Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Support Foster Kids with a Suitcase

Pursuing Multi-Ethnic Congregations

  • Trevin Wax Trevin Wax is an editor, author and blogger at "Kingdom People."
  • 2012 18 Apr
Pursuing Multi-Ethnic Congregations

Today, I’m excited to welcome two friends of mine to the blog for a conversation on the need for multi-ethnic congregations.

Derwin Gray is a defensive back who played safety for five seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and one season with the Carolina Panthers. He now resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is the founding and Lead Pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina.

Juan Sanchez is pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, and one of the advisory council members and writers for The Gospel Project.

Trevin Wax: Welcome to the blog, guys. First off, why even have this conversation about multi-ethnic churches? Why is this important?

Juan Sanchez: The glory of God. A few weeks ago, I laid the biblical-theological foundation for multi-ethnic churches over at Ed Stetzer’s blog. In essence, through Christ God is gathering a multi-ethnic assembly that will dwell in His presence for all eternity, under His rule, for His glory and our joy. God is greatly glorified as wise when we witness this multi-ethnic assembly being manifested in local congregations and functioning as one (Eph. 4). So, ultimately, this conversation is about the glory of God in Christ.

Derwin Gray: Absolutely, and the gospel paints a glorious picture of humanity reconciled to God through Jesus and to each other! Jesus said “make disciples of all nations (ethnos),” or different ethnic groups. The gospel demands that if different ethnic groups are around the local church, as missionaries, we should be intentional in reaching them. And the multi-ethnic church displays the “mystery of Christ” and the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:4-6,10-13).

Juan Sanchez: I think this conversation is important for another reason too. Due to various cultural factors, many churches were fairly segregated and remain so to this day. However, the church growth homogeneous unit principle (see Tim Chester’s helpful explanation) seems to have legitimized monoculturalism for the sake of evangelism. (I’m not fully knowledgeable about this history, so feel free to help me if I am missing the mark.) As a result, many churches remain fairly segregated for both cultural and evangelistic reasons.

I think that as our culture and economy have become more global and as international travel has become easier, we are realizing more and more that the body of Christ is diverse but that through Christ we have more in common with our Christian brethren throughout the world than with our unbelieving blood kin. Then we ask ourselves when we return from mission trips, if we have such a unity with brothers from different cultures and ethnicities in another country, why can’t we experience this same unity at home?

Trevin Wax: Do you think the homogeneity principle led to church growth but at the cost of multi-ethnic congregations? 

Derwin Gray: Great question. First, let’s define Dr. Donald McGarvan’s Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). In essence, HUP teaches that people come to faith faster when people are of the same ethnic and socio-economic background. HUP has worked pragmatically and fits very well in our consumer Christianity context. But it has not nor will it ever produce local churches that reflect the ethnic diversity of what the new heavens and earth will look like. Pastors and leaders, our goal should not be pragmatism but God’s glory.

The HUP has become the standard ministry model of church planting and the church in general. However, in his eBook Should Pastors Reject or Accept the Homogeneous Unit Principle? Mark DeYmaz quotes Dr. McGavran as saying, “There is a danger that congregations…become exclusive, arrogant, and racist. That danger must be resolutely combated.” McGavran saw the danger of HUP when it was not used correctly.

Juan Sanchez: Here in Texas, it is not surprising to see a new cowboy church plant (I don’t think they are in the Acts 29 Network!). The idea, born from a legitimate and genuine desire to reach a group presumably not being reached by traditional churches, is that “cowboys” don’t go to “church” but they need the gospel too. Agreed! In this approach, utilizing the homogeneous unit principle, that like attracts like and provides an easier path for profession of faith in Christ, “cowboys” get together and do church in the “cowboy” way in order to reach “cowboys.” As a church like this grows, I would say that growth occurs at the expense of multi-ethnicity AND multi-culturalism. At the end of the day, I’m left asking, “Is this just evangelical consumerism?”

The solution is not to have “cowboy” churches composed of African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Anglos, etc. Such a church would be more homogeneous than they might realize because they are gathering around “cowboy culture.” The picture I see the gospel presenting is not a “cowboy” church composed of various ethnicities but a “cowboys” and “Indians” church – a church where formerly hostile parties, having nothing previously in common but hate for one another, now worship and share life together. In Ephesians 2, we’re reminded that the gospel brings together two formerly hostile parties and makes them into one new man.

Trevin Wax: Do you think the stats would support the idea that bigger churches tend to be less homogeneous than smaller churches? Or vice versa?

Derwin Gray: I don’t think church size has much to do with the lack of ethnic diversity in local churches in America.  Transformation Church (TC) was planted two years ago. God, in His grace, has grown TC from 178 people to a thriving, dynamic, multi-ethnic, multi-generational congregation of nearly 2000. We’ve seen over 800 commit their lives to Jesus. In our case, we’ve grown large very fast; we attribute our growth to our commitment to biblical theology and missiology, fueled by the gospel. Our target audience is whoever lives within the scope of our local church; therefore, our ministry reflects the diversity of our mission field. TC is 60 percent white and 40 percent other.

