The United States is the most ethnically and culturally diverse nation the world has ever known. It is probably more diverse than the Roman Empire, or any empire in history. In light of this staggering reality, a critical question must be raised: Why do we see diversity in the church as a threat and a problem to be managed rather than as an opportunity to live out the Pentecostal vision of constructing a Kingdom community? Why is the church divided by race, ethnicity, culture, class, or education if in Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female, Greek or barbarian? How is it that the church reflects so closely the divisions of the social structures of our nation? More than 40 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, why is 11:00 on Sunday morning still the most segregated hour in America?One thing we can say confidently is that we Christians are all too human. Every person on earth is born into some group, whether that group is ethnic, linguistic, political, religious, or geographic. Consider the people of the Korean peninsula, my ancestral home. Koreans may appear to be a homogenous group, but upon closer inspection one understands that the people strongly identify with their geographic origin. Politics, economics, and religion are all driven by provincial loyalties. YoungNak Presbyterian Church in Seoul, the largest Reformed congregation in the world, with over 60,000 members, was founded by a North Korean refugee, and its culture is still dominated by that legacy. Korean churches are just as likely to be divided along provincial and class lines as American churches are divided by race.
We all are guilty of wanting to be with those we feel most comfortable with and avoiding those who make us uncomfortable. I confess that I am more comfortable around second-generation Korean Americans because of our unique and shared experience. Because we do not need to explain this huge reservoir of shared experience, we can move immediately to building a personal relationship. With others, we need to explain the background of our ethnos, which significantly shapes our ethos. Frankly, that’s a lot of work.
We are geared toward homogeneity because (1) we were born that way, (2) we fear that which we do not understand, (3) our core identity is shaped by our “group,” (4) disloyalty to the group is costly, and (5) crossing boundaries is hard! The homogeneous unit principle developed by Donald McGavran and his acolytes in the Church Growth Movement works everywhere, including in the church, but does that make it right? Does might make right? Is a thousand-member homogeneous church more “successful” than a hundred-member multicultural church?
The Homogeneous Unit
Principle and Church Growth
I think most of us know that a large membership does not necessarily make a church successful, but there is a part of us that envies the big churches and wonders why our congregation is not successful in that way. At the same time, many of us know of individuals who are joining mainline Protestant churches not because these churches are successful but because they have been called to do so. The church moves toward reconciliation not because it will lead to numerical success but because the church has been called to faithfulness. As part of this faithfulness, the legitimacy of the homogenous unit principle needs to be questioned. I believe this “principle” has given theological justification to ancient tribalism and the idolatry of division. It does not call us to be a new creation but entrenches the old.
Two thousand years ago the church was small, renegade, and countercultural. Local congregations were radical communities of love and compassion. Their very existence as a community defied the claim of imperial sovereignty. These congregations overcame the prevailing social barriers of race, class, and gender and showed compassion to the rejects of society. The early church posed a serious threat to Roman hegemony and social order. It was its witness as a Kingdom-oriented community that had a powerful effect on the empire, not the size or political connections of the church. The early church was not so much about church growth as about parabolic witness. How does a band of 10, 20, 50 people demonstrate the power of God’s redemptive love by example? How do these individuals live the Christian life together as a living parable? How do they serve as a parabolic witness to the world? That was the fundamental evangelical question.
The eventual conversion of the Roman Empire has been a mixed legacy. The new status of Christianity as the state religion gave it legitimacy and power but also forced compromise as it had to serve God and empire, church and state. As time went on, the church moved away from its Pentecost roots of unity in radical diversity and toward an increasingly homogeneous power structure.
It’s time to ask ourselves what kind of impact the church in America could make today if we actually took advantage of the diversity in our midst. In our local congregation, the Church of All Nations, we use the term multicultural as opposed to multiethnic or multiracial. Not all churches can be multiethnic if the geographic context does not allow for it, but every church can be multicultural if we understand the term culture to encompass different generations, socio-economic backgrounds, education levels, etc. A local congregation ought to reflect the full diversity of its particular geographic community. I would go further and say that, in accordance with our call to discipleship, every local church in the world has a mandate to be as multicultural as possible.
We must contend with the unsettling fact that the most ethnically and culturally diverse country in the world with a strong Christian heritage seems incapable of producing ethnically and culturally diverse churches. Researchers estimate that only 6 percent of churches are multiracial, and only
2 percent are intentionally multiracial (as opposed to the cause being neighborhood demographic shifts). Instead of seeing this as a golden opportunity, we see it as a threat to our safe and secure homogeneity. We succumb to our primitive need to be surrounded by members of our “group.” Is this not a form of ecclesial tribalism?
The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?
