My Conceptual Problem with Ethnic Churches

I have a problem with ethnic churches. Not with all ethnic churches, per se, but a certain subset of them. I understand that some ethnic churches are formed because the members either primarily or only communicate in a language non lingua franca. (A lingua franca is a widely spoken language, such as English, often spoken beyond the borders of its origin. According to Wikipedia, it makes it possible for two parties with dissimilar mother tongues to communicate.) My home church is a Korean-American church, and it has a Korean ministry for first generation Korean-Americans who are not entirely comfortable with English, or prefer Korean because it is easier for them. This I understand, as I see no benefit to worshiping and listening to preaching in a language I do not understand.

Here’s where I have a problem, though: I don’t understand why a Korean-American church has an English ministry for adults. (For the sake of family unity, I won’t argue the necessity of English-speaking children’s and youth ministries, since second generation Korean-Americans tend to be more proficient at English than at Korean.) It seems harmful to body unity for believers to gather based on ethnicity. What does that say about the unity of the church when believers show preference for people based on nothing other than ethnic and cultural similarity? I was talking about this issue to a non-believer friend, who remarked, “I thought that the Koreans had a different Church [than the Christian Church] because they’re always separate from everybody else.” That is not the impression that I as a Korean or a Christian want to put forth.

Similarly, I do not understand why there is an Asian-American campus ministry at UCLA. From everything I have heard, they are orthodox and solid doctrinally, but I don’t see the point of having a Christian fellowship dedicated solely for Asian-Americans. Certainly, it may be more comfortable for Asian-Americans to be around other Asian-Americans because of cultural similarities and the like–admittedly, I feel this way, too. But what does it say about my love for the entire body when I indicate that I would rather fellowship with people who look like I do? For me, I am not sure there is any circumstance under which I would be OK with joining an Asian-American church or ministry, except perhaps for the purpose of evangelism, when a similar appearance could be an asset.

We know that in the end, God will save people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Since the death of Christ (and likely even before–see Rahab), the church has never been meant to be monoethnic. In my opinion, grouping believers together by ethnicity for any other purpose than language is nonsensical at best and harmful to our character, testimony, and witness at worst. For what does it say about the unity of the church when believers are allowed to gather by a criteria other than a common faith or, by necessity, a common tongue? It may be convenient and pleasant, but is does it display love for the whole church? What do these actions say to the world about body unity?

I realize that Scripture is silent on this issue, so this post is nothing more than my thoughts; I do not seek any corrections to these things. So long as the consciences of my fellow brothers and sisters are clear, I trust that they will keep God’s glory at the forefront of their ethnic ministries. Just because my conscience prohibits me from joining an Asian-American ministry does not do the same for others. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:29, “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” Indeed, I would rather there be a thousand ethnic lingua franca churches that glorify God than one multiethnic church that does not. But here God gives us a choice–I pray that above all, the church or ministry you choose would be one that glorifies Him. Christian liberty is not the final destination, but a vehicle that we use to glorify God. Let us not forget that 1 Cor. 10:29 is followed by verse 31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

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One response to “My Conceptual Problem with Ethnic Churches

  1. As a white young adult attending a Chinese congregation, I resonate with many of your concerns. I often face racism and skepticism upon my motives for attending. Truly I knew nothing about china or anything like that but my soul desire was to meet other guys my age. As a connected with my peers I grew to feel more at home, yet I cannot shake this sense if rejection not being the brand. I feel they perpetuate enthic focus and yet the majority are Asian American. I share Christ with anyone in my life. Currently I am extremely close to a Muslim from Afghanistan. I want him to come to know the love of god in jesus and yet it terrifies me for him to see this face of the church, one that may reject him on face value. I believe in outreach to ethnic groups, I speak semi fluent japanese, have interned overseas and have a heart for Japan and intend to serve there one day, but ironicky while serving in Japan much of my heart is for minorities and outcasts within Japan. I realize I do care for ethnic groups but my true heart is for the lost and hopeless in this world. I believe that is Christ message and I’m afraid making a church truly one ethnicity focus may lose that and in that the gospel if they desire to maintain an indefinite mono ethnic affinity, especially in non native countries.
    A little about me, I’m a Biola university alumni and I studied intercultural studies with a tesol emphasis.
    Thank you again for your post, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with concerns

    Some references of help to me
    http://www.spu.edu/temp/denuol/ethnic_churches.htm
    http://www.wmausa.org/page.aspx?id=83836

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