Pastoring a Multi-Ethnic Church

Article
02.26.2010

On any given Friday morning, you will find more than fifty different nationalities represented at our church gatherings. (Our church founders established the weekly meetings on Friday to accord with a Muslim working week.) The United Christian Church of Dubai (UCCD) gathers in the midst of a sea of Islam and materialism in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a small oil-rich nation that borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

People come from literally all over the world to work in Dubai. Our members have come from all over Africa, throughout the Middle East, up into Central Asia and stretching eastward to Japan and Taiwan, then southward to Singapore and Indonesia, and still further south in Australia and New Zealand. Our westerners hail from South America, up through the Caribbean islands, then further north into Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, then across the Atlantic and all over Europe. The lure of lucre draws them from everywhere. You can imagine the challenges this poses to pastoring.

GOSPEL UNITY

What have I learned pastoring a multi-ethnic church? Most importantly, I have learned that for all the cultural and racial issues that divide us—and there are many—our shared knowledge of Christ Jesus as Lord transcends them all. We are, for all our diversity, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, in need of the one remedy that only Jesus could secure: redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We have received Christ and together become “one new man” through the new creation begun in him (Eph. 3:15).

As a result, our congregation shares rich times of corporate worship and deep cross-cultural relationships that only Christ could have secured. If the church is to be a “colony of heaven,” then we regularly experience foretastes of that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).

DESTROYING MUSLIM MISCONCEPTIONS

Our multi-cultural congregation has the potential to be a potent witness for the power and truth of Christianity. In the Muslim world, “Christianity” is strongly associated with the West, particularly with the United States, and more particularly with Hollywood. Christians are morally suspect, to say the least.

Therefore, when I tell local Muslims that our congregation consists of Middle Easterners, South Asians, Central Asians, East Asians, and more, they are surprised. Which is fine. But my hope is that their surprise will turn into intrigue and even interest in the Truth that binds us together as they experience the fellowship among believers who share nothing in common except Christ. That’s why I emphasize church membership in our diverse congregation. To the extent that we self-consciously commit to covenant together, we have the potential to be a 3-dimensional display of God’s glory. Nowhere else in the Middle East do fifty nationalities come together like this. It only happens in the churches of Jesus Christ!

Evangelism in the Middle East—and everywhere else—should not occur only through the individual, but through the congregation as a whole. Our church’s goal is to be a catalyst for revival in our region through our gospel proclamation and through our corporate witness of love—rooted in the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ (John 13:35; 1 John 4:11).

CHALLENGES TO MULTI-ETHNIC MINISTRY

To be sure, our diverse cultures present unique challenges at UCCD. (Pray for us!) Here are just a few:

1. Maintaining a Rigorous Biblical Ministry

In a multi-ethnic context, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a rigorously biblical ministry. With believers coming to us from so many different denominations and cultural backgrounds, whose expectations should govern? Whose ministry philosophy do we adopt?

Difficult Doctrine. I fear that many “international churches” have earned the reputation of being lowest-common-denominator ministries. The level of diversity in a multi-ethnic context leads many of these churches or their leaders to dumb down doctrine. There is not a church on every corner in Dubai, the argument goes, and so we must pursue a policy of theological rapprochement and avoid controversial truths.

For example, I was preaching on election from 1 Peter 1:1, and someone commented afterward that our church should avoid doctrinal controversies and “stick to the basics.” I couldn’t accept that advice, though. Not only does the text contain the doctrine of election, but also: if God is not sovereign in everything from election to glorification, I’m packing up and going home! The obstacles to evangelism in the Muslim world are simply too great.

If Paul had not been convinced of individual election, he too would have left Corinth (see Acts 18:9-11).

Membership. Another example is church membership. Among our congregation, neither our Sydney Anglicans, nor our African Pentecostals, nor our Indian high-churchmen have historically practiced church membership, which admittedly has been a Baptist hallmark. So what should we do? We should search the Scriptures and conform our practices to biblical norms. Everywhere church discipline is mentioned in the New Testament, there (by implication) is church membership. It was practiced in the first century (2 Cor. 2:6), and we should practice it today.

Multi-ethnic ministers must seek, by God’s grace—not the latest fashion in market-evangelicalism—but the Bible’s guidelines on how to conduct ourselves in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). The New Testament actually has much to say about conducting ourselves corporately. To be sure, we must exercise wisdom to know when an issue of governance or church order is culture-bound, and when it is normative for the Christian life according to the Scriptures. But this argues for a more rigorous adherence to the text, not less.

2. Resisting the Prevailing Winds of Evangelicalism

From my perch in Dubai, I am shocked at how wide-spread is the superficial, nominal evangelicalism that takes its soundings from outward success and seeker sensitivity. David Wells in No Place For Truth targeted the “marketing ethos” prevalent in American evangelicalism. But his thesis could now easily be applied globally. A quick look at the books on display in the Bible Society in the Persian Gulf will amply prove the case. Benny Hinn, Brian McLaren, T. D. Jakes—they’re all there for the taking. People around the world increasingly read the same books.

In a multi-cultural environment, it’s easy to be blown along by the prevailing theological winds. In the West, churches benefit from generations of denominational reflection on theological issues. So in Arabia, where we don’t possess such a pedigree, we must carefully evaluate the latest fads.

3. Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

The sheikhs here in the United Arab Emirates have not yet permitted further church planting in “their” country. (Pray that they would!) Therefore, since only a relative handful of churches meet here, we at UCCD are forced to grow together amid many cultures and even denominational backgrounds. This is potentially a good thing for the gospel.

Yet it’s also wise to learn how to distinguish between primary and secondary issues. Primary issues concern the gospel. Secondary issues are of lesser importance, and we must allow some leeway in a multi-ethnic setting, especially one in a restricted access country where church planting is not allowed legally. It is a matter of wisdom, of course, to distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary. I’m still working those out myself, and hoping the guys at Together for the Gospel can help.

By:
John Folmar

John Folmar is the pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.