So far in this series we have sought to lay the biblical and theological foundations for the multiethnic or multicultural church. And hopefully you are seeing that this is not a new thing but in fact the very old thing that God began in his covenant with Abraham. However, in order to understand why we need to intentionally start a multicultural church we have to understand something about this thing called the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP). This was popularized by Donald McGavran and the church growth movement and essentially taught that churches should not seek to make people cross barriers in order to come to faith in Jesus, but make churches that are comfortable so that the only barrier was the gospel itself.
David J. Hesselgrave, in his book Planting Churches Cross- Culturally: North America and Beyond describes the HUP this way: “In the church growth movement there is a special focus on the so-called homogeneous unit. A rather nebulous term, it refers to a body of people who form a cohesive unit because of a common denominator such as ancestry, language, or lifestyle. Nuclear and extended families, clans and castes, ethnic and linguistic groups qualify as homogeneous unites. Such units or groupings of people like to decide, work, play, and worship together. That being the case, Donald McGavran believed that church planters should focus on individual tribes, castes, and language groups, even though such a policy seems to be in conflict with the biblical principle that all Christians of all languages, classes, and colors are on in Christ.”
This principle combined with the racial history of the United States makes homogeneous churches the norm. Korie Edwards in her book, The Elusive Dream states this, "Yet still, interracial churches remain the exception at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The typical church in America continues to be composed of just one racial group. That is, not a single person of a different race is in attendance. And interracial churches, where no racial group comprises more than 90% of a congregation, make up only 10% of churches in the United States. Therefore, while race relations have become increasingly relevant to religious bodies, the practice of racial integrations has not followed at the same pace.” But, is this how we should understand the marching orders of Jesus? Given the framework of God's covenants that we explored in the last part, shouldn't we be seeking to fulfill God's promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed by joining the covenant people?
JESUS' MARCHING ORDERS
Jesus gave some specific instructions to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. Both passages include the expansion of the Kingdom in number and in scope "to the ends of the earth" (1:8). This is accomplished by "witnessing" (Acts 1:8), "making disciples of all nations," "baptizing" and "teaching" (Matt. 28:19-20). Could these passages simply mean that God desires to expand the Kingdom into each of these spheres independently of one another as advocates of HUP would argue?
I do not believe this is the case. The nature of the church and indeed the gospel itself require us to think otherwise. In Acts 22, Paul finds himself before an angry crowd of Jews and he is given an opportunity to give a defense of the gospel. Does Paul avoid the reality of the full inclusion of the Gentiles, knowing that this is certainly offensive to the crowd as he has learned throughout his missionary journeys? Does he just call them to faith and leave the ethical teaching of racial animosity for another day? No. He declares as part of his defense that God sent him to the Gentiles. "Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, 'Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live'" (22:22).
As René C. Padilla says, "the breaking down of the barriers that separate people in the world was regarded as an essential aspect of the gospel, not merely as a result of it." The church is the covenant assembly of God's people and the makeup of God's people is defined as those who have faith in Christ from all nations. However practical or noble the motivations, as Ed Clowney says, "Churches that begin with a strategy of evangelistic approach to a targeted population may end as a sect, defined not by the gospel but by society."
When we look at it in this way, the mission that Jesus gives his church is putting the promise of God to Abraham in the form of a command. God promised to invite the nations into his covenant and now commands his people to go and do just that. If that is the case, then one cannot claim to come under the covenant head (Jesus) without becoming part of the global and multiethnic covenant people. The idea that one's ethnic preferences or blatant racism should be tolerated or even utilized for mission in greater conversion numbers is counter to the covenant framework in which the gospel is situated. To quote Padilla again:
All of these realities are confirmed in the picture of the new heavens and new earth as given to us in the book of Revelation. The passage we have gone back to over and over again in this series. Here we see that gathered together is "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9).
If my conclusions about these marching orders are correct, we should be able to see this pattern worked out by the early church in starting multiethnic local churches. Did they? Come back to the next installment to find out.
The New Testament pattern of multiethnic local churches
The power of the gospel from Ephesians 2
Multicultural church planting in Muncie
Please join me in this journey.
Also, much of this work is indebted to so many people so I will try to highlight some resources each blog that have helped me along the way. And if you are interested in learning more, I have written two seminary papers that are attached that have full bibliographies.
This book is a great overview to a theology of the church. Really helpful perspective.
This is an incredible resource backed by extensive research as to how race works within churches.
For those of you who want to dig more behind the scenes on this topic, I have attached two of my seminary papers that deal with the issue more in depth and include significant bibliographies. And if you want to chat about any of this, contact me please and lets get coffee and discuss (if you're blessed to live in the greatest city in the world, Muncie, IN).