Author: Krista Bontrager
Answers to 3 Critical Questions
Recently, I was on a Zoom call with a pastor in a mid-sized town in the Midwest. His town, and his church, are mostly White. He was inquiring about having Monique come speak at his church for a weekend conference on racial unity.
As the conversation developed, it was clear that this pastor was struggling. He had a general sense that he was supposed to “do something” for his church related to the race issue. He was also concerned with whether it was even okay that his church was predominantly white. Did he need to do something to “fix” that? So he was reaching out to Monique to speak at a conference.
This pastor isn’t unusual. We’ve noticed that many pastors are very willing to have a discussion about race. But they often don’t have a well-developed theology when it comes to thinking about racial and cultural issues within their local church context. We have found that when exploring these issues, addressing the following three questions helps to bring increased clarity.
1. Should all churches be multiethnic?
Usually, when we ask pastors this question, their immediate answer is a quick and unqualified “yes.” Our theory is that this is because there has been strong social programming, especially in the last two years, that being a multiethnic church is the ideal. There is a widespread belief that every predominantly white church needs to transition into being a multiethnic church if it doesn’t want to be racist.
That’s a lot of pressure—especially if you are a pastor in, say, rural Wyoming, where the minority population is small.
When we ask a pastor why he believes this, the Scriptural warrant usually provided is Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked, and behold, 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, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The pastor usually says something like, “Because there are representatives from ‘every nation, tribe, and language’ worshiping at the throne, every church should display the ideal of being multiethnic.”
It seems to often go unnoticed that Revelation 7 isn’t actually describing a local church. Revelation 7 is describing the universal, global church worshiping together in the throne room of heaven. It’s a snapshot of the reality that is happening right now and has been happening from the beginning of the church.
Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples was to preach the gospel and disciple the nations (Matt. 28:19-20). Since Pentecost, Christianity has been a multiethnic religion. Notice the variety of people groups represented by the diasporic Jews gathered in Jerusalem on that day:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”… So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:5–11, 41)
This instantaneous explosion of the gospel into multiple languages to multiple ethnicities, accompanied by the provision of a complex system of Roman roads during a time of relative peace (Pax Romana), helped to facilitate the spread of the good news in a rapid fashion.
From both a global and historical perspective, the church is already multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual. Almost no matter where you go in the world, you will find authentic Christians. Now, there might be fewer of them in some areas. And there might be some areas that need more specific penetration with Bibles in their language. But in general, the gospel has gone out to the nations. Revelation 7 is the description of what is already a reality-—one that will only continue to grow.
So if the global church is already multiethnic and has been so since Pentecost, what does that mean for the local church? That leads us to the second question.
2. Is there something defective about my church if it’s majority is white?
This is the (sometimes unspoken) question lingering in the back of many pastors’ minds. And it’s understandable. Again, there has been a lot of social conditioning, especially in the last two years, telling us that something is wrong if most of the people in the room are white. The pastor’s fear is that his church is quite possibly sinful. More specifically, he fears his church might be racist.
And the truth is, it might be sinful. It might be racist.
And it might not be.
More data would be needed in order to answer that question. I don’t think think there is any inherent problem with a monocultural church. After all, we wouldn’t expect a Korean-speaking church to become multiethnic in order to prove it isn’t racist. But I do think it’s worth the effort for the elders to investigate why their church is mostly monocultural or monoethnic. Those reasons might be benign. Or, they might not be.
A potentially helpful question for the elders to ask as they investigate the issue is this: Does our church generally reflect the demographics of the surrounding community (say, in the five-mile radius around the building)? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then there might not be a problem.
If the answer to that question is “no,” then the church leaders might consider exploring why that’s the case. Is there an attitude of apathy in the leadership or the congregation toward reaching particular groups in the neighborhood with the gospel? Or is this situation the result of a previously undetected oversight?
