Gospel, Justice, and Multi-Ethnic Churches

This year I’m participating in a multi-ethnic church coaching cohort with the incomparable Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil.  During a recent conference call we discussed different models of multi-ethnic church ministry.  The mosaic model (my label) assumes a blank surface on which the diversity of God’s kingdom can be expressed.  Cultural diversity is necessary in order for the church to most fully express  and experience what God intends.  A justice model church views its purpose as representing and advocating for those most marginalized within society.  Justice is the goal, diversity is the means, and participation in this church’s mission requires a deep commitment to Christ’s love for the oppressed.

It is generally assumed that these are disparate models which, while sharing similar values, will take churches in noticeably different directions.  From my limited experience I think this is true.  However, there is more overlap between the mosaic and justice models than has been realized.  Finding these points of overlap is important as multi-ethnic churches become more widely available and sought after.

To see how these models coalesce, I begin with why multi-ethnic churches are necessary.  Simply put, these churches are a reflection of the Gospel.  Writing about the first century church, the authors of United by Faith put it this way:

…their theology informed them that God had already reconciled them across the line dividing Jews and Gentiles.  All they had to do was live according to what Christ had already done on their behalf.  When we gather together in multiracial congregations we are implementing what has already been realized through Christ’s death on a cross.

In other words, multi-ethnic churches aren’t so much strategies to accomplish reconciliation as as they are reflections of a reality that has already been accomplished through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  Of course there must be strategy and ministry that points the way to Christ’s victory, but we begin with what has already been done in order to know what is already true.

With the Gospel providing the starting point, we can now live into a reality where formerly divided people now worship together in reconciled community.  The mosaic model is helpful in this regard, illustrating the necessity of churches experiencing more of God’s design and intention through the diversity of their members.  But here we reach a serious problem that is sometimes overlooked by proponents of the mosaic model: there is no blank surface on which to build a diverse church.  In other words, the privilege and marginalization that exists within culture also exist within our churches.  It is impossible to naturally create a mosaic that benefits from God-intentioned cultural diversity without addressing societal injustices.

This is where the justice model comes in.  This model acknowledges the lack of a neutral starting point within any multi-ethnic church.  In The Elusive Dream sociologist Korie Edwards shows that most multi-ethnic churches are actually culturally white.  While the congregation may appear diverse, the white privilege of American culture is carried into church and influences its structures and values.  Attempting to create a mosaic church without first addressing the histories and cultural realities that shape American Christianity will result in a church whose reconciled community is only skin deep.

Combining the justice and mosaic models is the best opportunity for a church to experience and benefit from ethnic, racial and cultural diversity.  By repudiating the idea of a neutral starting point a church can consciously structure itself such that the marginalized are empowered and given a voice within the congregation.  This will be an uncomfortable shift for majority culutre people who are used to their (our) culture being the neutral and normal starting point.  However, by beginning with the Gospel we are freed to see and acknowledge where injustice and privilege hinders genuine reconciliation.  Acting on this knowledge, a church is best positioned to experience a genuine mosaic community.

What am I missing?  I’m especially interested to hear from those of you who with experience within multi-ethnic churches.  Do you see these two models as completely distinct approaches to ministry, or is there overlap as I believe?

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David Swanson
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville] on Chicago's South Side. He blogs often and has authored countless articles for prominent Christian publications.