When we think of multiethnic ministry, there is a common perspective that there is just no place for ethnic specific ministry because it leads to tribalism and divides Christians. But as the Director of InterVarsity's Latino Ministry (called LaFe), I am convinced the opposite is true: ethnic specific ministry is one of the factors that enables multiethnic ministry to succeed.
Here are 4 misconceptions of ethnic specific ministry that need to be clarified if we want to genuinely move forward in our multiethnic work:
Misconception #1: Ethnic Specific Ministry will divide our ministries.
Initially, many ethnic minority students do get their spiritual and core cultural needs met in their ethnic specific ministries and will not feel the need to fellowship with the larger, multiethnic ministry. But eventually, as leaders are brought together for prayer and training from both groups and friendships are formed at retreats, conferences and training events, the divisions can begin to break down.
And when leaders wisely create opportunities for members from different ministries to listen to God together and contribute to the vision and goals of their groups, they start to gain ownership for each other's ministries. But this takes intentionality by the leadership to foster opportunities for mutual encouragement, support and ownership of each other's ministry.
Ethnic Specific Ministry doesn't have to divide your ministry. Through wise leadership, ethic specific ministry can serve to enlarge your "front door" through which more ethnic minority students find their way into the life and core of our faith communities and contribute to a more authentic multiethnic ministry.
At a recent LaFe event at Brown University, a student gave her testimony about how she discovered the InterVarsity Chapter through the LaFe ministry on campus. She spoke about how LaFe and InterVarsity brought deep emotional healing to her after a very difficult childhood of rejection and alienation. Through her many tears she expressed how instrumental the LaFe ministry was for her understanding and appreciation of the larger InterVarsity ministry.
Misconception #2: Ethnic Specific Ministry and Multiethnic Ministry cannot coexist.
Marginalized people in any society will struggle to find their voice without ethnic connection.
Marginalized people in any society will struggle to find their voice without ethnic connection. In the early 90s when the LaFe Ministry was struggling to gain momentum, we often would gather all the Latino staff to provide mutual support and pastoral care to those experiencing organizational trauma as a result of microaggressions stemming from subtle racism/prejudice and and/or bigotry. By gathering regularly, the Multiethnic Ministries Department created an atmosphere of understanding and healing for emerging Latino staff.
As we talked, dreamed and shared our ethnic journeys at these gatherings, we began to find our voice and clarify the message we needed to communicate to the broader movement. Our vision for Latino ministry grew and hearts were united for the good of InterVarsity as a whole. By permitting and affirming ethnic specific ministries as part of a broader multiethnic strategy, InterVarsity provided space for ethnic staff to listen to each other and discover their core concerns, priorities and values. Only then were we able to clearly communicate what we needed to survive and flourish within the broader movement. In the case of LaFe in the late 90s not only did ethnic specific ministry and multiethnic ministry coexist but the latter could not have grown without the former.
Misconception #3: Ethnic Specific Ministry places culture above the Gospel.
There are many Christians who believe that meeting separately by ethnicity means we are circumventing the gospel of unity and treating ethnic identity in an idolatrous manner.
We believe that God has called us to be one people and one body of Christ. But at the same time, Jesus, who becomes one of us in every way except for sin, saves human beings who are inherently ethnic people in a culture and a social location. Jesus himself took on an ethnos and lived in the context of community and culture. Our ethnicity then is not above the gospel but linked to the gospel because it is context through which the gospel is communicated and received.
When I first started getting involved with InterVarsity as a student, a mature white Christian friend of mine challenged me to do more evangelism if I was to grow in my faith. I was scared, but one day I agree to go with my friend to "watch him" do evangelism.
We walked up to a gentleman and my friend immediately engaged him with the gospel. There was no response. It suddenly occurred to me that the young man did not speak English. So in my broken Spanish I began to speak what little I knew about the gospel.
At that moment the young man looked shocked and overwhelmed. I asked him what was wrong.
Those who believe that ethnic specific ministry places culture above the Gospel miss out on the amazing ways God can work in and through ethnicity.
He said, "Well, it's strange because you're the seventh person to come up to me today to tell me about Jesus but I didn't really understand what the others were saying because my English isn't very good. You're the first one today that has spoken to me in Spanish."
As we celebrated the fact that God had brought us together I shared the good news and the gentleman embraced Jesus as his Savior.
In my evangelism, it was language and cultural connection that God used to communicate the love of Jesus and he responded positively! Those who believe that ethnic specific ministry places culture above the Gospel miss out on the amazing ways God can work in and through ethnicity where greater understanding and trust allows people to hear and respond positively to Jesus.
Misconception #4: Ethnic Specific Ministry will lead to ethnocentrism.
There are also many who preach against the dangers of ethnocentrism, where a person elevates their group over and above all other ethnic groups. This is a legitimate temptation that we must fight against.
But those who are genuine about following Christ will find that ethnocentrism is hard to maintain because scripture is constantly telling us to pray for our enemies, and to put the interests of others before our own.
The great commandment is to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. The self is composed of many things, including ethnicity. To love our neighbor is to love, respect and value their ethnicity as we love, respect and value our own ethnicity. If we cannot love this part of ourselves we will likely not be able to love the ethnic beauty of our neighbor.
To love our ethnicity with sober judgment and place it under Christ's lordship puts us in a good position to love the ethnicity of our neighbor because we have learned the value of it in our own lives and have received God's blessing through it.
I am always amazed at how difficult it is to keep many of our LaFe ministries ethnic specific because when our students truly encounter Jesus Christ in the scriptures, their first instinct as Latinos is to share it with the people they love and care about, both within and beyond their ethnic circles.
When we engage in ethnic specific ministry under the Lordship of Christ, not only will we grow in reaching our ethnic group but we will grow in our ability to love our neighbors and in our desire to see them come to Jesus as well.
Reconsidering Ethnic Specific Ministry
I hope I have dispelled some half-truths for you and that you have gained a renewed vision for ethnic specific ministry. I also hope you are beginning to see it as another opportunity to reach more students for Christ.
Here are some ways you can take steps forward in embracing ethnic specific ministry:
- If you are part of an InterVarsity ministry that has very few Latino students, pray about whether this is the time to start something new with Latino students like a small group.
- If your chapter already has a Black Campus Ministry (BCM), what are some new ways your chapter can support their efforts and partner with them for their success?
- If you're a leader in a large Asian American chapter, what are ways you can partner effectively with other InterVarsity Chapters on campus?
- Consider attending an ethnic specific conference (or raising funds for one of your ethnic leaders to attend). InterVarsity hosts dozens of ethnic specific conferences on national and regional levels where you can learn more about the new group you are trying to reach on campus. Learn more about the national Black Campus Ministries Conference or the national Native InterVarsity Conference.
The opportunities for partnership are abundant. Pray that God will direct you to the right ones that will create growth and partnership for everyone.