When I planted a multi-ethnic church in Portland, Oregon, in 2006, I received many discouraging comments from church-planting organizations and denominations. Comments like:
You are doing a disservice to the gospel.
This can never work.
You have to pick a specific people group; stop trying to have a church that ministers to completely different ethnicities and cultures. You will reach fewer people, and that makes you a bad steward of the church God has entrusted to you.
I really don’t understand why this is so important to you. If it happens, great. But why would you put so much effort into something that’s so difficult to do and so slow to grow?
In the 11 years since, planting multi-ethnic churches has become more accepted, and multi-ethnic churches themselves have become sexy in many ministry circles. I see multi-ethnic churches as both the New Testament norm and the most powerful evangelistic tool the American church has today, so I rejoice over their growing acceptance and popularity. But as one who knows what planting and pastoring such a church requires, I worry that we may be pursuing the right thing in the wrong way.
Specifically, I worry about three things.
1. I worry that many who desire to lead multi-ethnic churches continue to live mono-ethnic lives.
I’m regularly contacted by white pastors and planters who desire to have a multi-ethnic church and are seeking counsel on how to get there. I consider such requests a personal honor and a wonderful opportunity to serve. Yet at the same time, I consider them to be evidence of a larger problem. In nearly every case, the fact that they’re contacting me, another white pastor, reveals that they don’t have many relationships of trust with people of color.
This is concerning because becoming a multi-ethnic church isn’t like becoming a church that does Sunday school. It’s not a program change; it’s a whole-life change. If your life isn’t multi-ethnic it will be difficult, and potentially damaging, to try to lead a church to be multi-ethnic.
Sociologists like Michael Emerson define a multi-ethnic church as a church with a minimum of 20 percent of members who don’t identify with the dominant racial group. I would apply the same rule to the life of the pastor. If a minimum of 20 percent of a pastor’s personal relationships don’t consist of people of another racial group, he’s unable to effectively lead a multi-ethnic church. (By the way, I should add that not every multi-ethnic group is truly multi-cultural. The kind of multi-ethnic community I’m envisioning in this article is one that represents not just various colors but also various cultures coming together under the banner of Jesus Christ.)