Book Review: Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, by Mark DeYmaz
Readers of the 9Marks Journal who are familiar with Mark Dever's books may notice some striking similarities between a couple of his more well-known titles and DeYmaz' Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church. In fact, a perfectly reasonable title might well have been "Seven Marks of a Healthy and Deliberate Multi-Ethnic Church." The two authors share much of the same vision for the church. They would agree on the centrality of the gospel and the idea that the church as a body is a means to display that gospel. The most obvious difference is a matter of emphasis—DeYmaz is most interested in how one particular aspect of life together as a church displays the power and objectives the gospel.
DeYmaz organizes his examination of multi-ethnic churches into three distinct parts. First, he develops a biblical-theological apologetic for the priority of pursuing multi-ethnicity in a church. Next, he discusses seven specific strategies that a church pursuing healthy multi-ethnicity should employ. Finally, he examines each of those seven strategies in three different contexts: new church plants, unhealthy church revitalizations, and healthy church transformations.
This structure approaches the issues in a logical, natural way. His conversational style is interwoven with concrete illustrations, not all of which are the typical triumphalistic success stories. And this creates a pleasant read.
Part one examines the biblical mandate for multi-ethnicity within the church. DeYmaz devotes one chapter to Christ's prayer in John 17, one to the pattern of the church of Antioch in Acts, and one to the multi-ethnic component of the mystery of the church in Ephesians. The strength of grounding his discussion in these three passages is that it combines the biblical-theological themes of Christ's high priestly prayer, a live example in the young church, and an explanation of the theological foundation for these developments. Also, by placing his theological arguments for diversity in the universal church next to a specific example of diversity in one local church, DeYmaz bridges the gap from theory to practice quite effectively.
On the other hand, DeYmaz might justly be criticized for employing a "hermeneutic of diversity" from time to time. He tends to see multi-ethnicity in texts where the evidence is suspect. When Jesus confronted the Ephesian church about abandoning its "first love" (Rev. 2:4-5), was he really talking about a passion for multi-ethnicity (pp. 36-37)?
In part two, DeYmaz offers strategies for pursuing multi-ethnicity in the church. These strategies are sometimes accompanied by biblical arguments, but primarily he gives practical advice. His presupposition is that multi-ethnicity doesn't happen by accident. Given the anecdotal success he documents in the book, this advice seems generally wise and insightful. He says that a church should pursue these seven commitments:
- Embrace dependence: only God can bring the goal to fruition.
- Take intentional steps: don't expect to stumble into multi-ethnicity.
- Empower diverse leadership: don't establish quotas or recognize unqualified leaders, but recognize that a component of biblical qualification is a leadership team that reflects the ethnic diversity of God's kingdom.
- Develop cross-cultural relationships: take steps to get outside the box of what is most natural and convenient.
- Pursue cross-cultural competence: get to know the cultures you're ministering to in order to make the message clear and avoid unnecessary miscommunication.
- Promote a spirit of inclusion: promote a spirit of inclusion by surrendering personal preferences in order to serve others.
- Mobilize for impact: leverage multi-ethnicity to effect transformation both culturally and spiritually, both locally and globally.
These strategies broadly demonstrate a healthy balance between dependence on God and an awareness of the role of the church in presenting an accurate picture of the glory of God.
Testimony & Questions
DeYmaz argues–rightly, I think–that the "missionary endeavor in a multi-ethnic church is not programmatic but flows from the congregation's very nature and being" (127). In the context of the chapter, DeYmaz is arguing that the multi-ethnicity of the corporate body of Christ is in itself a powerful testimony to the truth of the gospel as it displays the transformational power of the gospel in a living organism.
On the other hand, DeYmaz' strategies will also raise questions with readers and churches whose answers are not immediately obvious. For example, to what degree should a prospective pastor or staff member's ethnicity contribute to his qualifications? What might be the ecclesiological implications of particular strategies? Should churches translate sermons on the fly for people within the congregation, or should congregations consist of people who speak the same language? Should churches not translate prayers because those prayers are "intended for God and God alone" (104)? Should they display a diversity of national flags? Should a church integrate musical forms representing a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds in the same service or rotates styles week by week? In other words, these commitments are generally sound when stated abstractly. But as they say, the devil is in the details.
The concluding three chapters consider multi-ethnic church plants, revitalizations, and transformations. They don't answer all these questions, but they do lead the reader to apply the seven strategies from three distinct perspectives.
ARE ALL CULTURAL FORMS CREATED EQUAL?
One weakness of the book is that, in the Philippians 2 exhortation to relinquish our own comforts in order to serve others, DeYmaz seems to assume that diverse cultural forms are equally equipped to communicate biblical truth.
I'm not suggesting that a diversity of ethnicities in a local church cannot serve as a witness to and vehicle for the gospel. I am suggesting that the forms of a culture that has been shaped over centuries by a biblical worldview might be more capable of serving as the vehicle for that gospel message than the forms of a culture shaped by pagan idolatry.
The vehicle for a message inevitably shapes the message, and perhaps distorts it. Church leaders need to think deeply about how the forms and styles they adopt affect the message they intend to communicate. Attempts to accommodate different styles in the proclamation of biblical truth are counterproductive if they undermine that truth.
DeYmaz seems to assume that all forms are equally capable of communicating biblical truth, but I'm not convinced that's a valid or healthy assumption.
WHAT YOU MIGHT TAKE AWAY
If you're pastoring or church planting in a context in which your church is less ethnically diverse than your community, or if you hope that God will raise within your congregation people who will pursue ministry in a multi-ethnic setting, DeYmaz' book is a worthwhile read. But absorb its biblical-theological argumentation with a discerning eye. That is, read DeYmaz' Scripture citations in their biblical context to confirm that the emphasis of the text is consistent with his argument. Consider the ecclesiological implications of prioritizing multi-ethnicity. The church is a body. It shouldn't be surprising if increased attention to one aspect of the body's life has effects, whether positive or negative, on the rest of the body
Also, read its methodology as description, not prescription. In other words, DeYmaz offers us one account of what worked well in one church in one context. But what worked in that context may not apply equally well in differing situations.
DeYmaz seems to recognize this, and he speaks of general principles as well as specific strategies. These general principles constitute a broad framework for the kinds of questions churches will need to consider as they pursue healthy multi-ethnicity. Whether those churches reach all DeYmaz's conclusions is probably not that important.
WHAT YOU SHOULD TAKE AWAY
But two priorities are essential for every church that hopes to grow towards healthy multi-ethnicity. First, these churches should draw on DeYmaz' practical insight. Don't discard his advice lightly without a clear, biblical argument to the contrary.
Even more importantly, they should recognize that the power of the gospel is creating an eternal, universal, multi-ethnic community. No church that desires to reflect an accurate picture of how Christ's kingdom has broken into this age should be satisfied to display merely a monochromatic image.