Ethnic Churches in America: A Conversation

What follows is a redacted and partial transcript of the conversations that transpired on Facebook after I shared my initial provisional thoughts about ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts. Many thanks to my main conversation partners: Clark Fobes and Daniel Eng.

WARNING: Don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing. Hopefully the question headings I recently inserted might prove helpful for navigating the discussion.

Are Ethnic Churches Legitimate?

Clark Fobes IV This was a question I was mulling over while sitting in the workshop too. I’d be curious to see your thoughts in the future on your concluding statement about ethnic churches. Being at one myself, I’ve felt that it’s actually limiting to the mission of God rather than helpful. It tends to give us an excuse to stay comfortably in our ethnic bubbles, and limits us from reaching those in our work places and circles who are not ethnically like us. I think it could be different in a mission context like China where the Gospel has yet to break into people groups, and there is a need for a truly indigenous church there. But considering the diversity we share in America, and the common language we function within, I find it difficult to argue for the maintaining of ethnic churches. I for one would prefer my church to not be Chinese, except for reaching the Chinese speaking in our neighbourhood (which I think our Canto congregation is doing well). But our English congregation cannot hold our Chinese allegiance higher than our Christ allegiance.

Andrew Ong Here’s a question for you: Are you against maintaining ethnic churches more out of principle or more for pragmatic reasons?

Clark Fobes IV @Andrew I’m against it for both reasons. Principle because of the theological vision of Scripture in the unity of all God’s people. Pragmatic because it hinders both our mission and our experience of the power of the Gospel. This was something Janet and I felt heavily at our old church in SoCal. It was predominantly Asian-American, 18-30yo church. We were reaching out to her coworkers in Hollywood who were neither Asian nor in their 20s. I was reaching out to my neighbours in Anaheim, and in both cases, we could rarely get them to come to our church because of the racial and generational homogeneity. But I also started to feel that when our church talked about unity, it was a very easy unity because everyone was the same. We frankly didn’t need to cling to the Gospel for our unity, because we could cling to our culture and preferences which we shared 99% of the time.

Can the Distinction Between the Local Church & Parachurch Ministry Clarify the Discussion?

Daniel K. Eng This is an open question, not just for Clark/Andrew. I hear this line of reasoning a lot– the ethnic specific model is good for “breaking into people groups,” as in evangelism. But somehow there seems to be less legitimacy assigned to ethnic-specific discipleship. Where is the line between the two, and where does the thinking come from?

Daniel K. Eng @Clark, if we replaced the word “ethnic” in your honest statements above, and replaced it with…say…”age-specific” or “gender-specific” and we were talking about a youth group or a men’s group, would you feel the same way?

Andrew Ong I imagine Clark might differentiate between ministries within local churches and local churches here.

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew Yes, that’s the most common response I get. To me, it seems like an arbitrary line to draw, because it seems artificial. They are all expressions of the body of Christ, aren’t they? I openly wonder if the weakening of the denominational structure makes a local church the “be all end all.”

Andrew Ong Ah, that’s interesting. Perhaps it’s coming down to how we define a “church.” Out of curiosity, would you say that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is just as much a church or a church in the same way that Evergreen Baptist Church is?

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew The more I read the New Testament, the more I’m less convinced about what a church is and is not.

Andrew Ong lol, maybe it’s my Reformed leaning that’s coming out, but I do still think there is something to be said for the institutional dimensions of the church, such as the ordination of ministers and the administration of the sacraments.

Clark Fobes IV @Daniel – Good to hear from you! I do believe age specific ministries have a place, but they should not be separate either. I am part of a ministry called Rooted, a partner of TGC, and one of our core values is integrating youth into the whole life of the church. Gender I do see differently, given the emotional boundaries required in discipleship, as well as various needs and issues to be addressed by gender. That being said, I get your point when you talk about discipleship between those of the same ethnicity. I definitely feel more comfortable being mentored by an Asian pastor rather than a non-Asian. But that could also be part of my own comforts and difficulties to lay down my cultural preferences.

Clark Fobes IV @Andrew/@Daniel This is a totally different discussion haha, but the more I read Scripture, the more I’m actually convinced that a local church without the denominational structure and accountability is like a Christian without the local church structure and accountability. Again, this is both out of principle and for pragmatic reasons (my church is non-denominational, and though churches like the freedom of calling their own shots, there have been way more times where being part of denomination would’ve helped us, rather than hinder us).

Daniel K. Eng @Clark Thanks Clark. I totally agree that “they should not be separate.”

Joey Wang‘s example [joint worship (Easter) services with a predominantly Indian church] is so heart-warming to me. It shows how a demographic-specific ministry can still make sure that it’s not the only thing.

Clark Fobes IV @Daniel Yeah I could see that kind of church partnership as a legitimate means of maintaining ethnic churches to an extent, and yet not being isolated by our culture.

Daniel K. Eng @Clark perhaps conferences and denominations too?

How Might Our Eschatology Shape Our Understanding of Ethnic Churches?

