Beckett: Review – Being the Church in A Multi-Ethnic Community

Author: Gary L. McIntosh with Alan McMahan
Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013
Rating: 4.5/5 stars


Minority groups are no longer the minority. In his book, McIntosh makes mention that there was a 75% population growth in the U.S. from immigration between 1995 and 2000, and by 2050 the number of international immigrants to the U.S. is expected to rise to 405 million (124). McIntosh tells of several cases of churches that started out in predominately Caucasian neighourhoods that experienced a decline in numbers because the demographics of their neighbourhoods have drastically altered from predominately Caucasian to predominately Hispanic, or African American, or Chinese, whatever the case. So, the American Church is facing a unique issue. In the New Testament as well as early church missionary efforts (such as the Jesuits and Francis Xavier), the Church has always gone out to bring people of other ethnicities into God’s universal church. Now, these people are in our own communities—indeed, right next door to us. So, how can the American Church make disciples of people of different ethnicities who are already in our communities? McIntosh’s book helps us begin to understand where we should start.

Are Multi-Ethnic Churches Biblical?

Since we are working with the biblical command to make disciples of all nations and to baptise them and teach them what Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20), it is helpful to have a biblical theology of multi-ethnic churches. The question is: Does a church have to be multi-ethnic in order to be biblical? Some say yes, others say no. McIntosh helps to answer this question in a variety of helpful ways, but what I think is the most helpful is his mention of Israel’s responsibility to the sojourner.

Not only did God command Israel to show justice to slaves, care for the widows, and redistribute land, He also commanded Israel to protect the minorities. The sojourners, or foreign minorities, were to “enjoy the rest of the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12), be given opportunity to glean from the fields (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22), and be included in the provisions for the cities of refuge (Num. 35:15)” (47). Israel still had to maintain their mono-ethnic culture in obedience to God, but “they nevertheless had a stewardship responsibility to invite the nations to join them in worship and enact justice and respect for those of other cultures” (48).

In the New Testament, Jesus specifically ministered to the Jews and even commanded the disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5-6). Misinterpretation of this would argue that Jesus intended salvation only for the Jews. His ministry indeed targeted the Jews first since they were His first priority, but His ministry also demonstrated the fact that salvation in Him is not only meant for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. “He healed the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and the Roman centurion’s son (John 4:46-53). He ministered to the deep needs of the woman at the well (John 4)… He cast the demons out of the Gadarene demoniacs in Matthew 8. And beginning in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 he spoke of the task his disciples would be given to take the gospel to the nations” (49), not to mention the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Also worth mentioning is the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15At issue was whether or not Gentile believers had to become Jewish first—and therefore circumcised—in order to be true believers and, therefore, saved. McIntosh quotes Dirke Johnson on the outcome of the council, “The Gentiles were given permission to not adopt a Jewish cultural expression of faith and the Jewish believers are not asked to change their cultural expression of faith either” (44-45). So, individual cultural expression of faith is permitted in the Church.

Two other brief mentions must also be noted: 1) Antioch is often called the “Christian capital” of the early church, which was a multi-ethnic church consisting of Jewish and Gentile believers; and 2) there will be people from every nation, tribe, and language in the great multitude in Heaven (Revelation 7:9-10).

So, from both the Old and the New Testaments we see that multi-ethnic churches are certainly biblical. But do they have to be multi-ethnic in order to be biblical? According to McIntosh—and I agree with his assessment—a church does not have to be multi-ethnic in order to be biblical. Some churches may just happen to be in an area where its entire community is 100% White, or 100% Hispanic, or what-have-you.

For example, on a mission trip to Guatemala recently, I visited a Lutheran Guatemalan church. As one can expect, their entire membership was consisted of Spanish speaking Guatemalans. In this sense, they are mono-ethnic. Are they not a biblical church just because they don’t have a fair mix of Whites or Blacks? Of course not. Their community consists entirely of Guatemalans.

A mono-ethnic church is not biblical when it is exclusively mono-ethnic. That is, a church that is mono-ethnic is not biblical when it purposely excludes people of other ethnicities from being a part of their church.

