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Multiethnic church or homogeneous units?

7 July 2010

I was recently asked to write an article on the Orthodox diaspora in South Africa, which is to be published in Studies in World Christianity. One of the effects of diaspora is that it tends to lead to the formation of relatively homogeneous monoethnic churches, and so I was interested in some recent blog posts from Australia and the USA, which discuss this question.

This one, from the USA, where there has been a strong diaspora influence on Orthodoxy, was interesting to compare Orthodoxy in the US with South Africa: Second Terrace: Phyletism and the poor:

I should very much like to contend against the idea that the Church should be made up of ‘homogeneous’ units, whether those ‘units’ are based on ‘socio-economic,’ ethnic or racial categories. It is the desire for homogeneity that shuts the door of fellowship, even in an Orthodox Church, to the poor. And this idea, once enlarged and practiced as custom, can turn into something that we call ‘phyletism.’

And, hat-tip to Matt Stone’s The Theology of Multi-Ethnic Church – Glocal Christianity for the link to this, a Protestant view from the USA The Theology of Multi-Ethnic Church | Out of Ur | Conversations for Ministry Leaders:

Mark DeYmaz is the founding pastor of Mosiac Church of Central Arkansas, author of Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church and co-founder of the Mosaix Network. Mark’s recently published second book, Ethnic Blends, addresses some of the unique challenges faced by multi-ethnic churches. Urthling, David Swanson, spoke with Mark about the theology and challenges of multi-ethnic ministry.

Neither of these blog posts have much to say about Donald McGavran, who was probably the best-known advocate of the “homogeneous unit” principle of mission, evangelism and church growth. McGavran advocated evangelising the world one people group at a time, and establishing churches adapted to the culture of each particular group, because people feel uncomfortable among those of other cultures.

His “homogeneous unit principle” met with strong resistance in South Africa, where it sounded too close to the ideology of apartheid, and some ethnically homogeneous churches that supported apartheid in the past are now struggling, not too successfully, to get away from it (see, for example, My Contemplations: More white than Christian).  While I believe that McGavran’s principle had some missiological validity, trying to use it as the basis of ecclesiology was a disastrous mistake.

McGavran said that monoethnic churches grow faster than multiethnic ones. That has not generally been the case in the Orthodox diaspora. The diaspora has indeed scattered Orthodox Christians to various parts of the world where there were no Orthodox Christians before, but it has had the result that Orthodox Christians are confined to inward-looking ethnic enclaves. In my town, Pretoria, you will look in vain for the local Orthodox Church in the phone book. It’s not there under “Orthodox”. It’s not under “Greek Orthodox”. It’s not even under “Hellenic Orthodox” (not that many non-Greeks would think to look there). It’s actually listed under “Hellenic Community”. And, as one person announced loudly at coffee after the Divine Liturgy one Sunday, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.”

Yet when, a little over 20 years ago, a small group of us started a mission society of St Nicholas of Japan with the aim of planting a multiethnic church, some priests were offended at the description “multiethnic”. They saw it as implying that the other churches were ethnic, and that they were therefore phyletist, and they rejected the implication as a slur. But while, as a matter of theological principle, Orthodox churches are not monoethnic, and are open to all ethnic groups, in practice, and in the view of some of the laity, they are ethnic, and even one priest said, on one occasion, “This is a Greek church, built with Greek money, and it is for Greeks”. And when, 25 years ago, a non-Greek was ordained to serve in what was intended to be an English-speaking parish in Johannesburg, people from other parishes flocked to the ordination service and shouted “Anaxios” (unworthy) because they did not want a xenos to be a priest, even in another parish.

And there has also been an interesting phenomenon in St Nicholas Church, which remains ethnically diverse. At one point it had a Romanian priest, and there was an increase in the number of Romanians attending. When the Romanian priest left, some of the Romanian families did too, but quite a number remained. Now there is a Kenyan priest, and there is an increased number of members of the Kenyan diaspora attending. But I don’t think anyone imagines it will become a Kenyan ethnic church — there are still Romanians, Serbs, detribalised Greeks, Lebanese and South Africans of various ethnic and cultural origins.

But as a method of mission diaspora remains a double-edged sword. The Western Confucian has recently written an interesting blog post on Orthodoxy in China. For a long time Orthodoxy in China was a kind of diaspora. A group of Russian prisoners of war who were taken to Beijing, settled there, and remained Orthodox for several generations. Then in the late 19th century Orthodox began to expand among the Chinese people, and growth rapidly increased after the Boxer Rebellion, in which there were more than 200 Orthodox martyrs. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, followed by civil war, and many Russian refugees fled to China, so the new Russian diaspora outnumbered the native Chinese Orthodox Christians, and the growth stopped. The diaspora did not prove very conducive to mission.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 July 2010 2:41 pm

    Interesting. Over here the monoethnic problem is more the idea that, to preach post-modern Australians, we have to plant contextual churches for each subculture. It’s a reaction against white, middle class monoculture but it replaces it with multiple white, middle-class monocultures. The idea of church that celebrates multiple cultures is more elusive.

  2. Wesley Mcgranor permalink
    7 February 2011 6:09 pm

    Intersting and quite reasonably intellectual is your article(s). Here in America Martin Luther King’s message of inclusion lead to a dismantling of the white church in American Protestantism. The black church remains, although now the postmodern church–wich was built from the ashes of the White Protestant Church: is attracting blacks. There is a civics that goes with all churches that are not preaching to the dead. The white church was of autonomy-liberty-individualism(not in the anarchic sense) and the black church was/is communitarian-socialist-license(generally more promiscuis in social aptitude).

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