Andrew Ong “While ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts can become misguided and fall short of their ideal or eschatological goal (as all churches do), they remain a faithful and legitimate part of the Spirit’s foreordained and united, yet diverse, missional work in this present age.”

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew Can you unpack “eschatological goal”? I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to hear more.

Andrew Ong By “eschatological goal” I just mean the eschatological vision of the church as being composed of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. We know that the church is supposed to look like that because we have that vision from Revelation.

Daniel K. Eng Ok, I’ve heard this line of thinking, but I’ve never really made the connection between a local church body and John’s vision of the multitude in Revelation 7:9-10.

Daniel K. Eng To me, a few assumptions would need to be substantiated, and I haven’t seen anything compelling. For example, what connects this vision to a local church? Or, is this even a vision of the entire body of Christ? Is there a mandate associated with Revelation 7:9-10? What about the passage directly preceding, about the 144,000 sealed for ministry?

Andrew Ong I think the reasoning is: Rev 7 gives us a vision of the universal church, which reflects the whole demographic of the universe, and local churches should also reflect their local demographics.

You’re right that there is no mandate, but I think the “gospel-unity logic” is a powerful argument. Especially since the early Christians were countercultural and effectively witnessed to the world by reaching out to those on the margins, or those who were very much “other.”

Daniel K. Eng So, as I am understanding the logic:

  1. Revelation 7:9-10 is a vision of the universal church.
  2. Since it is a vision of the universal church, every local church must reflect this in the present day.

If the logic is to be followed, both of these claims should be substantiated somehow. So I ask these questions. But I never really get a step-by-step logical answer about how these conclusions are reached.

Andrew Ong @Daniel I might qualify #2 and say that every local church must strive* to reflect.

Daniel K. Eng By the way, premise #1 is incompatible with a pre-millenial, pre-tribulation rapture. Here are my thoughts about the usage of this passage, I wrote this a while back.

Andrew Ong Good stuff. I don’t personally hold to a pre-mill, pre-trib rapture, but that’s a good point for those who would use this passage to reject ethnic churches and still want to be pre-mill, pre-trib.

Daniel K. Eng  Another assumption that is often unspoken, in my experience, is that the vision of the multitude is that it is a melting pot instead of a tossed salad.

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew The point I’m trying to make is that we have so many unanswered questions about Revelation as it is. Can we really assume all of these things and then make it an airtight ecclesiology?

Andrew Ong Another good point. I guess the contested nature of eschatology should make me more reticent about this. This is helpful.

Daniel K. Eng I’m always open to having this same conversation. I feel that the unity of the body of Christ is at stake, because what seems to happen is that lines are drawn in the sand.

What’s More Divisive? Promoting Ethnic Churches that Target Specific People or Promoting Multi-ethnic Churches with the Belief that Ethnic Churches are Unbiblical or Inferior?

Daniel K. Eng The whole spirit of what is a “legitimate” church or what is a “biblical” church can cause divisions. “Your church isn’t legitimate, so I won’t associate with it.” I’ve heard about a respected evangelical pastor who refused a speaking engagement with a campus ministry. He said it was his policy not to speak at ethnic-specific ministries. It made me grieve about the divisive attitude it reflects.

Andrew Ong Oh wow. That’s interesting. I still think there’s merit in the discussion of what a “biblical” church is, as long as we acknowledge that no church is completely “biblical.”

Daniel K. Eng Well, put that way, I do agree. It’s more that “my church is biblical, yours is not.”

I’ve been accused of “segregating the body of Christ” before, which is hurtful for a minority to hear, especially since the word “segregation” is a loaded term in America with connotations that are unfair to associate with the ethnic-specific church. My usual response is inviting them to come, or having our fellowships get together for a mixer. Guess how many of my invitations were accepted.

Andrew Ong Yea, I’m totally with you there.

I think I still lean, though less now thanks to you, toward the belief that the “ideal” local church in addition to being filled with a bunch of people who never sin will reflect the diversity of its community demographics.

In this present age, however, I think diversity is something to strive for.

Maybe another way of looking at this is the question: “Who is our local church for?” And if our church is God’s church, just like the consummate eschatological church (even if we keep Revelation 7 aside, I am convinced of the global diversity of the consummate church at the end of the age), then our local church should be for everyone around us.

Daniel K. Eng I appreciate and agree mostly with what you just posted here.

Regarding the demographics of the local community view: Wouldn’t that make a local church neighbourhood-specific just like a Chinese church is ethnic-specific? Why is one way of categorizing any different (or better) than another?

Andrew Ong So in other words, “Why is prioritizing geography more legit than prioritizing ethnicity?” Great question.

Andrew Ong I think this brings out the complexities of how churches actually operate on the ground. Most Chinese churches won’t say they refuse to minister to non-Chinese. Rather they say, that they are specifically trying to reach Chinese. I guess the question is: Is that acceptable? Should all churches target particular groups? Is it just a matter of mission strategy? Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, McGavran and the homogeneous unit principle would’ve supported this on a sociological level, but I still do think there is something to be said for striving to pursue those who are different from us, while simultaneously capitalizing on the relationships that happen to come more easily to us.

