25 September, 2022

Ethnic Identity and the Multiethnic Church

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by | 1 September, 2022

By Tokishia Dockery-Ragland 

What part should one’s ethnicity play in their faith? Or should it play any role at all?  

These are huge resounding questions for me, especially over the past 20 years, during which I’ve served or been a part of three multiethnic churches (and been part of multiethnic ministry staffs). But these questions certainly are not new. If we’re honest, these questions, this discussion, predates us all. 

How Does Ethnicity Affect Faith?  

I believe ethnicity should be acknowledged and that ethnicity does play a part in our faith. Merriam-Webster defines ethnicity as “ethnic quality or affiliation” and ethnic as “of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” These definitions delineate us all.  

We all are affiliated with a class of people with whom we share commonalities, such as race, a nation, religious background, language, and social culture. All of these factors shape our identities as people, our faith, and our beliefs. So, by default, our ethnicity is a part of our faith. It’s out of our control.  

Faith, meanwhile, is defined as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” and “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.”  

 We express our faith in a variety of ways based to our ethnic background. Denominations have been birthed from our ethnicities; the historical struggles of a nation or race of people contribute to our faith in God. For instance, an immigrant with a strong faith might sacrifice everything and venture out on a dangerous journey believing God will shield and protect them as they seek a better life for their family. Ensuing generations of that family will pass down stories and lessons about faith and prayer moving mountains and sustaining them through tough times. Seeds of faith will be planted and replanted through generations.  

Enslaved people, conversely, might also have been taught to have faith, but despite their belief and prayers, they endured captivity and torture. This group will have opposing lessons to pass on. The many variables that make up the recipe of our ethnicity affect our faith, producing different churches and denominations, and nonidentical levels of faith. 

How can so many church congregations produce so many different followers—all with differing ideas of faith—that all cloak themselves with the cape of “Christian”?  

What Are the Distinctives of Multiethnic Churches? 

What is the “multiethnic church,” and what sets it apart? The multiethnic church recognizes and celebrates ethnic diversity in its attendees, and seeks to bridge—not erase—the gaps that make us multiethnic. The multiethnic church accepts everyone as they are, wherever they are in their faith, and it strives to unite everyone through the gospel.  

This is not to say multiethnic churches look past diversity or sugarcoat it—it’s the exact opposite! The multiethnic church recognizes our differences, celebrates them, creates safe spaces to learn from one another, and accepts one another the same way Christ loves and accepts each of us. Christ accepts us in our messiness, he approaches us at the well and he heals us when everyone else shuns us. Christ even laid down his life for us.  

Christ embodies the multiethnic church. One can look at the entire ministry of Jesus and see, through his choice of people, that he sought to disciple and help a diverse—maybe even controversial—group of followers.  

Jesus wants us to be one in our belief of him and in God the Father who sent him. So, in him, through his gospel, the multiethnic church strives to unite us in faith, in our love of our Father God. Jesus prayed that his followers “may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23). 

So where does that leave churches who look around and recognize that their community of believers is not multiethnic? Does it mean they are lacking in faith? No. The composition of their church might accurately reflect their area or region. If, however, the church makeup is a direct result of discriminatory thinking, biased teaching, or certain ethnicities being welcomed in a less than friendly manner, then there clearly is a problem and the church is failing in its role as the bride of Christ. Instead, it is an exclusive social club disguised as a community of Christ believers.  

What Can Single-Ethnic Churches Do?  

So, what do we do? Look around on Sunday morning and ask yourself, “Am I a part of a diverse community of believers?” If the answer is no, ask yourself—and the leaders of your church—why. Is this intentional, unconscious, generational, or traditional exclusion? Or perhaps it isn’t exclusion at all! Maybe you’re inviting people to church, but they aren’t showing up or they aren’t returning.  

What then? I suggest you look even further. Is your worship music diverse? Are the sermons relevant to more than one group of people? If not, then the interpretation or personal-driven emphasis placed on that day’s Scripture or lesson could well indicate bias and exclusivity.  

Is the staff or leadership diverse? Some church bodies adamantly claim to be diverse and multiethnic, yet there is no diversity among those in leadership roles. Church leaders effectively are saying to the congregation (and anyone else who walks through the doors), “We accept you as an attendee and even as a member or partner, which clearly makes us multiethnic and diverse—but that is where we draw the line!”  

The key point is this: many factors may need to be addressed. Examine whether you are “doing life” only with people who look like you. Don’t just strive to live a life that is reflective of whom Christ calls you to be, but actually live it out. Step into loving people who don’t look like you and don’t live in your neighborhood, or don’t vote like you, or have the same background and alma mater as you. When you do this, then inviting a person to your church community will be a natural act and less of an unnatural recruitment. Those around you will begin to see the reflection of Christ in you, and because of you, they will seek to draw nearer to him.  

Any church that desires to be multiethnic should take a multiethnic approach to everything they do as a church community. In short, be Christlike in all your ways! 

Tokishia Dockery-Ragland serves as children’s director at Relentless Church in Garner, North Carolina.  

Christian Standard

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