It’s Time We Finally Asked: Why Multiethnic?

I’ve written before about ‘multiethnic’ and we have had several guest contributors who have also spoken to the value of diversity in churches (in all forms, not just race and ethnicity). I’ve noticed, however, that much of this conversation focuses around the ‘how’ of multiethnicity.

Amid these conversations lines get blurred. Is there a difference between multiethnic and multicultural? I want to talk about why I will be using the term multiethnic throughout this series. There is an important (and weighty) distinction to be made between ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiethnic’.

Let’s start with talking about the word ‘ethnic’. It originates from the greek word, ethnos, which  means ‘nations’. In reference to people, ethnicity can describe an individual or group of people but refers to their nation of origin .

Culture however, is a broader term that is contextually bound. Culture refers to shared ideas, customs, art, history and institutions. On a macro-level, the national culture influences how and why we have tradition, ceremony or meaning. In example: most Americans celebrate Christmas. On a micro-level culture is expressed by how each family forms traditions around Christmas. We participate in the macro culture (celebrating of Christmas) in our own micro-practices (what do you traditionally have for dinner? When do you open gifts?).

When we translate this to churches and faith a church ‘culture’ is shaped both internally and externally. We express our Western culture in our churches through whatever way we interpret theology, worship, tradition, service and community. By focusing on multiethnicity, however, we can move beyond the culturally contextual bounds in which we may interpret our faith. This step away allows a couple different ways to examine our theology and praxis around multiethnicity.

Multiethnicity connects us from ‘there’ to ‘here’

Both in the context of history, and moving toward the future, ethnicity is of high value in scripture. We see in the Old Testament God setting apart a nation for himself. He promises Abraham he will make him a father of many nations. God sets his people apart as an ethnicity and people group. Moving forward it is clear throughout scripture how the God adds nations into the line of Christ. One of my favorite passages that proclaims this is in Isaiah 46:6

he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

We see the Spirit affirm and embrace ethnicity over culture– it is ‘too small’ He says, for the Gospel to only be for Jews. In the big story of what God is doing, we are people of nations he spoke of when Jesus said in Matthew “that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  We must remember that we are part of the Church today, because of God’s value for multiethnicity. We are part of the Church today because of God’s value for multiethnicity. Click To Tweet

Multiethnicity connects us to the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world

We strive to practice the incarnation of Jesus as individuals and collectively we learn to see God in other ethnicities. Multiethnicity connects us to three distinct ways we form a bigger picture of what God is doing by painting a larger portrait of humanity and the Imago Dei as shown to us in Ephesians 2:19-22.

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

Johnson and Wu (2015) point to this passage having political, familiar and sacral implications for the body of Christ. It gives us a new citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, a new family as adoptees in Christ and reflects upon how we are a new dwelling for the Spirit (p. 61). In this passage we are given new perspective politically, socially and in sacramentally to move beyond our cultural bounds and display unity with diversity. We practice here, for what heaven will be like.

Multiethnicity gives us insight to a picture of the Kingdom

While we don’t know fully what heaven will be like we are given some glimpses of what it means. One of those is famously notable for its depiction of multiethnicity. In Revelation 7 it notes that every nation, tribe, tongue, language and people are present.

When we talk about the purpose of church being missional–an in-breaking of heaven to earth– we must not forget this is not just in what the church does, but in whom the Church is. Do our churches reflect the multitudes in heaven? We are the church in our very being. How does this being together (or not being together) impart heaven? When we strive for multiethnicity we are seeking to practice the Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.

Moving forward, we’ll break down a few of these concepts more, while looking to how multiethnicity, as a reflection of Heaven, gives us perspective theologically, socially and practically as we seek to be the Church for the now and the not yet.

Scripture taken from New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Johnson and Wu (2015). Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity in a Changing World. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, MI.
[Photo: Tom Burke, CC via Flickr]