Daniel K. Eng Don’t we do this along doctrinal lines? (I’m not selling my evangelical soul here.)

Daniel K. Eng Don’t we implicitly include and exclude based on beliefs? or music style? or even ministry strategy?

Andrew Ong I think that word “implicit” is key.

Andrew Ong But being called “Chinese Baptist Church” seems to be more explicit, or saying that your mission statement is “to reach Chinese in the Bay Area for Christ” also seems to be explicit.

Daniel K. Eng Oh, totally! every word in a church’s name is, by definition, limiting. And every sentence in a mission statement.

Daniel K. Eng Going back to my question earlier. I’m not that familiar with the HUP. It just seems to me like every church is exclusive. And every church is — wait for it — homogeneous. A church with a lot of different ethnicities ends up that way because it attracts people who want to be with other ethnicities in church. They want to be comfortable (gasp), to be around like-minded people.

Andrew Ong Yeah, I don’t question that, but I do question if that should be something to strive for and accept.

Might the New Testament Churches Allow Distinct Local Churches Based on Geography, but Disallow Distinct Local Churches Based on Ethnicity?

Andrew Ong @Daniel, out of curiosity, would you agree, at least on a descriptive level, that the New Testament local churches appeared to be based more on location than ethnicity?

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew Yes and no. Early churches met in homes, Greco-Roman public places, and even local synagogues. The question is first made complex by the fact that synagogues were situated in Jewish “neighbourhoods” especially in the Diaspora. After all, they had to live within walking distance in order to attend, especially on the Sabbath.

Another complex issue would arise if an individual makes a decision to follow Jesus. One would think that they would be part of a small worshipping community with the person(s) who they had associated with through the conversion process. In other words, it’s not as though one decided to become a believer, then looked for a church, asking “where is my neighbourhood house church?” It was much more likely that it all just happened, making it probable that some people associated with communities that weren’t necessarily the one closest to them.

Daniel K. Eng Regarding: being descriptive, there really is no indication of location in the text beyond the city level. And the pattern of the New Testament is that a “church” as designated by the epistles was actually all the believers in the city. — a plurality of churches, some meeting in homes.

Regarding the Jerusalem church, it really does depend on which point in time. At Pentecost, right after the Spirit arrives, it is all Jewish. Remarkably, they are actually Jewish people from all over and not just local Jews, because many were there for the feast. So, suddenly, how “local” is it really? As we read further in Acts, we start to see factions between the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews, eventually prompting the appointing of deacons. It is later that Gentiles are in the picture, which prompts the Jerusalem Council. In the end, though, we cannot be sure if the references to “church” refer to one body under one roof or an example of much of the NT churches, which is a plurality of house churches.

Daniel K. Eng It’d be interesting to see how many Americans actually attend the church closest to their home.

“Consumerism” is a word often thrown around because, let’s face it, people can choose the church they want to be involved in. And people ultimately choose a church because they’re comfortable. Maybe they’re comfortable with the music style, maybe they’re comfortable with the commitment to missions, maybe they’re comfortable with other people who (like them) want to be in a multi-ethnic church. Even if it’s close to their house, that means they’re comfortable with the location, or length of commute. “Consumerism” and “being comfortable” cuts both ways.

What is often behind the finger-wagging accusation of church “consumerism,” really, is the notion that some reasons for choosing a church are okay, and some are not. That’s really the issue. It’s labeled as consumerism when someone condemns it as self-seeking. In the end, it’s all consumerism. You want something (convenience, like-minded people, a place to use your gifts) and you look around for it.

Andrew Ong I think a distinction needs to be made in this discussion of what often and actually happens (homogeneity), and what churches/church leaders should strive for. A distinction between is and ought.

Is being a church that ministers across a diversity of ethnic lines something that local churches should strive for? And if it is, then is it possible that being an “ethnic church” would be an obstacle to that mission?

Others questions that need to be raised are: “What is an ethnic church? And what are its purposes, especially English-speaking ethnic churches?”

It’s true people choose which church they will “consume,” but surely you’d agree that there are good reasons/motives and bad reasons/motives for choosing a church, right? As responsible church leaders, I doubt any of us sit idly by and let people choose churches that have the best donuts, the most attractive young singles, and also preach the prosperity gospel.

The complexity of this discussion is that the decision to attend an ethnic church for the very reason that it is an ethnic church isn’t always out of all good reasons/motives nor all bad reasons/motives. For this reason, I have difficulty calling an ethnic church unbiblical or unfaithful or illegitimate. Still, it is also my conviction that every local church should strive to holistically minister across socioeconomic and ethnic lines in its community and in the world as best as they can.

And for the record, I don’t think English-speaking ethnic churches inevitably fall any shorter of that ideal than most English-speaking non-ethnic churches.

