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REVIEW: Book presents biblical mandate for diversity

As the U.S. and Europe become more ethnically diverse, the number of multi-ethnic churches increases. Are such churches simply a natural consequence of shifting demographic trends, or do they represent a strategic approach that is being carried out in response to those trends?
In “Ethnic Blends,” Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li forcefully argue that emulating noteworthy first-century examples of unified, multi-ethnic congregations is indispensable to the enterprise of restoring the New Testament church.
For the authors, multi-ethnic congregations are mandated by Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 and by the call for unity in Ephesians. The church at Antioch of Syria (Acts 13:1-3) exemplifies the “biblical mandate” to establish genuinely multi-ethnic congregations.
“Ethnic Blends” serves as a counterpoint to the church growth philosophy of the “homogenous unit principle” — the widely accepted view that congregations grow fastest when all the people belong to the same demographic groups.
DeYmaz and Li object to the homogeneous unit principle because it “had the unintended consequence of justifying the segregation of local congregations along ethnic and economic lines.”
The authors hold that a congregation is multi-ethnic if no single ethnic group makes up more than 80 percent of the whole. Based on that percentage, few Churches of Christ would qualify as multi-ethnic. Indeed, few churches of any kind in the U.S. meet that standard.
DeYmaz and Li devote most of the book to examining seven obstacles to creating and sustaining a multi-ethnic congregation. Here the authors make use of Scripture passages and anecdotes to identify specific barriers and problems in transitioning local congregations into more diverse groups. They draw on their own extensive experience as staff members of the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, an ethnically and economically diverse congregation planted in Little Rock in 2001.
DeYmaz and Li advocate spiritual — not racial — reconciliation. They urge accommodation (we all become like Christ) rather than assimilation (everybody becomes like us).
While such a goal requires substantial effort on the part of individual members and distinct subgroupings, they insist that a flourishing blended church will have a powerful witness to a cynical society.
Blended churches are not a cure-all, nor do all multi-ethnic churches look the same, although they note that most blended congregations tend to be in urban, often inner-city, locations.
Readers will likely be disappointed by the lack of clarity regarding certain critical issues in building a multi-ethnic church. For example, the book presents no real insights regarding overcoming the theological barriers encountered in blended churches. Moreover, the Mosaic Church’s approach to the critical issue of illegal immigrants may be summed up as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
While the book convincingly presents biblical incentives for accepting the challenge of ethnic blending (there’s an outstanding treatment of Ephesians in chapter eight), it is less successful in providing guidelines for actually putting it into practice.
Brief sidebar contributions written by leaders of other multi-ethnic congregations are interspersed throughout the book but add little practical value.
Reading “Ethnic Blends” can be discouraging. Even when the unity of a multi-cultural congregation becomes a goal, the challenges are formidable.
Yet the authors may protest too much. They offer recommendations based on their own experiences. Readers will not find references to the principles of cross-cultural anthropology that have been long instrumental in training missionaries, or to the fundamentals of conflict resolution widely used by businesses and nonprofits alike, or to cultural studies that international firms and agencies have employed effectively.
Sports teams, multinational corporations and educational institutions that have successfully blended ethnic groups can inform American congregations that lag well behind them when it comes to ethnic blending. Effectively applying existing research in the areas mentioned above could help close the gap.  
This book is a reminder of the prevailing consumer orientation of American churches. Almost every barrier the authors encounter in their multicultural congregation has “I want my own way” written all over it. Early Christianity expanded to a considerable degree because of self-sacrificing discipleship. One looks in vain for a “take up your cross” in this book.
While DeYmaz and Li deserve our admiration for their work in the multi-ethnic trenches, at the same time the book reminds us of an overall dearth of discipleship in contemporary Christianity.
We are grateful for this book.  It will expand the horizons of church leaders who see only one ethnic group in the pews on Sunday. It will tell us why we must do better, but not all that much about how.  

BOB CARPENTER is professor of missions at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. HAROLD SHANK is professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Christian and reviews editor for The Christian Chronicle. Both worship with the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla.

  • Feedback
    Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance says the word translated “Christian” in the KJ version means “Follower of Christ.” Am I too harsh to suggest anyone or any group discriminating on the basis of race is not following Christ therefore no matter what they claim they are not Christians? Could they possibly in the category of the “goats” in Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats?
    John Jenkins
    Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ. Pigeon Forge, TN
    Gatlinburg, TN
    February, 18 2011

    I want to thank the authors for their time and effort in reviewing Ethnic Blends. The book assumes the reader has read my first book, Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church (Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network, 2007) which is summarized in Chapter 1 for those who have not. For an in-depth discussion of “the how to’s” of multi-ethnic ministry (seven core commitments) that these reviewers feel is missing in Ethnic Blends, I invite you (and them) to read the first book.
    Mark DeYmaz
    Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas
    Little Rock, AR
    January, 27 2011

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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