“People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”
So wrote Donald MacGavran, missionary to India and father of the church growth movement. His book, Understanding Church Growth, introduced the “Homogeneous Unit Principle” (HUP) to the world in 1970. The HUP essentially argues that diversity is one of the greatest challenges or obstacles to church growth. As such, pastors and planters are encouraged to shy away from multiethnic ministry.
And that’s a problem. As pastor Mark DeYmaz has powerfully put it, “It might very well be the case that churches grow fastest when they are homogeneous. But I am not convinced they do so biblically” (90). That’s because the gospel is not just the good news that the nations can be saved. It’s the good news that the nations can be saved and worship together with a unity stronger than any diversity.
“The same command to reach the cultures of the world extends to all the cultures of America.”
By God’s grace, I believe we are witnessing the emergence of a multiethnic movement around the world. For the sake of the church and the world, this is a movement that we cannot afford to ignore. But what is a multiethnic church, exactly? And why do multiethnic churches matter?
Defining the Multiethnic Church
Sociologist Michael Emerson argues that a multiethnic church is “one in which no one racial group comprises 80 percent or more of the people.”
The late missiologist Paul Hiebert focused less on statistical composition, however, and more on the attitudes and practices of the church. He defined a multiethnic church as “a church in which there is 1) an attitude and practice of accepting people of all ethnic, class, and national origins as equal and fully participating members and ministers in the fellowship of the church, and 2) the manifestation of this attitude and practice by the involvement of people from different ethnic, social, and national communities as members in the church.”
For now, the majority of churches in the United States are ethnically homogenous. But this is changing. A study from Baylor University last year reported that multiethnic congregations are increasing in the United States. Their research states, “The percentage of multiracial congregations in the United States nearly doubled from 1998 to 2012, with about one in five American congregants attending a place of worship that is racially mixed.”
Wilcrest Baptist Church, where I have pastored since 2011, is one of those multiethnic churches. Our story did not begin this way, however.
From Monocultural to Multinational: Our Church’s Story
Wilcrest was planted in Houston in 1968, growing and thriving throughout the ’70s as a predominately white congregation in a predominately white community. Yet as the demographics of the neighborhood became more diverse, we experienced a decade of decline.
All of that changed when we called Rodney Woo as our senior pastor in 1992. Woo led the church to embrace a multiethnic vision rooted in the gospel. The journey has seen many challenges and even opposition, but also many blessings.
By the time Woo left to work with a church in Singapore in 2010, Wilcrest had become a growing, multiethnic church where diversity isn’t just celebrated in theory but seen in practice in every facet of the church’s life. Now on any given Sunday in our church, we have people from over fifty nations worshiping together.
A Biblical Vision for the Multiethnic Church
It would be easy to write off Wilcrest’s story as something unique to our context. Yet I have heard many similar stories about churches in the United States and around the world. In keeping with the findings of the Baylor report, it truly seems that God is bringing about a multiethnic church movement among the nations.
“The gospel isn’t just the good news that the nations can be saved. It’s the good news that they can be saved and worship Christ together.”
And while it’s true that the area around Houston is among the most ethnically diverse in the nation, I don’t think the demographics of a city should be what drives our multiethnic vision. We shouldn’t pursue a diverse church simply because the neighborhood is changing. Rather, a biblical vision for the multiethnic church must emerge from the gospel and the Great Commission. These are the ultimate foundation and motivation for all that we do.
God’s Multiethnic Message
We begin with God’s promise to bless the whole world through one of Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:3). Paul called this promise “the gospel” (Gal. 3:8) because he knew that in order for the gospel to be good news, it must be good news for everyone.
Paul went on to say that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the fulfillment of that promise (Gal. 3:16–18). And in the final book of the Bible, we see the conclusion of God’s promise is “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9 CSB).
In the meantime, then, a multiethnic church bears witness to God’s promise for all nations, Christ’s death for all nations, and the Spirit’s power to unite all nations in one household with one foundation (Eph. 2:14–22). Multiethnic churches are a sign of the gospel’s power.
God’s Multiethnic Mission
In addition to this, Christ commissions his followers to take this good news to all nations, that is, to all ethnē, all peoples (Matt. 28:19).
Typically we hear these words as a command to take the gospel to people among the cultures of the world. To be sure, the need to go is a vital part of Christ’s commission. But if the Lord has brought diverse peoples to our own backyards, there is no need for any debate about whether we should try to reach them. The same command to reach the cultures of the world extends to all the cultures of America.
“A biblical vision for the multiethnic church is rooted in the gospel and the Great Commission.”
In this way, the Great Commission contains the call to take the gospel to all people. This is a calling that holds true for churches Houston and New York, as well as Nairobi and Singapore. For while not every church will minister in racially diverse communities, every church can embrace the “tribes” and “peoples” in their cities by intentionally reaching across racial, economic, and cultural lines.
Diversity Isn’t the Goal, but It Is the Outcome
In all of this, the goal is not diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, the goal is faith in the gospel and faithfulness to the Great Commission. Yet that combination of faith in Christ and faithfulness to his commission cannot fail to create a diverse church. For when churches reflect the heart of God for all people, they reach out to all the people of their city. And as they reach out to all the people of their city, the gospel’s power to save all kinds of people (Rom. 1:16) creates a diverse community that celebrates its unity in Christ.
Jonathan Williams is the senior pastor of Wilcrest Baptist Church, a multiethnic congregation of more than fifty nations, located in Houston, Texas. Jonathan is also the author of Gospel Family: Cultivating Family Discipleship, Family Worship, and Family Missions. He serves as the executive director of Gospel Family Ministries and enjoys ministry with his wife and three children. He was also an IMB Journeyman from 2003–05, working with indigenous tribes in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.