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew You’re hitting at the crux of the descriptive/prescriptive issue. We see a myriad of church models described in Scripture. Even the Jerusalem church, as we discuss above, looked different at different times. So which, if any, are prescriptive/paradigmatic, and what criteria is used to determine? The problem I often see is when this process happens: 1) someone has an idea of what they themselves prefer churches to look like, then 2) look for an example of it in Scripture and 3) elevate that church model up as the model that all churches should strive for. This is my argument with Revelation 7. We don’t even know if a church is in view! These are classic cases of eisegesis and letting the ends determine the hermeneutic. And so in these conversations, I tend to ask, “what steps did you take to come to that conclusion?” At that point I usually get stonewalled and accused of all sorts of unfair things.

Yes, as a pastor I see people have different motives for choosing a church. That’s not the issue. The issue is that people hypocritically say that choosing a church in itself is wrong, when everyone, including them, chooses. What they really mean, is that “my reason for choosing a church is better than yours.”

I think they assume a priori that choosing an ethnic church is always wrong, and they spew out “why do you want to be comfortable” when everyone chooses a church based on comfort. Or “why do you want to divide up the body of Christ?” when every church by the same criteria (culture, doctrine, demographics, location) “divides” up the body of Christ.

Your conviction that “every church strives to minister across socioeconomic and ethnic lines” is great. (And it happens to fit nicely with what is currently being applauded in America, namely what is politically correct. I’m not saying that’s your motivation, just an observation.) I don’t think there’s a question that it should be happening in the universal Church at large, but I am hard-pressed to make an absolute statement about each local body.

We need to distinguish between what the universal church ought to do and what each local body ought to do. Is it possible that each local church has a distinct part to play in the mission of the universal church, just like every church member has different gifts to bring to their local body? These are the questions I am asking.

The problem arises when folks take their convictions for themselves and/or their own local body and go hunting in the Bible for justification, find a description, and make blanket statements about every local body. I’m not saying that you’re doing that.

Andrew Ong 1. Yes, you’ve very much chastened the ecclesiological implications I once gleaned from Rev 7 for the local church. Thank you for that. And I understand the challenge of moving from descriptive diversity toward prescriptive unity. At the same time, I do read Acts with the Jew-Gentile theme in mind, and with great sympathy toward the argument that Paul would have shuddered at the notion of having a separate Jewish local church and a separate Gentile one. Though, as you mentioned before, the times were different, house churches were in effect, and all of them seemed to come under the umbrella of the Church in [fill city in the blank], I wonder, regardless of how homogenous they might have been, if their stated goal and intention was anything more specific than ministering to as many people as they could.

  1. I am sympathetic toward your concern of finger-wagging. And I definitely don’t think that “choosing a church is wrong.” However, I do think that there is a sense in which we can say on certain ground that certain reasons for choosing a church are better than others. As I mentioned before though, I think the reasons for choosing an ethnic church vary. There are both good reasons and bad reasons for doing so, I believe.
  2. I understand that I am a creature shaped by my post-Civil Rights context. That’s fair. But I also think the impulse to minister across socially-dividing lines in the church is an important Biblical principle that should apply to the local church even if not in the exact same way it applies to the universal church. I understand your hesitance to apply everything we say about the universal church to the local church, but I guess the difference between us is that I would prefer to see a greater sense of continuity (i cant think of the best word for this) between the universal church’s goals and actions as the local church’s.

Perhaps this difference demonstrates that some people are more open or agnostic about ecclesiology than others and that we’re all on a spectrum. It seems like you have a more open ecclesiology and see less structure and specified responsibility for the local church than I do. That’s okay with me. We both come from different places theologically, and our theologies influence our readings of Scripture, which turn back and influence our theologies of the church.

Still, I’m very sympathetic to the point you’re making. I think a lot of people who push for multi-ethnic churches would say, “How can ethnic local churches genuinely say that they are making disciples of all the nations?” To that I would respond (and I believe you would respond with me): “Well, is making disciples of the Chinese in Los Angeles really not making disciples of all nations?” It’s definitely part of it! So the question really comes down to what does it mean for each local church to make disciples of all the nations, and what people are they accountable for?

Or maybe I could put it like this:

Has God made all local churches accountable to all nations? Or are the leaders of local churches free to decide how they will make disciples of all nations, even if it includes focusing on certain kinds of people (based on culture, location, ethnicity)? I wonder if maybe this doesn’t need to be framed as an either/or. It seems to me that the answer to both questions is yes. It also seems to me that the first question is a question of principle, while the second question is a practical and strategic question that must be asked in in real-life ministry. The first question seems to focus on what* the universal church and local churches are to strive for, while the second seems to focus on how*.

  1. I also really like the last question that you mentioned: Is it possible that each local church has a distinct part to play in the mission of the universal church, just like every church member has different gifts to bring to their local body?

I would definitely agree that each local church has a distinct part to play in the mission of the universal church. God definitely appears to use churches differently to reach different kinds of people. To me, it seems like he does in fact uses ethnic churches to reach people in that ethnic group. But I also wonder if just because God uses a certain local church to play a certain part, then does that necessarily mean that they are not called to do more? I think this is where I’d come back to my ought vs. is distinction. Is it wrong to say that local churches ought to minister to all people in some analogous way to how the universal church ought to minister to all people?