But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?
I don’t believe that the church’s mission is to broker the competing claims of “rights” among various factions. In our local church context, the power brokers are the Korean Americans since the Church of All Nations emerged from the Korean immigrant context. As we moved at increasing speed toward embodying the multicultural vision, the collective response I seemed to get from that group was: “We work for Dow Chemical, 3M, General Mills, and the University of Minnesota. Although we have well-paying jobs we are not really leaders in these places; we still have to live and work under the overarching Whit
e power structure. Now we come to a Korean American church, the one place where we have power, where we have leadership, where our culture is affirmed, and you want to take that cultural hegemony away from us? You want to take away the one last refuge where we can be ourselves?”
My answer is “yes.” Yes, we lay down our lives for our friends. Yes, we love our neighbors as ourselves. Yes, we care for the widows, orphans, aliens, and strangers in our midst. Although we have painstakingly constructed foxholes and bird nests for our security, we choose with our Lord Jesus to be homeless wanderers on this earth, to have nowhere to lay our heads (Luke 9:57). I have compassion for my fellow 1.5- and second-generation English-speaking Korean Americans who must choose between comfortable and affirming spiritual fellowship and the daring work of the ministry of reconciliation. I myself have worshiped and worked in the Korean hurch context all my life. I understand the need for the church to be a place of comfort; surely that is one of the roles of the church. But is God calling us to something higher than religion for our particular group? Can the Korean Americans be evangels who, having achieved majority status and cultural dominance in the local congregation, willingly lay that down so that other cultures may be lifted up and affirmed? Can we be a mosaic of believers that witnesses to the God who reconciles all things to himself?
We Can Do Better
The gospel can no longer be reduced to a verbal exercise. Evangelism must truly be about parabolic witness. It must be about the harder task of creating community, of generating first a counterculture, and then a Kingdom culture. Of course, none of us has any idea what Kingdom culture is, but reflecting on the apophatic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church may offer us a way. Apophatic theology is not about asserting who God is but who God is not. This seems to me a humbler approach and one that retains the mystery of God.
Constructing a Kingdom culture is not about erecting a structure with Kingdom parts. It is about navigating a narrow path that can only be walked in faith. In our journey of faith together as “resident aliens” we constantly adjust our direction by saying out loud to ourselves, “But surely it can’t be this way, and no, it can’t be that.” The journey of the multicultural church is an apophatic journey. We constantly speak painful truth in love that we cannot go only in the way that one culture wants. Out of the mutual “no” to the will to power of any one culture is a slowly emerging “yes” to a new culture forged by the best of each tradition.
The apophatic journey will be difficult for the typical Western church to grasp, for the Western impulse is “faith seeking understanding” without limit, even attempting to expose those things that are meant to remain mystery. Especially in the United States, everything must in the end be turned into a program. We don’t, however, become a Kingdom community programmatically. When Job was suffering, the greatest ministry he received was when his friends sat down with him and wept with him for two weeks. It was when his friends started to make prescriptions to Job’s problems that the situation deteriorated for all. This is a lesson for us in the West. We become a genuine community, a parabolic witness, when we sit with one another and weep with one another without looking at the clock.
I say all this not because I think that the church in the West is any worse than any other church in the world but because I truly believe that the church in America can do better. My contention is that we have not been ambitious enough to have our local churches model the Kingdom of God. Our fragmented world is ready for a church with new evangelical energy that proclaims the gospel primarily through its parabolic witness. This is offered as a word of hope and not as a word of judgment. May God inspire and equip the church to live into this Kingdom vision. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
- Reflect on the context of your local congregation. What “tribes” exist within the surrounding community along the lines of race, ethnicity, culture, age, class, education, etc? What are the barriers that prevent these various groups from crossing these boundaries? Does your church contribute to the surrounding tribalism?
- Consider the cultural makeup of your local church. What tribal group(s) from your surrounding geographic community does your church primarily identify with? What sacrifices would your congregation have to make if you sought to more fully reflect the diversity of your local context?
- In what ways do you view the homogenous unit principle at work within both liberal and conservative North American churches? Where does your congregation fall within this divide? How might a multicultural church point your community beyond the polarizing reductionisms that tend to characterize both sides?
- Consider the manner in which your local church functions. Does it tend to focus more on church growth or parabolic witness? Does it have more of a programmatic or relational emphasis? How is this related to the fears and desires of your community and how might your fears and desires be modified to more fully embody God’s kingdom?
- Reflect on the dominant theological paradigm operative within your local church. How does it reflect the culture(s) of (or within) your congregation? How would embarking on the “apophatic journey” within an increasingly multicultural community challenge the way you currently undertake theological reflection?