Growing Pains in Multi-ethnic Ministry

Part 5 in a continuing series.

Celebrating Who God Has Made Us to Be

Links to previous posts include: 

Becoming intentional in reaching a variety of cultures  

This learning experience is sometimes filled with failure. It is also filled with surprising joys and discoveries. But it starts with intentionality, taking risks, and humility.

Dr. Ken Horiuchi is a frequent visitor to our church. He is a Japanese pastor and church planter who makes frequent trips to America and our church. We have developed a partnership over the years to cooperate on evangelistic projects here, in Japan and in the Philippines. One year we sent the chaplain to the Chicago Bulls and his wife along with our youth pastor to do basketball clinics in Japan as an evangelistic outreach. Another year, we sent Michael Jordan’s mother and sister to Japan to do a book signing tour. Michael’s sister, Roslyn, a dynamic believer in Christ and a current Moody Graduate School student, would introduce her Mother. Mrs. Jordan would speak [concerning her book about raising Michael Jordan and his siblings], and then her daughter would return, sing a song and present the gospel. On this side of the partnership, we have been involved in training Japanese interns to plant churches in Japan, housing Japanese exchange students, and many other evangelistic projects.

Numerous times I asked Dr. Horiuchi if he wanted me to pick him up or take him to the airport for one of his overseas flights. Finally, after turning me down for about two years, my Japanese friend pulled me aside and told me, “In Japan, if you ask the question, it means you don’t want to do it. In my culture, you would say something like, ‘I will come and pick you up.’”

This godly servant of Christ had tolerated me essentially insulting him for two years before he told me of my cultural ignorance. Another time, I was making small talk with an elderly Filipino man. “That’s a nice looking jacket, Ed.” I was commenting on a bronze suede half coat that my friend was wearing. The next day, the jacket was gift wrapped in a box and sitting on my office desk. I did not realize how powerful the words of an American authority figure, (in this case, his pastor), were in the ears of a man whose country had been liberated by the United States armed forces in World War II.

Heart for the Community 2Early in the church’s life, we began to notice a disturbing trend. Very few African- American’s were coming to meetings outside of Sunday morning worship. There was very little participation in business meetings, training sessions or even social events. As we analyzed and questioned our members, we began to understand a number of contributing factors. One, in our area, many African-American families have dinner much later than many of our white families. Planning a meeting at 7 PM was almost a guarantee to eliminate our African-American families. Two, many blacks have had the uncomfortable experience of having white Christians disregard or discount their input in planning and strategy sessions. When you experience that enough you begin to think, “If I’m not going to be listened to, why go?”

What Lessons Did We Learn?

These experiences and many others have convinced us that the only way to become a truly multi-ethnic church is to be intentional in everything you do. It starts with a desire to truly reflect the diversity of God’s creation in the people’s of the earth. Heaven is going to be multi-ethnic. In fact, with the global movement of the majority of believers to the Southern hemisphere, heaven is going to be far more colorful than many white Christians are prepared for.[i] The multi-ethnic church must be willing to take risks that move it out of comfortable and familiar patterns of ministry. The homogeneous unit principle is a reality that needs to be recognized. People do, no matter what their color or culture, like their comfort zones.

Unless a church works to overcome people’s natural (and I would add, fallen) desire to segregate into tribal units, it will never be successful in bridging the gap between peoples. But there is a huge payoff to working at becoming a multi-ethnic church and learning from one another. We learn to value and appreciate our differences and we learn to reflect the love of Christ both to the rest of the body of Christ in our area and to the unbelieving community as well. We also experience new depths of meaning in the gospel itself.

One year I planned a weekend retreat for those in our worship ministry. We traveled to a town in the western suburbs of Chicago to get away from the busyness of ministry. Among the team was the leader of our drama ministry, an African-American woman, who had never been on a retreat of this nature. On Saturday afternoon, in a team-building exercise, I sent everyone out into the community on a scavenger hunt. Mary (not her real name), spoke of her reservations about the planned adventure. “I am uncomfortable out here. I don’t see a lot of black people in this community and I wonder how they are going to respond to me.”

Her white sister-in-Christ, seeing Mary’s anxiety, spoke words of comfort and courage, “Mary, I’ll be with you and I will lay my life down for you.” That was enough to put a glow of acceptance on the face of Mary and create an unbreakable bond of friendship. But it also showed both of them their oneness in Christ at a deeper level than either had known or guessed at before that moment.

Relationships and opportunities like that experienced by Mary and her white sister-in-Christ can only happen when we are purposeful and take risks. When we segregate ourselves into comfortable ethnic enclaves we can never get close enough to one another to hear the hurts and pains and fears that keep us apart. You can not love who you will not spend time with.

In a multi-ethnic congregation, you are always in danger of stepping on someone’s cultural toes. But that is no reason to avoid the process. It is an opportunity to learn how to express our oneness in Christ in a way that says to the world, “Something supernatural is going on here.” This otherworldly quality of our lives is supposed to be one of the defining (and attractive) characteristics and tangible proofs that we are in Christ. We have moved from darkness to light when the quality of our love is not only in word but in deed (John 13:35; 1 Thess. 5:4-5; Ephesians 5:8; James 1:19-27). This is certainly what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter to the Corinthians when he tells them they are acting like “mere men” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Pursuing multi-ethnic ministry gives occasion to lean into the Spirit for the grace to love one another despite the cultural differences we may encounter.

I want our community to see our people step out of their cars in the parking lot on Sunday morning and see a Black family meet up with a white family, an African-garbed family meet up with a Hispanic family, an Indian couple meet up with a mixed-race couple, an Asian couple and a white couple, and a group of college age or high school aged students of various ethnicities meet and greet and embrace one another with obvious love and care. I want the community at large to marvel at how different we look and how much we love one another. I want people to be stunned at the way our church family cares for special needs children and adults and come to the unmistakable conclusion that “God is with this people.” I want the reputation of New Song Church (or any church that we plant or that I would pastor) to be that we break the pattern of Sunday morning being the most segregated time of the week in American culture. I want people to see that we give more than lip service to what is carved in stone outside the front door of the church—“Starting Churches that Honor God by Developing People Who Live Passionately for and Like Christ.” That takes commitment. That takes risk-taking. That requires bold trust in the sovereignty of God and the power of the Gospel to transform lives.

[i] “In 1960, there were an estimated 50 million evangelical Christians in the West, and 25 million in the rest of the world; today, there are an estimated 75 million in the West, and 325 million in the rest of the world (representing about 20 percent of the two billion Christians worldwide), according to Robert Kilgore, chairman of the board of the missionary organization Christar.” Approximately 62 % of all Christians alive today live in the Global South. (Source:

Today’s Take-Aways:

  1. Overcoming our natural tribal tendencies for comfort is a necessary path for effective multi-ethnic ministry.

  2. Multi-ethnic ministry tells the culture at large, “Something supernatural is going on here.”

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