And I guess this brings us back to the question: “*In what way* is the ethnic church NOT ministering to all people, as the universal church is called to do?” On the one hand, those who push against ethnic churches would say that ethnic churches are not striving to minister to all people by virtue of their focus on specific ethnic people. On the other hand, those who accept ethnic churches would say that ethnic churches are part of the universal church ministering to all people.

So now: Is the ethnic church evidence of church disunity or is it evidence of the beautiful transcultural nature of the Christian faith? In a fallen world that is being saved and will be finally saved by Christ, the answer is probably both, right?

Thanks for challenging me and helping me to think this through. It’s been a great conversation, and I very much value your thoughts.

Daniel K. Eng @Andrew I love it…Thanks for putting up with my pushback-questions, where I don’t necessarily show my cards, just challenging assumptions that people make.

If I were writing what you wrote above, I’d amend “that they are not meant to do more” to “that they are not meant to do something else.” Let me explain.

Consider that you and I are part of a group putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle. We have the end goal in mind, but we each have different roles to play in putting it together. Let’s say I have the task of gathering all the pieces of one color and working on *that small part* of the puzzle. Let’s say you have the task of gathering all the “edge pieces” of the puzzle and putting boundaries on it. Each of us may decide to change our approach to how we contribute to the puzzle, but ultimately we choose it at the expense of another approach. In the end, we finish our puzzle.

The statement “they are not meant to do more” implies some sort of deficiency of a ministry approach. This is the notion that the air of superiority often comes from.

I’d prefer to see it as one approach that makes me have to give a back seat to another approach, hence “they are not meant to do something else.” If I am spending a lot of time providing contextualized discipleship to the poor artist community in the suburbs of New Orleans, I am spending less time evangelizing to the homeless people in the center of the city. If I then decide to shift my emphasis, I have to spend less energy on the first endeavor. If we talk more about social justice, we talk less about tithing. So It’s not a matter of more or less, it’s a matter of what my ministry emphasizes at the moment.

Andrew Ong I think that’s a fair way to describe our different approaches to the question.

I also strongly agree that a ministry must and will inevitably emphasize something.

I imagine, though, that people with a less open ecclesiology would say that certain principles should guide and limit our ministries’ emphases. (By ministry emphases, I primarily refer to the question of “who will our local church strive to reach with the gospel”).

I imagine that people who push against ethnic churches would argue that local church ministries should not emphasize ministry to single ethnic groups if their churches are in multi-ethnic local contexts. They would argue that ministry emphases’ can be limited by some things, like location, but should not be limited by other things, like ethnicity, age, or political opinions.

I guess this goes back to the location-specific vs. ethnic-specific question. Is one truly more legitimate/biblical than the other? You’ve definitely challenged me to move away from absolutely prioritizing location-specific over ethnic-specific, but for some reason that I can’t quite argue or articulate, I still lean toward the location-specific as it seems more inclusive and in line with the biblical principle of unity as I understand it.

Maybe this is where the argument is. Location-specific vs ethnic-specific. How are these different or the same? It seems like location-specific is a very practical matter that can’t be gotten around. Most people would agree that a church in LA shouldn’t preoccupy itself with ministering to a NY people group. As for ethnic churches, it is practical in a different way. In one sense, it’s the same as the LA-NY analogy in that just as a church in LA can more practically minister to people in LA than NY, a Chinese church can more practically minister to Chinese people than Koreans (though I’m sure one could counter-argue that a church filled with Chinese people could just as well minister to Koreans as Chinese people, and that doing so would be good for both the Koreans and Chinese). But it’s not as though Chinese churches can’t minister to Koreans in the same way that LA churches can’t minister to NYers. For the Chinese church, it’s a choice. They could very well minister to Koreans and Mexicans and Indians, but they choose not to (at least not specifically or explicitly, since I’m sure Koreans..etc are not kicked out of the church for not being Chinese). I doubt everyone would agree that a Chinese church should NOT preoccupy itself with ministering to non-Chinese people.

What do you think?

Maybe this whole discussion is futile because all church leaders, no matter who their hearts are seeking to reach, are in churches that do not minister to everyone that they’d like to reach.

Hmmm, or maybe we’re conceiving of ministry emphases differently. One way of putting it is the question I wrote above: “Who will our local church strive to reach with the gospel?” To me that answer is: everyone and as many as possible! But another way is: “Who is here and who is coming? How should we minister to them and the people they will bring? And how does this shape our church’s ministry emphasis?” For this latter question, the answer could very well be: Chinese people are here and coming, and we should minister to them in a way that is contextually relevant, hence we should be more of a church for Chinese people, a Chinese church in fact.

Perhaps I’m thinking more along the lines of the former, and you are thinking more along the latter?

