It began sounding like one of those dream church planting stories.
The gospel was brought to a particular city for the first time and many people turned to Jesus. A church sprang up and began to grow quickly. It was made up of people from a few different cultural backgrounds meeting together. The church began publicly sharing the gospel as well as setting up a ministry to care for the needy among them. Problems emerged, however, when it became apparent that the dominant cultural group were discriminating against the needy of the minority culture in favour of those from their own culture. Tensions boiled into conflict.
There’s a tragic sounding story of a team of gospel workers who went to a city where the gospel had never been preached before.
It was a multi-cultural city with long standing tensions between differing ethnic groups. They began by focusing on sharing the gospel with a particular ethnic group and many began to turn to Jesus. But tensions erupted when many people from another group also began to join the church. Because of that, many who’d first shown interest in Jesus rejected the gospel and tried to destroy the Christians’ work. Their efforts would have a long term negative impact on the gospel work there.
In another city a church was founded which included people from different ethnicities who lived alongside each other but had little interaction previously.
Having their different cultures exist in one church began to cause problems. Each thought the other group’s culture was incompatible with the gospel and only their cultural ways of doing things was acceptable to God. The ongoing tension became so bad a senior Christian leader had to intervene in the life of the church.
Is it worth doing multi-ethnic church?
The three stories above are true and aren’t isolated instances. Whenever a community of believers includes people from various cultures and languages, things get messy and difficult. Because of this a much more common practice has been for different churches to be established around particular cultures and languages. In Australia this is the norm, with almost all churches really set up for English speaking Australians and other churches catering to specific ethnic minorities. If that approach is much more efficient and easier, is it worthwhile, is it wise or even right, to attempt a church for people from different cultures and languages together? I believe the Bible says it is.
All three examples I mentioned above took place in the opening years of Christianity and are found in the Bible.
The first instance took place in the very first church, the church in Jerusalem. All the converts were Jewish however there were those Jews who had retained their Hebrew culture and Jewish people who had moved from foreign countries in which they’d adopted the culture of those countries over generations. As the dominant culture in Jerusalem the Hebrew culture Jews began to favour the needy of their own community and exclude those of a different cultural background.
In the second instance the Apostles Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch to the Jewish community there and many were interested in responding to it; and if a church had been set up to cater only to them, many would’ve done so. But when many Greek people also showed an interest in the gospel and would’ve been accepted into the church too, many Jewish people turned against the message and tried to derail the Apostles’ mission. But Paul and Barnabas didn’t seem to consider it a tragedy; they simply preached to those who would listen.
And finally, The book of Romans was written to a church which, chapters 14 and 15 seem to make clear, was full of division between Jewish and Roman Christians. The division seemed based on each seeing the other’s practices as irreconcilable with the gospel of Jesus. By this stage Paul had plenty of involvement cross culturally, but he still didn’t suggest each group split into different churches to end the need for tension. He instead says that having that conflict itself is irreconcilable with the gospel, and living in response to the gospel would involve learning to live together.
The heart of the matter
Which is, I think, the heart of the matter. The difficulties of doing church across language and cultural barriers isn’t new. It isn’t a novelty of modern times, though each context will have its own particularities. But the Apostles had to face the greatest culture divide there was – that between the Jewish people who had been God’s chosen people for centuries, and the Gentiles. The thing that divided these two groups was nothing less than God’s own Law. The animosity stretched back centuries. They had a history of having nothing to do with each other, of looking down on each other.
And yet in the New Testament, not only do we have no depictions of different churches set up to cater to Jews on the one hand and Gentiles on the other; we actually have example after example of people from these opposing groups coming together through mutual trusting in Jesus and having to learn to live together. Learning to let go of the old thing that divided them and embrace the greater thing that united them – Jesus himself. For Paul, this is what Jesus came to do. Although the hostility between Jew and Gentile was specific and theological, if it has been done away with, then so have all the other hostilities dividing different cultural groups. Although it takes great thought and effort to work out what that looks like in different contexts, I believe the Bible says it’s worth it.