Do we need more monocultural churches?
According to Tom Steers in a CT opinion piece, yes. Despite the fact that we live in an increasingly multicultural world, and despite his recognition that multiculturalism might fit better with the vision of unity Jesus presented in John 17, he still thinks that monocultural churches have an important role to play in the world today.
I have been ministering with people of Asian descent for over three decades, and the variety of people groups coming to the U.S. is expanding exponentially. Today we see thousands of newly-arrived people groups that we never dreamed would be in the U.S.—Mongolians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Bangladeshis. From Laos, we have Hmong, Mien, Tai Dam, and Khmu groups. From persecution in Myanmar have come Karen, Mon, and Chin groups. Refugees from Bhutan, mostly Hindu, are presently being accepted into the U.S. at 15,000 per year for four years.
To ask that each of these groups assimilate to one another or to multiethnic congregations—at the same time they are trying to assimilate into U.S. culture—is unrealistic. And it’s not just new immigrants who have unique and particular needs that the gospel can address in culturally specific ways. Most often the 1.5, second, or third generation offspring desire high ethnic identity ministries.
All such outreach needs to be done with wisdom and particular cultural sensitivity. Pioneer workers setting up new works with these people groups must ask, How is the Good News to be communicated for each cultural group? How can the Good News flow to these families and their friends, and even back to families and friends in the country of birth?
He is fully aware of the potential for abuse that exists in a monocultural church (pride, alienation, segregation, etc.), but he argues that we can find a healthy balance that allows us to minister the Gospel to these cultural groups without falling prey to the dark side of racial and ethnic division.
So, he concludes.
Neither multicultural nor monocultural ministry is the answer to our salad bowl society. Let us not idealize either, but only the kingdom of God. In Scripture we have examples of both monocultural ministry (Jesus) and multicultural ministry (some churches founded by Paul). Every person and every group has dignity and validity no matter their ethnic, social, political, or economic roots—and whether they gather mono or multi. And, in the end, every people group will be represented in heaven (Rev. 5:9–10).
To the extent that Steers is pressing us to recognize the central importance of the Gospel in Christian ministry, I can appreciate what he’s saying. Our priority here has to be the ministry of the Gospel. If some groups can be reached more effectively through a monocultural ministry, then that is something that we need to consider.
nonetheless, I think his argument goes astray in (at least) three places. First, he doesn’t want to see this as a purely pragmatic argument (probably because he doesn’t want to be labeled as just another church growth theorist). Instead, he finds biblical support in Jesus’ monocultural ministry. If Jesus can do it that way, so can we. But he does not address the important redemptive-historical differences between Jesus’ ministry to Israel and the church’s ministry to the world. Simply to draw parallels from one to the other is unfortunate at best. At bottom, then, this is a purely pragmatic argument; monocultural churches will reach some cultural groups more effectively. And, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this argument. Let’s just recognize it for what it is.
Second, I’d have been more comfortable with this argument if he had located individual communities within the larger body of Christ. If a particular worshiping community chooses to express its Christian identity in culturally focused ways, then it’s all the more important that it be vitally engaged with other worshiping communities. Unfortunately, like many evangelicals today, his focus remains largely on the isolated community.
Third, I would have also liked to see more of an emphasis on growing these communities toward being more diverse expressions of Christ’s body. Starting a monocultural church for the purpose of reaching a particular community is one thing. Remaining intentionally monocultural indefinitely seems necessarily to run afoul of the racial and ethnic divisiveness that Steers thinks we can avoid.
But, I also want to suggest that people who attend largely monocultural evangelical churches (like mine) should be careful about criticizing an argument like this too strongly. You wouldn’t want to rock the boat that you’re sitting in.