People who say a church must be multi-ethnic in order to be biblical employ John 17, Acts, and Ephesians 3 as their evidence. However, what is clear from these passages is that “unity among believers becomes a powerful witness to the world regarding the reconciling work of the gospel [between man and God and between man and man]… What is not clear from these verses is whether such healing and unity is necessarily expressed in the establishment of multi-ethnic churches, though the healing of animosity and division between ethnicities and cultures is certainly part of the reconciliation that must occur” (50-51).

Now that McIntosh has provided us a good, biblical understanding of both mono-ethnic and multi-ethnic churches, we can now begin to examine how a congregation can begin to become multi-ethnic.

Ethnic Identification

First and foremost, the congregation needs to survey the community. The congregation may or may not live in a multi-ethnic community. It cannot become multi-ethnic if it lives in a mono-ethnic community (and again, there’s nothing wrong with a mono-ethnic congregation so long as it’s not exclusive). McIntosh gives three helpful ethnic identifications of “an individual’s cultural connectedness”:

  • “C-1 = People with a particularly strong cultural identity.” These people speak their native tongue fluently, and perhaps exclusively in some cases.
  • “C-2 = People who have an appreciation for their ethnic culture and the dominant culture.” These are often bilingual folks who are comfortable with moving between two different cultural contexts.
  • “C-3 = People with a low intensity of ethnic consciousness.” These are people who “strongly identify with the dominant culture and are happy participating in organizations made up of people from outside their historical ethnic identity” (61).

These are the types of people a congregation may or may not find in their community. Along with this, McIntosh also gives a helpful classification of how likely an individual is to assimilate into a new, dominant culture:

  • “A-1 = People who have no desire to assimilate into the dominant culture.” These are often people in the C-1 category. They find it unnecessary to assimilate into their dominant culture or simply have no desire to. Also known as the first generation.
  • “A-2 = People who feel comfortable in two different cultural contexts.” These are often people in the C-2 category. They typically take part in their dominant culture at work, school, or other places and then take part in their primary cultural at home and extended family. Also known as the second generation.
  • “A-3 = People who evidence a strong desire to fully assimilate into the dominant culture.” These are often people in the C-3 category. They are often viewed as “rebellious” against their primary culture and express no desire to engage in their primary culture and instead desire to completely assimilate into their dominant culture. Also known as the third, fourth, fifth, etc. generations (62).

Once the congregation identifies these categories in their community, they will be better prepared to know how to approach each category. For example, if the congregation lives in a community that largely falls in the C-1 category, they will know that it will be a difficult challenge to make disciples since they typically fall in the A-1 category as well; as opposed to a congregation that lives in a C-2 and/or C-3 community will have a less difficult task since these later generations are much more comfortable and willing to assimilate into another culture different than their own.

To use a personal example, my grandfather from Puerto Rico spoke Spanish fluently but knew very little English. He had no desire to assimilate into American culture. He would be the first generation in the C-1/A-1 category. My mother used to be bilingual in Spanish and English, but now speaks English exclusively due to having attended English-only speaking public schools (this is actually typical of the second generation C-2/A-2 category). Although she has lost her Spanish, she nevertheless expresses her desire to be part of her American, Black, and Puerto Rican cultures. As a third-generation individual, I’ve had no desire to engage in my Hispanic and Black cultures and instead desired to completely assimilate into White American culture (though now that I am older and wiser, I now desire to explore my Hispanic roots more).Because of the generation I fall into, I had no hesitations in attending a predominately White Lutheran congregation in the White suburban area of Canton, Michigan. I would fall under the third-generation C-3/A-3 category.

These are all helpful categories in which a congregation may classify the majority of their “minority” population that may or may not be present in their community. Once these categories are identified, the congregation can then begin to go through a careful and prayerful strategy to begin bringing these people into their church family, which is not something discussed in this book due to its purposes. If you’re a pastor or church leader and you’re reading this, I highly recommend Transforming Churches Network as a resource to help your congregation get started in multi-ethnic outreach. They help churches to raise up leaders and equip the laypeople to go outside the church doors and discover the needs of the community the church can meet.