The problem with the first one is that it pays little to no attention with context and the way it informs a philosophy of ministry and the specific choices that have to be made in terms. The problem with the second one is that its attention to context almost makes it exclusive. Hmm, wow…this is deeper than I’ve ever gone into this conversation. What do you think?

What Kind of Witness Will Ethnic Churches vs. Multi-ethnic Churches Bear to their Local Communities?

Clark Fobes IV @Daniel – I think a big issue for not being multiethnic, nor even striving to be or thinking about it, is that it incredibly hurts and hinders the church’s witness in the very diverse world that America is. I think it’s ideal to say that we all work on our own pieces of the puzzle, you go to your corner with Chinese Americans, I’ll go to mine with Whites/Koreans, etc., and we all reach people. But the problem is the world doesn’t work that way – and Scripture also calls for a higher level of unity than simply co-existing in the mission (I’m thinking of Ephesians 2:11-20 specifically). Our church members interact in a diverse world, they work with other races and demographics. So to say we are only going to focus on one type of person is incredibly limiting, and already tells (whether explicitly or implicitly) our church members to exclude certain people in their work/interactions, from the Gospel. We can still have conversations with them, but to say our church is not for you pretty much stops any hope of follow up and for making disciples outside our cultural bubbles.

Additionally, I think it’s harmful for the church members themselves. It causes us to be so culturally ignorant that we are blind to our own culture’s sins and weakspots. I think what you say about everyone being multi-cultural is true in a sense, but it actually reinforces the cultural biases we have. I grew up multi-cultural, not from a background sense of the term, but a racial sense of the term, and this constantly led me to question where do I fit in? I didn’t fit in the Chinese church or the Korean church. I stuck it out because I believed in what those churches were doing which I was apart of, but I watched countless other friends leave the church or be hurt because the local church was too culturally ignorant to recognize there are people who are different, racially, there. Sure, you could say that I should just go to a different church that fits me better. But those churches were in my neighborhood (unlike the average SoCal commuter, grew up in SF and wanted to go to a church near where I lived) and were solid Biblical churches. So even though I thought about leaving countless times, I stayed. However, it still hurt the witness and mission of the church, I believe, and left the people there culturally blind and unchallenged on how to think Biblically about culture and mission. I’m not saying all homogeneously racial churches are like that, but I do believe they’re all in danger of that.

To add to your comment that multi-ethnic churches are comfortable, I don’t believe this to be true. It is always uncomfortable to be with people racially different from you, and my own experience and others who are in racially diverse churches can attest to that.

I think your latter comments about every church being homogeneous in some way is actually on point. There are plenty of multi-cultural churches here in SF (Reality SF namely) that are racially diverse, but economically or generationally homogeneous. However, I do think we need to do our best to reach all people, and not just one pocket. This means being aware of both our racial and socio-economic blindspots. If our church is not one a homeless or lower class person can walk into and hear the Gospel and follow Christ, I think it’s imperative that we ask why, and how we can change that. To let our comforts and preferences take the lead is to ignore a whole area where we are lacking in our discipleship. I believe it to be the same racially. That being said, I would rather a church be homogeneous in one area rather than all. A church may be racially diverse but homogeneous economically; but at least in one area they are being forced out of their comfort zone and called to interact with people radically different from themselves. To be homogeneous in all areas where we are so limited in the people we reach i think is the worst place a church can be in. My church in college was an Asian, 18-30, middle class church, and though we “reached” a lot of people in that demographic, I don’t know how much we can say we actually did a good job of making disciples. We may have brought those type of people into our church doors, but what is the quality of disciple we created?

I myself am at an ethnic specific church, but we are trying to get beyond our ethnicity and realize there are a lot of people different from us (racially and economically) in our neighborhood. We’ve been forced to face some of our blindspots through the diversity we have economically and generationally, but we are still very limited in our ethnic diversity. We do have a handful of church members who have come who are not Asian, and their perspective has been incredibly helpful and sharpening, to help us grow as individual disciples, as well as seeing our weak spots as a church.

This is mostly from my own experience, trying to wrestle with the questions of culture and Scripture (an issue I’ve had to deal with from birth and will continue to do so), so I realize my viewing of Scripture is also probably influenced by that experience.

Daniel K. Eng Thanks Clark! I appreciate your comments and hearing about your unique experience. It’s eye opening for me to read, and I’d like to hear more sometime.

I especially appreciate this: “it incredibly hurts and hinders the church’s witness in the very diverse world that America is. ” It really isn’t very often that someone openly recognizes the impact that culture has on this issue. What I constantly hear is the often sanctimonious “my church is more biblical than yours”– appealing to a timeless mandate about local churches that I honestly don’t see in Scripture. If leaders can sit down and talk openly about the possibility of how the ethnic-specific church and multi-ethnic church can partner in this time and this place because the culture is conditioned a certain way in 2017, I think it would be a lot more fruitful.

