The Challenge of Jesus’s Great Commission
The relationship between religion and ethnicity is an emerging area of academic study (Min & Kim 2002; Bramadat & Seljak 2005). The scholarly literature indicates that “a major motivation that spurs immigrants to create or join congregations composed of fellow immigrants [is to] share their ethnic backgrounds . . . traditions, customs, and languages” and reproduce or transmit ethnicity to the next generation (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000). In other words, ethnic churches seek to maintain a culture different from the broader multicultural society or denomination in which they reside because they are strongly attached to their national culture, not in the first place because of theological or biblical convictions. It is the weight given to this ethnic culture that I wish to interrogate in the essay that follows.
Our fallenness sometimes renders us incapable of grasping the scope of the new spiritual family—that it includes redeemed people from every nation
I have spent a good deal of research and ministry time considering whether ethnic churches ought to assimilate into the broader culture or preserve a distinctive cultural identity, and what role, if any, churches ought to play in promoting either assimilation or cultural preservation.
Evangelistic success ought to be one consideration in answering this question. My observation is that ethnic churches certainly tend to be successful in reaching immigrants of their own ethnicity. Ethnic churches are like midwives, helping first generation Christians move from the safety of their native culture into the culture of their new home, while helping them keep their faith. They also do a good job of nurturing faith in their children. Chinese churches, for example, establish English language congregations to “keep their kids” (the second and third generations) and to transmit faith as well as their Chinese culture.
A high percentage of these immigrant churches, however, expect their English language congregations to continue to aim their mission activities exclusively at the same immigrant groups, even when the English congregation has wider social networks. Moreover, among U.S. and Canadian Asian churches, second, third, and fourth generation Christians tend to stay in Asian-ethnic churches or move towards Pan-Asian churches rather than towards racially mixed evangelical churches. In many cases, the English Asian churches are not as multi-ethnic as their communities. In other words, after decades, many of these congregations don’t move on to a more ethnically plural ministry and evangelism. They are decidedly disinclined to evolve into non-ethnic churches or to embrace non-ethnic evangelism. These churches (and they can be of any ethnicity) function largely as culture clubs.
JESUS AND THE CHURCH
I find it instructive to consider how Christ started the new era of the church. He did so with an inclusive idea of who the new family of God would embrace. The scriptures tell us that every human being bears God’s image and is therefore eternally valuable to him (Gen. 1:27). The world and every race in it was so precious in the Creator’s eyes that he gave them his only Son (Jn. 3:16). We are wise to embrace the Lord’s opinion and the priority he puts on “the world.”
Our fallenness sometimes renders us incapable of grasping the scope of the new spiritual family—that it includes redeemed people from every nation. The ancient Hebrews frequently sought to keep their faith to themselves. Yet, as Isaiah says, God intended them to be a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6). While the Bible reports that non-Hebrews occasionally came to faith, God judged Israel, in part, because of its refusal to welcome foreigners (e.g., Mal. 3:1–5; Zech. 7:10–14).
The earliest Christian church was ethnically Jewish, and there is evidence that Jewish Christians had trouble accepting people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds as spiritual brothers and sisters. Locally born Jews were even cold toward Jews born abroad (Acts 6:1; cf. Acts 2:5a). We also find Jewish Christians resisting the mission to different people groups. In Acts 10:9–48, Peter struggled with the Holy Spirit over associating with those not of his race—Cornelius (of the Italian Regiment) and other Gentiles. But in obeying the Holy Spirit he witnessed the outpouring of God’s presence: “. . . I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right . . . Jesus Christ . . . is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34). Even so, Acts 11 notes that the Jewish Christian church criticized Peter for focusing gospel initiatives outside their race.
1. The Lord gave the Great Commission to an ethnic group of Jewish men
Had Jesus not challenged his followers to implement his vision to reach the nations? Consider the Lord’s words in Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” They were to begin amongst their own, but it wasn’t to stop there: “. . . Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria . . . the utter most parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Despite the fact that Jesus had clearly laid out the logic of the gospel, that it was to be spread to every nation, many in the first generation Jerusalem church were reluctant to evangelize people of other nationalities. Only a few showed any enthusiasm for reaching other races and cultures with the gospel.
2. The Lord intervened to call out individuals of the first-generation ethnic church
If not for God’s direct intervention (e.g., Peter’s vision, Paul’s calling), one wonders what he would have had to do to mobilize the church into world evangelism. We do know that two persecutions (40 A.D. and 70 A.D.) forcibly scattered Jewish Christians from Jerusalem to dwell in geographical areas that were more multi-ethnic. But Paul found himself challenging his own ethnic family for keeping the gospel ethnic instead of sharing it with other ethnic groups. On more than one occasion Paul felt compelled to tell the church that the Lord has made all of the redeemed one in his family. Consider these verses from his letter to the Ephesians: “. . . made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (2:13-14); “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (2:15b-17); the Gentiles are heirs, sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ (3:6); Christ is the head of this new body (4:15-16).