Juan Sanchez: On a clarifying note, though the homogeneous unit principle may be applied ethnically – let’s plant a “Black” church, it seems to me that it is applied more culturally within current church planting circles. Whatever “target” group is chosen (i.e., upper middle class, artists, musicians, college students, generation X, Y, Z, etc.), everything is tailored to reach that “target,” and that group becomes the majority culture. So long as one fits into that majority culture (regardless of ethnicity), then they will fit into that group. I wonder if perhaps this is what is happening in some “bigger” churches. They may look different (ethnically diverse) when in fact they are really the same (mono-cultural). In this sense, bigger churches may tend to be as homogeneous as smaller churches but for differing reasons. Reminder – all this is anecdotal; I would love to see the data on this!

Trevin Wax: What do you say to the pastor who has a very homogeneous congregation but wants it to be multi-ethnic? Where do you start? How can one begin moving the church in a direction that more clearly demonstrates the glory of Christ’s lordship over all nations?

Derwin Gray: First, the leaders’ hearts must be seized by the biblical conviction that God wants the local church to be multi-ethnic whenever possible. Multi-ethnic church is not in addition to the gospel, it is a result of the gospel.

Juan Sanchez: Yes! This is first and foremost an issue of the heart and a renewed mind, not an issue of “how many different ethnicities we have in our congregation.”

As a pastor, I had to work through this for myself in the Scriptures and in prayer. The question that drove me was “What does a first-century church look like in the twenty-first century?” I worked through Acts, particularly Acts 2:42-47, to try and answer this question. The most mind-renewing passage of Scripture for me was Ephesians, specifically chapters 2 and 3. That was life- and ministry-changing. One book that was particularly helpful to me in my biblical study was J. Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. So, for the pastor, that’s where I would say to begin – the study of Scripture and prayer.

Derwin Gray: The next step would be to pray and fast for a leadership team at every level, from pastors to volunteers, to reflect the multi-ethnic diversity of the community in which God has placed you to be a missionary outpost (i.e., local church).

Juan Sanchez: Right. Leadership is key. I would begin taking the leadership through a similar study (and prayer). I would want to be sure to wrestle with the biblical data and the pertinent issues with our leadership. I want them to ask me the hard questions and to push back where I may not be thinking well. This process will also provide a taste of the general questions the congregation will raise.

Hopefully, this process will bring everyone on the same page, allowing the leaders to address the congregation’s questions, not just you. This, then, is a direction from the leadership, not just the pastor’s latest “thing.” At this point, as a pastor, I would personally try to get my hands on every book written about multi-ethnic ministry and church to try to understand the practical dynamics involved in implementation. Choose the best and share one or two with your leaders.

Derwin Gray: I also think diversity in worship styles is crucial to developing a healthy, multi-ethnic church. It’s important to create a multi-ethnic ethos in the congregation. How do we do that? As the Lead Pastor, I must continually cast a God-sized, beautiful, compelling vision and teach from the sacred Scriptures that the outworking of the gospel produces a multi-ethnic, mission-shaped church.

Juan Sanchez: It is certainly a process. Don’t underestimate faithful, patient preaching from the pulpit. Plan a series on the church, or preach through Ephesians. Depending on your congregation, you may need to preach for some time before making any formal proposals or presentations. Utilize question and answer sessions to see where the congregation is and what their questions are. Answer their questions patiently and prayerfully.

In the meantime, take advantage of opportunities to lead your congregation to cross cultures. That may be an international mission trip or a mission trip across town. Begin providing venues where members of your congregation can meet people who are different than they are (ethnically, culturally, socio-economically, etc.).

Derwin Gray: I’d also recommend learning from leaders who have planted multi-ethnic local churches, such as Ken Hutcherson (Antioch Bible Church), Miles McPherson (The Rock Church), Efrim Smith, Mark DeYmaz (Mosaic). I’d love to help any leader who wants to plant gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, missional churches.

Juan Sanchez: Ultimately, we have to trust the Lord. He is sovereign, and only He can change you, the leaders, and the church. But remember that this is an issue of the heart and a renewed mind, first and foremost. You cannot concoct ethnic and cultural diversity in your church. You can’t announce, “We’re now a multi-ethnic church,” and expect that the next Sunday the crowd is going to be different. You also cannot concoct ethnic and cultural diversity where there is little.

Our call is to preach the gospel to all peoples and make disciples of them. A good question to ask is “How does the makeup of our church reflect the community that the Lord has sovereignly planted us in?” As your community changes, Lord willing, so should the makeup of your congregation if you are reaching those within your community regardless of who they are or where they come from.