiethnic church might not have a large number of Latino members. It is important to consider the demographics of a church in light of the demographics of its community.
This question might be more important than the first question. In your context, a church with an 80-percent majority might not at all reflect the demographics of your community.
3. Does the church’s leadership include qualified people of color with real influence?
I am not suggesting that you look for token people of color on the church’s stage or staff webpage. I am suggesting that you look for qualified leaders of color who have as much or more power as the White leaders in the church.
This marker might require several visits to the church or conversations with its leaders. Are people of color in leadership merely valued for the color they bring to the Sunday morning service, or are those in leadership valued for their personhood, perspectives, ministries, spiritual gifts and insights? Do people of color seem to teach from the stage only when the church addresses race, or do they teach on all aspects of the Christian life?
4. Does the church seek to include the various cultures of its congregation?
Dhati Lewis, founding and lead pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote: “Too often, we seek to first establish infrastructure (our organization, church, etc.) before actually living on mission in our context… Rather than becoming students of our context, we develop our organization and try to force our neighbors to fit into it.”
Lewis’ advice to “become students of our context” is crucial for a multiethnic church. It’s easy for Christians to confuse biblical and essential aspects of church with cultural and nonessential aspects of church.
Rather than establishing an organization and forcing its neighbors into it, a multiethnic church should seek to represent the various cultures in its congregation. According to Oneya Fennell Okuwobi, co-author of the Multi-Ethnic Christian Life Primer, one simple way to do that is to ask congregants “how the church could go deeper in representing their culture and how they could contribute in making sure their culture was represented.”
A common objection to this is that “church is not about you.” But oftentimes the underlying message of that statement is that there is already an established culture, leaving no room for the representation of other cultures. A multiethnic church cannot thrive with this mentality.
At a multi-ethnic church service I attended in Nashville, Tennessee, the worship pastor was aware of a Rwandan family in the congregation. The children in the family spoke English and Swahili, but their mother only spoke Swahili. What happened next was beautiful. The worship pastor only knew one Swahili song, but he sandwiched the song between that Sunday’s worship songs in English. The mother began to freely worship and sing in her own language. It didn’t matter that the rest of us didn’t know Swahili because there was an understanding that different cultures were represented.
In a multiethnic church, everyone must die to self on some level when it comes to his or her cultural preferences. Is your multiethnic church willing to continually examine how it is representing all cultures for the sake of unity?
“In a multiethnic church, everyone must die to self on some level when it comes to his or her cultural preferences.”
5. Does the church address the sin of racism as well as the experiences of people of color?
It is dangerous to assume that Christians are not racist or prejudiced because they attend a multiethnic church. In order to truly live in community rather than proximity to one another, members of a multiethnic church must confront deep-seated prejudices and biases. Likewise, leaders must address the sin of racism as they would lust, jealousy, stealing or any other sin.
Furthermore, members of a multiethnic church must develop empathy for one another’s experiences because, in America, a person of color’s experiences are not the same as those of a White person’s. Does the church recognize and address such disparities, both from its pulpit and in its small groups? The only way to truly bear one another’s burdens as Galatians 6:2 commands us to do is to develop awareness and empathy for one another’s burdens.
6. Is the church mindful of its education curriculum, missions training and depictions of Jesus?
Jarvis Williams, co-author of Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in the book that he did not realize Jesus was a man of color until he was in his early twenties. As a Black man growing up in a White church, he only saw Jesus depicted as a White man.
Representation is important. For example, there are certain vacation Bible school curriculums with only White characters. There are other curriculums that depict different ethnicities as “exotic.” A multiethnic church should consider whether its education materials reflect the diversity its congregation and affirm the dignity of its people.
Missions training is also important. Whether going across the street or the world, a church should seek to equip its members in such a way that they do not “other-ize” those they meet or harm more than help a community.
The answer might be “yes” to every question regarding the multiethnic church you are thinking of joining.
If the answer is “no” to some of these questions, prayerfully consider posing these questions to the church’s leadership rather than throwing in the towel.
Sometimes, God asks us to be vessels for change in a multiethnic church that has some blind spots. If we are honest, we all have blind spots. Trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the local church to which He is calling you.
Did you find this article helpful? Are there other questions you would ask before joining a multiethnic church? Share your experiences in the comments section.