I can’t speak for everyone, but being a pastor in an ethnic-specific church was terribly uncomfortable for me. I constantly had to deal with cultural differences between the generations and the differing places of origin (HK, Taiwan, mainland China, American born), frustrated with the differing value systems and I was berated more than once for dishonoring someone. There were times when I really wanted to run away from the difficulties. I actually had a much more comfortable time while I was working for a predominantly white church. But I knew that there is a desperate need for contextualized discipleship in the ethnic church. It wasn’t glamorous and applaudable and I knew it’d make it much harder for me to get invited to contribute at places like T4G (above). But I knew I am uniquely equipped in a way that serves in the ethnic church best. That’s why I push back on the “comfortable” accusation I get from people, because it’s a major straw man fallacy in my case.

Clark Fobes IV @Daniel I totally see what you mean when people say you’re not biblical, thus not obeying the great commission. I still see a place for ethnic specific churches to an extent. But like you said, with open dialogue about how we can be on mission to all people, not just our own.

Haha I’ve been there with dishonoring people in the Asian context. I still see great need for the ethnic language church to reach people in their language, and I think our Chinese congregation at my church does it well, which is why we don’t want to split from them.

Andrew Ong @Clark, thanks for joining in on this other thread.


  1. Does being an ethnic church (a church that specifically targets a certain ethnic group, but still welcoming anyone who comes) automatically have to be equated with saying: “This church is not for you?” Or is it impossible to be an ethnic church and be truly welcoming to anyone who comes?
  2. I appreciate your heart that we be a church where all feel welcomed, but how much is that in our control and how much of that is the responsibility of the visitor? It’s not like we would kick a few Chinese people out, if the % got too high, and we felt it would make it uncomfortable for non-Chinese people, right? And on a practical, real-life level, what does it mean that a homeless person can’t walk into a church and hear the gospel? I imagine that homeless people could quite easily do so in pretty much any middle-class-filled church, yet I also imagine that they will feel uncomfortable to varying degrees no matter what, whether it be because they feel how different they are, or because of mistreatment from those within the church. The former is out of our control, but the latter is in our control.
  3. And then comes the matter of, how should we steward our financial and time resources to make this a place that’s welcoming for everybody? Should I spend years trying to make my church comfortable and welcoming for every specific type of person? If my church is filled with Chinese people, how much of my reflection should be spent on figuring out how to reach non-Chinese people, and how much of it should be spent on figuring out how to reach my Chinese people’s friends and family (who are mostly Chinese) and contextually ministering to the Chinese people in my congregation?

Clark Fobes IV @Andrew Nice good questions to think through.

  1. I think it’s possible to be ethnic and welcome anyone who comes by intent. But if there is not actual conscious effort to reach people not like us, it rarely happens that we do get people who are not like us to not only visit, but stay and become full members of the local church. Some churches may think that’s ok, and they’ll just become members elsewhere. But to default to that I think is irresponsible on our end and allows our comfort to trump our call to mission. Our church used to say that we are welcoming to everyone, but non-Asians would rarely stay because we didn’t really give an effort to learn how to be a church centered on the Gospel, not the Gospel + our ethnicity. I think a simple way this might look like is how churches address culture from the pulpit. I hear a lot of preachers constantly say things like “We are all Asian so we understand…” Or only use Asian cultural references. Those type of things are blind spots we may not even be aware of that are unintentionally alienating people not like us.
  2. I know what you mean by not being in control of welcoming all people. I don’t even think we’re called to make people “comfortable”. To do that places the emphasis on their experience and not the truth of what we are preaching. However, I still think we need to be aware of what outsiders may think when they come in. I don’t think we need to adjust our whole service to any and everyone who comes. But the way we address the congregation, the way we plan, can all take into account trying to at least acknowledge the person not like us there. The example of a homeless person I think is more from the congregation perspective. If a homeless person comes, would we feel uncomfortable and not know how to interact with them? If that’s the case, then that’s a problem because our Gospel isn’t big enough to include them, regardless of how they feel. That’s largely been my experience with congregations – the more homogenous a church is, the less they’re willing to get out of their comfort zone with “strangers” or visitors not like them. That’s more the “comfort” I was referring to.
  3. I think this relates to the above, but I don’t think we need to spend all our energy trying to just reach people different. That would be a distortion of the Great Commission. The mandate of Jesus was to be witnesses in our area, regardless of their race or person, and I think that translates today. Our mission is still to make disciples of all peoples, not just our own. That might look different from church to church to reach those around them, and hopefully race is not a hindrance to that. My church will not be as diverse as a church in the downtown parts of SF because we mainly have Asian and White in our surrounding neighbourhood. It might make us less diverse, but hopefully not less engaged in the mission of reaching people around us.

Daniel K. Eng I’m glad we’re getting to a point in this conversation where we are discussing the cultural and societal implications of our church models. That I am always happy to discuss without fear of being condemned, because culture is fluid and varies from place to place and time to time.

I should point out that a lot of this really isn’t given any treatment in Scripture. We observe a great deal of sermons, however, and many of them are contextualized with culture-specific illustrations tailored for the audience, especially the sermons in the Gospels and Acts.