Either way, perhaps church leadership might need to think about developing a three- to five-year strategic plan for discipling the congregation into a biblical vision for reaching the community with the gospel, and they may need to develop some new strategies to take the gospel to those living in the vicinity of the church. But this must be done out of a conviction for bringing the gospel to a community, not just to reach “diversity goals.” Perhaps there are even existing ministries that are already reaching those people with the gospel, and the church could partner with them to help expand their reach.
This brings us to the third question.
3. Should we intentionally recruit leaders who are racial minorities?
It’s not uncommon for pastors to wonder whether they need to recruit or hire leaders who are minorities (usually black) as a means to fixing their “race problem” in their majority-white church. This question often flows out of a concern to correct the “power dynamics” of leadership. The discussion linked below explains this concern well.
It’s not uncommon for pastors to ask us what steps they should take to transition to multiethnic leadership in order to “fix” this perceived problem. Again, this is because there is the fear (often unspoken) that the church is racist if the leadership is monoethnic.
And this might be a good issue for church leadership to explore. But such exploration must put biblical standards for leadership first. When Paul commissions Titus to appoint elders, he provides very specific criteria:
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)
He gives similar instructions to Timothy for the church in Ephesus:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
These are the Lord’s prescriptions for appointing church leadership. Notice that these standards do not include recruiting elders based on melanin or on cultural or regional origin. What we do see in the book of Acts is that the leadership in the church in Antioch, which is Paul and Barnabas’ sending church, is organically multiethnic:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)
This mixture of Greek-speaking Jews and Roman citizens displays that what was begun on Pentecost has now spread to Antioch. Multicultural and multiethnic leadership wasn’t the result of a calculated campaign to even out racial power dynamics. It was the natural outworking of the Holy Spirit. Leaders were identified based on their godly character, not their ethnic identity.
For this reason, CFBU strongly cautions churches against recruiting elders and staff members simply to meet “diversity goals.” This is a worldly standard, one that would be an inappropriate form of ethnic partiality—or, to use a cultural term, a form of “tokenism.”
However, we also see in the book of Acts a descriptive example of how recruiting leadership based on cultural, language, or ethnic considerations can be helpful: to reach a particular community:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)
This passage is often leveraged by voices who are sympathetic to reorganizing power structures in the local church. However, we need to notice two important criteria: 1) there is a community that needs servicing that the current leadership can’t reach due to cultural and language barriers; and 2) it assumes that the criteria for godly leadership have already been met. These men aren’t promoted into leadership positions simply because of their ethnicity. They are men of sound doctrine and living first who can minister to a particular cultural group.
Transitioning to being a multiethnic church shouldn’t be a decision that’s made as a result of a church-growth fad. It should be done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit as the elders lead the church’s outreach goals. If a church sees a hole in their ability to bring the Gospel to a particular community near their church, then that’s the time to look for qualified leadership to spearhead those efforts.
Let me give an example.
Let’s say your majority-white church is located in a community that is 80% Hispanic, but your church hasn’t been actively engaged in gospel outreach to that community. The fruit of that omission might result in a situation where your church hasn’t trained or ordained any godly Hispanic men into leadership. That might be an oversight that needs correcting so that you can bring the gospel to that community in a more culturally organic way.
Ideally, there is a qualified man in the congregation—one who is embedded in that culture, speaks the language, and has appropriate spiritual gifts to spearhead outreach to that community—who could potentially be considered for leadership. (By qualified, I am referring to the biblical standards, and not to whether he is simply Christian man who is a doctor or business owner.) If there is no such man available, the elders might need to ask: What do we need to do in order to disciple more Hispanic men so that we have a pool to potentially recruit from for a future elder team? I recognize that this is a long-term strategy. But it is a biblical one. The goal here would be to recruit leaders who can lead gospel ministry and discipleship programs to the Hispanic community. What the goal is not, is a superficial effort to change how the staff looks on the website to make the church “looks more diverse.”
We recognize that there are many challenges to being a pastor. Our hope is to provide a way to think about the issue of multiethnic churches that is founded on Scripture first, not the whims of cultural pressure. For some, this will be a relief. For others, it will open new challenges.