Ethinic Diversity: How Important Is It?

Preston Sprinkle

Last week, I blogged about the meaning of “church,” as I conversed with Don Miller (in a bloggy sort of way) over his disenchantment with Sunday services. I wanted to circle back around and tease out something I mentioned at the end of that post regarding diversity.
Put simply: How important is ethnic diversity for constituting a healthy church?

Other forms of diversity are important—social, age, financial, gender, etc. But for this post, I want to focus specifically on ethnic diversity. What does the Bible say about ethnic diversity? Is it icing on the cake—something you should try to accomplish once you’ve mastered the more important issues? Or is it essential to the gospel?

For most of my Christian life, I’ve believed that it’s either irrelevant or of minor importance. Ethnic diversity is fine, but we need to focus on the more important issues like Bible studies, discipleship, and evangelism.

But after studying the Bible, I discovered that God cares much more about ethinic diveristy (or better: racial reconciliation) than most churches do. Consider Ephesians 2:14-16:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Speaking to Gentiles, Paul says that Jesus died to tear down the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jews and Gentiles. The goal of the cross—at least in part—was to “reconcile us both (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing hostility.” The implication is critical and convicting. The “one new man in place of the two,” which describes the church God intends to build through the blood of Christ, is a multicultural phenomenon. The cross does many things, one of which is creating multicultural communities.

I would put ethnic diversity up there as a “gospel” issue. Consider Galatians 2 where Paul confronts Peter for not eating with Gentiles even though he used to eat with Gentiles, and he says that Peter was “not walking according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). By creating ethnic divisions in the church, Peter was violating the “truth of the gospel.” This doesn’t sound optional to Paul; it doesn’t feel like icing on the cake. Multicultural gatherings show the world that Yahweh is not a racist and that the blood of Christ is powerful enough to break down walls and mend broken relationships.

In fact, the very birthday of the church was a multicultural gathering. Visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost were Jews, Europeans, Africans, and Arabs, all who received the Spirit of God; all who bowed the knee to king Jesus (Acts 2:9-11). And God broke down ethnic barriers by allowing each to understand the message in his own language (Acts 2:6-9). Unity among ethnic diversity—all created by the miraculous power of God.

Satan loves to keep people segregated, separated, and divided. But the gospel seeks to overthrow Satan’s mission. This is the point of Ephesians 3:10, which says that the purpose of God unifying Jews and Gentiles (and by implication all ethnic groups) together into one body is to broadcast “the manifold wisdom of God…to the rulers and authorities (read: demons) in the heavenly places.” Ethnically diverse, spiritually unified, Christ-exalting churches declare to Satan and his minions: You lost!

And this declaration will be fully disclosed when Christ comes back. I love that scene in Revelation 7, where John sees “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before Jesus saying ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne’.” God intends to save people from every tribe and tongue and nation.

There may be good reasons why a local church is not ethnically diverse. Maybe it gathers in an area that’s dominated by one ethnic group. Or perhaps language is a major issue (I personally think this isn’t as big of an issue as we something think; it’s diversity is a priority, the Spirit of Pentecost can cut through the language problem). My guess is that in many (most?) cases, churches are not ethnically diverse—i.e. reflecting the same measure of diversity that exists where the church is located—because it’s not a high priority for the church.

Statistically, 5.5% of American evangelical churches could be considered multi-ethnic (where not one ethnicity makes up more than 80% of its congregants).

Five and a half percent!

And we live in a melting pot, where ethnic diversity abounds. But it doesn’t abound in the church. My question is: Why? Ethnic diversity can be seen in several areas in our society—in hospitals, athletics, places of work, and even our neighborhoods to some extent. But segregation is still evident in at least three places: bars, prison, and the American Evangelical church. If Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 (and many other passages) didn’t exist, then this wouldn’t be a big deal, but they do exist and so it is.

Much more to say, but I’ll let you connect some dots and raise some questions. Here are a few good resources for further reading:

Rodney Woo, The Color of Church

Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, Divided by Faith

Michael Emerson (et al.), United by Faith

Also, I haven’t read them, but Mark DeYmaz has written a few books on the topic that look good.

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