Ethnic Inclusivity in the Multi-Ethnic Church

Now that the primary ethnic group has been identified in the congregation’s community, let’s say they successfully bring in a good number of ethnically diverse people groups. What now? Now that they are multi-ethnic, how do they be multi-ethnic so as to include the cultural expressions of each ethnic group’s culture and not remain ethnocentric, that is, exclusively mono-ethnic? For example, how would a multi-ethnic church do worship? What language should they do it in?

First and foremost, McIntosh is helpful when he says the church should bring up “natural leaders from diverse ethnic and culture backgrounds… They are thought leaders who encounter ideas and interpret them back to their friends and family, most of whom share their same ethnicity or are affiliated on the basis of some other common denominator (age, marital status, gender, education)” (95). In other words, the first step should be to raise up leaders from among the ethnic groups—to have a fair balance of leaders among all ethnicities in the church. This is so that each ethnicity group will have fair representation when the leadership is making decisions for the church. The ethnic leaders are also able to bring up cultural understandings or even misunderstandings when different options are discussed—especially after getting feedback from the ethnic group they belong to—that way no one group is offended or omitted in worship and fellowship.

So, in regard to the example of worship style, a leadership team with a balanced representation of all ethnicity groups will facilitate the process. Whilst it is important for the church to express its diversity, “At the end of the day, a single model of decision-making must be adopted. Every tradition cannot be honored simultaneously; otherwise nothing will get done efficiently” (99). So, with worship style, a decision must eventually be made on a dominant language for the majority of its divine services. This may be English, especially for a congregation whose “minorities” consist of the second-generation C-2/A-2 category and third-generation C-3/A-3 category.

So, English may be the primary language for worship, but the leadership staff may (and should) also decide on days and how many times a month the congregation does worship in the dominant language of the ethnicity group(s). So, in a congregation of Caucasians, Africans (distinct from African Americans), and Hispanics, the primary language of worship may be English since they all can speak English, but perhaps once a month they may do worship in Spanish, and once a month do worship utilising African drums whilst singing in Zulu, Afrikaans, or another African language (Africa has an extremely vast amount of languages).

Public worship is one example of what’s called the Homogeneous Unit Principle, which is another helpful tool in building and sustaining a multi-ethnic church.

The Homogeneous Principle (HUP)

First promulgated by Donald McGavran, he recognised that when we evangelise to other ethnicity groups, “we often expect people to understand the gospel and respond to it in the same way we do as Westerners” (88). In other words, we expect other ethnicities to look and act as we do, even to worship as we do. This is a huge problem in the LCMS. We rightly have a strong desire to bring other ethnicities into our church body, but when it comes to unique forms of cultural expressions in worship, we become stingy and call anything that’s not “traditional German Lutheran liturgy” heresy. We thus lose our credibility among ethnic groups by being so offended by their unique cultural expressions. In this way, LCMS congregations often become exclusive mono-ethnic churches, which “shut out all those unlike themselves.” Instead, they ought to be inclusive mono-ethnic churches, “who welcome the stranger, the alien, the foreigner into their fellowship… even though they are centered around a single, dominant people group” (89). This is why I believe the HUP will be especially helpful for us Lutherans.

So, a congregation, though it may be multi-ethnic, is always a homogenous unit. What is a homogeneous unit, though? McGavran defines it, “A homogeneous unit is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common.” McIntosh continues, “[T]his definition of the homogeneous unit makes no direct reference to race, ethnicity, or church attendance, although it can be applied to each one in certain contexts. A homogeneous unit is present whenever members of society gather in groups where clear characteristics are observable, and where the characteristics form a sort of glue that binds the group together” (105).

Let’s imagine an LCMS congregation in San Antonio, Texas that consists of Caucasians and Mexicans that are relatively mixed in numbers equally. They are homogeneous in that they make the same confession of faith—they all subscribe to the unaltered Book of Concord. They may also be homogeneous in that their worship is primarily done in English since everyone knows English. This is not based on race or ethnicity.

Yet within this homogeneity are unique cultural expressions that differ from one another, such as the typical Lutheran worship in the maroon hymnal in English, utilising the church organ. Then, on one or two Sundays a month, the liturgy is done in Spanish with a Spanish Lutheran hymnal, the Spanish speaking associate pastor leading the liturgy; and instead of an organ, they may use an acoustic guitar and a trumpet and (God forbid!) may include some biblically faithful contemporary songs. And, instead of beer, bräts, and casseroles at the upcoming potluck, they are doing tacos, chicken tostadas, and pinto bean salsa salads instead. Fortunately, Mexicans like beer too, except it could likely be Corona instead of Schlafly or Budweiser.