Paul found himself having to confront those of his own ethnicity for being ethnocentric, showing prejudice in mission, evangelism, and even for giving different treatment to Christians who did not share the Jewish ethnicity (Gal. 1:7-10; 2:11-16). He called Peter to task for behaving as if one race was better than another and for dividing the church (Gal. 2:13a). Separating from Gentile Christians for table fellowship canceled out all that Peter and Paul had preached to those of a different ethnicity—that the gospel was for all, and all become one and equal in the family of God. Paul did not hesitate to label the second class treatment of ethnic Christians as hypocritical and inconsistent with the gospel (2:13). He did not let Peter save face but acted on the conviction that Jesus is the bridge that overcomes division.
Paul had to remind the Jewish Christian church that “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In John 10:16 Jesus spoke of others not yet reached with the gospel, and it is the Lord’s intention that we cooperate with him in bringing together a body that will have many parts baptized by one Spirit. And Paul interjects that this body will be racially and culturally diverse (1 Cor. 12-13). For a Christian to feel ethnically superior is sin (Phil. 2:1–8). God may require religious segregation (separation from unbelievers), but never racial.
Sure, Paul was mindful that his evangelism would have his ethnic group as its starting point—“to the Jew first . . .” (Acts 19:8–10; 26:20)—but he didn’t stop there. He then took the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s encouraging to hear reports of Korean missionaries who have that same mindset and go to Africa or Canada to do cross-cultural outreach in malls and campuses.
3. The church moved from being an ethnic enclave to crossing cultural and ethnic boundaries
Sometimes it helps to know what we are supposed to do by seeing a vision of where we are going. Revelation 5:9–10 and 7:9 provide us with a picture of the whole family of God singing and worshipping before the Living God Almighty—it is a multicultural, multiracial group praising God “. . . from every tribe and language and people and nation standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” How can heaven be so racially diverse? In part, because of the obedience of Christians to move out of their comfort zone to reach others who are racially, ethnically, culturally, and nationally diverse.
The will of God is that all the redeemed would be one on earth as they will be in heaven (John 17:22). Isaiah said that the desire of God was that his church be a “house of prayer for all nations” (56:7). Mark 11:17–18 tells us that when Jesus used Isaiah’s quote the religious leaders feared him—they wanted nothing to do with nations like this, and so they looked for a way to kill him.
ETHNIC CHURCHES AND CROSS-CULTURAL OUTREACH
So how do you bring a people so invested in their cultural identity to begin to invest in cross-cultural/intercultural outreach? We need to do a better job of teaching our people that God loves the world—not just our own ethnicity, but every nation. Let’s be certain our mission is biblically based, grounded in the Great Commission. We would be wise to grasp the reality that our new eternal identity is to be found in this multi-ethnic global family of God.
But it is one thing to talk about these truths and another to put them into practice. Is your church even comfortable with multicultural expressions manifested within its particular ethnic/demographic context? One significant way an ethnic bi-cultural church can encourage the application of Jesus’s Great Commission is to release, resource, and affirm its English congregations to do mission in ways that are authentic for them. The cultural and multi-ethnic networks of those in an English congregation of an ethnic church tend to straddle two cultures. This should be acknowledged, addressed, nurtured, and commissioned.
We are called to obey the Lord in this area and work for unity in the body of Christ to advance Christ’s kingdom where there are no barriers of race or culture. This being the case, no ethnic church is excused from Jesus’s Great Commission to reach all nations. In fact within our bi-cultural ethnic churches, those that have English-speaking bilingual congregations, the capacity for evangelism may be even greater to do both ethnic and multiethnic outreach because of the scope of transnational social networks.
Scripture tells us that heaven will be multi-racial and multi-cultural. We should conceive of ethnic churches as the beginning, not the end, of God’s vision for his church. If Christ commanded his own Jewish ethnic followers to make disciples of all nations, no Christian individual or church is exempt from the Great Commission today. So who is going to do this? It’s supposed to be us!
- Bramadat, Paul, and David Seljak. 2005. Religion and Ethnicity in Canada. Toronto: Pearson Education.
- Ebaugh, Helen Rose, and Janety S. Chafetz. 2000. Religion and the New Immigrants. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Min, Pyong Gap, and Jung Ha Kim, eds. 2001. Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.