I remember having a conversation with a white American professor in his office one time. He asked me “what am I supposed to think when I see a church named ‘Anaheim Chinese Church’? I replied, “I suppose the same way you’d think when you a youth group or a women’s group, or when you hear about a church aimed at reaching the artist community. It’s a group looking to evangelize and disciple a certain demographic.” He nodded, but he didn’t seem to be satisfied with my answer.

I’ve seen this unfold many times: “I’ve planted a church reaching and discipling the refugees from the middle east.”

Response: “Wow, that’s great! I’m so encouraged.”

“I run worship services and Bible studies for the athletes at ___ University.”

Response: Go for it! Way to be faithful!

“I pastor at a Chinese church.”

Response: “Boo! Why are you dividing up the body of Christ? You’re telling me that you’re exclusive and I wouldn’t be welcome with your ministry. How can you be so unbiblical?”

So here’s my question: why the double standard? Why is it okay for some demographic-specific ministries but not others?

I’ve also been accused of being short-sighted and disobedient because my ministry doesn’t aim to reach everyone. But I don’t think they’d say the same thing about people like Billy Graham and Mother Theresa, who each spent decades reaching the one demographic.

How Can We Insist Upon the Contextual Legitimacy of Ethnic Churches, and Still Be Critical of White-Dominant American Evangelicalism?

Andrew Ong Something I just thought about….

Even though I think I largely agree with you @Daniel, do you share a similar sense of discomfort with me at the notion of a white church saying that they are a white church in all the same ways that a Chinese church might say that they are a Chinese church? Again, they are not being directly exclusive. They won’t kick non-whites out. They are simply trying to be strategic and to minister to a particular people group that they feel called and equipped to minister to.

Why does that seem off to me?

Clark Fobes IV @Andrew I do think it’s slightly different because we’re in “White America” and immigrants have largely had to fend for themselves (create their own churches) because they were excluded from White churches historically (much the same way Blacks created their own churches due to civil segregation). So the birth of immigrant churches is different. That being said, I do agree with your observation, that it feels off to say it’s ok to be a “White church”, so why should that be different for ethnic churches?

Daniel K. Eng Yes, when applied to whites the discomfort is there. But as Clark points out, it’s culturally based. It’s a visceral reaction.

What many Americans don’t realize is that much of society is strategically based to reach white people. If you look at the standard of beauty, for example: advertisements, magazine covers, the color of band-aids, the “flesh” colored crayon, etc. They don’t say so much, and minorities often just take it without realizing.

Much of the content I was encountering in seminary, I had to filter through with the question “is this simply a white perspective?” I especially remember sitting in evangelism or Pastoral Leadership classes and thinking to myself that “this would never work in my immigrant-led context.”

I suppose what I’m saying is that the hypothetical “white church” is present, we often just overlook it as normative.

Clark Fobes IV  @Daniel I actually very much feel what Daniel mentioned when it comes to ministry and pastoral gatherings. We have “Asian-American” speakers and workshops, but not “White” ones bc White is the standard. Sometimes I feel that minorities are sitting at the “kids table” of pastoral ministry, and sometimes we’re invited to come sit at the grown ups table of White ministry. I try not to think that way and give the benefit of the doubt, especially being half White myself. But I also can’t help feeling that way sometimes when I’m referred to as the “Asian-American” rep/speaker.

That being said, I have also been challenged in my assumed “Asian way” of doing things, by interacting with other racial practices. And I hope that kind of cultural sharpening can go both ways.

Daniel K. Eng @Clark I think the T4G panel is actually a perfect example of what you’re describing. It’s a great panel in a vacuum, but none of these men are vocationally ministering in the ethnic church. They’re all doing things that get more exposure and “approval” among whites– namely the academy or a non-ethnic church. But with the percentage of Asian American ministers in the ethnic church, you’d think you’d see some kind of representation on the panel.

Do you think there’s a bias against the ethnic church for getting speakers for these conferences, or is it simply that pastors in Asian ethnic churches don’t get enough exposure? I’d especially like to hear DJ Chuang‘s thoughts on this.

A while back, Ed Stetzer put out a call on social media asking for votes for top Asian American preachers. None of the ones who made the top list were from ethnic church.…/5-asian-american…

The list was a perfect opportunity to highlight the many, many faithful preachers in the ethnic church to the white readers of CT, and I’m so sad that the opportunity was missed.

Clark Fobes IV @Daniel I think it’s probably true what you said about ethnic church pastors not getting as much exposure. In being part of a TGC affiliated organization, I’m coming to find that the guys who get highlighted are mainly the guys who have connections with the circle of people already. Which is usually through a seminary or church context that won’t be as “ethnic” necessarily. I also feel part of it is because the guys who are in churches that are not just Asian by ethnicity have experience (and possibly appeal) with a wider (“whiter”) racial audience.

I remember that article, and Stetzer mentioned DJ as a resource. I appreciated it at least as a sign that white Christians can learn from ethnic preachers as well, even if they’re not serving in completely “ethnic” churches.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

2 thoughts on “Ethnic Churches in America: A Conversation

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