This is what an inclusive mono-ethnic church looks like. It is multi-ethnic in that multiple ethnicities are represented, but it is mono-ethnic/homogeneous in its shared characteristics (confession of faith, primary liturgical form, etc.). It would be exclusively mono-ethnic if the church leadership was completely opposed to such Spanish worship and cultural expression, which we see a lot of in our church body.

Theological Critique

Fortunately, I don’t have many critiques about McIntosh’s book. His practical theology is quite strong, but I found a bit of his exegesis to be lacking in adequacy. When discussing on whether or not the HUP is biblical (it is, by the way), two of the several passages he goes to are Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28.

Colossians 3:11 says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Putting this into context, McIntosh says, “Paul was discussing the issues of religious privilege… The Colossians, and we too, put aside these evil practices (the old self) and put on the new self, which is being renewed according to the image of Christ. In this process of renewal, there is no special religious privilege” (115). I actually agree with this assessment. In its context, Paul commands to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you,” listing what we might call the works of the flesh, which belong to the old self (vv. 5-9). This is required of all God’s people, regardless of race or ethnicity. So yes, no ethnicity has religious privilege—that is, no one has special privilege to sin freely on the basis of one’s ethnicity, whether Jewish or Gentile.

What I find quarrel with is McIntosh’s exegesis of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” McIntosh makes the exegetical mistake in that because these two passages use similar words, Paul must be talking about the same thing (religious privilege) and, therefore, they must mean the same thing. But Paul is not talking about religious privilege here (Christian for women ordination make the same erroneous argument). In the context of this Galatians passage, Paul is talking about who has access to salvation. Paul says just before this, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (vv. 26-27). In other words, Paul is saying, all are equally sons of God in Christ on the basis of their Baptisms regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. The context of this passage is about their inheritance from Christ as sons of God, not religious privilege (the full context is 3:15-29).

Pastoral/Church Leadership Application

Overall, Being the Church in A Multi-Ethnic Community is a helpful book for pastors and/or leadership teams who desire to have their congregation grow into a multi-ethnic church and/or sustain their congregation that is already multi-ethnic. There’s a lot I didn’t cover, but what I found particularly useful for my own mind was the biblical foundation of both mono-ethnic and multi-ethnic churches, how to assess whether the congregation lives in a multi-ethnic community, and applying the homogeneous unit principle in the congregation to help it be inclusive of other ethnicities. So, as a pursuing pastor, I hope to use this little knowledge I’ve gained from this book with the future congregation I will serve.

As a Hispanic person who knows what it’s like to live as a minority, I hope to use my experiences as a pastor to relate to minorities in whatever community I’ll be serving in, whether they’re Hispanic or some other ethnic group. I have the advantage of having my ethnicity being the threshold between Hispanic or some other minority group and the faith. As such, I also aim to educate my future congregation on the challenges of being a minority, assuming I’ll be at a typical predominately White LCMS congregation. I will also certainly express my vision to grow the congregation into being multi-ethnic, implementing the methods McIntosh covers. This will begin first by giving the congregation a buy-in to get passionate about reaching out to our ethnic community, which will also require us to do a community survey of our community. This means we will not only need to acquire the demographics of our community, but also talking to the community and learning what their needs are so we can help meet them as the Church in order to build that threshold to the faith.

The HUP is especially helpful. Centred around our common Lutheran Confession, we can use that as the basis on how to include individual and unique cultural expressions during worship and social events that are still faithful to the Scriptures. This is what I’m looking forward to the most. The idea of having a congregation that joyfully worships the Lord in a language besides English as well as using instruments unique to other cultures is highly exciting and something I would love to do. There are multiple expressions of worshiping God, whether in music, literature, or fellowship practice. Putting the HUP into practice is an exciting new way to not only build a homogeneous multi-ethnic church, but also in sustaining a multi-ethnic church that joyfully worships Christ and loves one another in the beautiful diversity of God’s creation among all ethnicities.


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