A Quick and Dirty Theological Rationale for Ethnic Specific Ministry

By Steve Tamayo

One of the concerns we hear when we talk about ethnic specific ministry is that – even if it might help us reach unreached corners of campus – ethnic specific ministry goes against the Bible. Is this true?

Let’s take a quick look.

Abraham, Painting by József Molnár

Abraham and Israel: One for all

God had designs to bless all people … every people group on earth. We read about this in Genesis 12 and Genesis 22. But God chose to bless all people by focusing his blessing on a particular person, Abraham, and a particular people group, Israel.

God paid special attention to Abraham and Israel. He gave them the covenant and special commands. They had experiences together that other people didn’t get to share. God originated ethnic specific ministry.

Now, God’s specific focus on Israel didn’t mean that he ignored every other people group. Throughout the Old Testament, God challenged and blessed people who weren’t part of the specific ethnic community he created in Israel. But God’s challenge and blessing almost always came through his special people.

For Reflection: What if God wanted to single out a specific ethnic community on your campus and use them to bless the entire campus? Would your ministry model allow for this?


Paul: Ethnic specific for the sake of Multiethnic

"Paul in Athens" Painting by Raphael

Now, you might be saying to yourself “Sure, God did ethnic specific ministry in the Old Testament, but all that changed with Jesus and with the church, right?”

I don’t read the New Testament that way.

The apostle Paul was one of the loudest voices for multiethnicity in the early church. His proclamation of the gospel in Ephesians 2 made this challenging assertion: the chief sign of the gospel is the multiethnic church. If anyone would reject ethnic specific ministry, it would be Paul.

Paul focused on specific people in order to reach all people.

But look at Paul’s life. We find him in Antioch early in his ministry career (see Acts 11). He’s out on the edges, welcoming Gentiles into God’s family. He’s not waiting in Jerusalem hoping that Gentiles find their way into the Jewish church. He actively pursued them.

And when he began his service as a missionary, he repeated this specific strategy over and over: he arrived in a new town, ministered in the synagogue to his Jewish brethren, then expanded his ministry to Gentiles (see Acts 17 for an example). He focused on specific people.

Once he settled in one place, Paul worked with a multiethnic community to raise up church planters and send them back to their own specific towns and villages to plant new churches (see Acts 19). These specific people reached people who weren’t being reached.

Because Paul believed that the body of Christ was a multiethnic body, he didn’t want any people group excluded. He was willing to risk his life to get the gospel to the far corners of earth and the specific ethnic communities that lived there (see Romans 15).

Paul focused on specific people in order to reach all people.

For Reflection: If you have a multiethnic ministry strategy, what efforts are you making to actively reach out to people who are different from the people you’re currently reaching?


Jesus: More (but not less) than a model

The 12 Apostles of Jesus (Russian Synaxis).

In our video “Ethnicity Matters,” James Choung asks whether Jesus would approve of ethnic-specific ministry. “Surely,” Choung jokes, “Jesus wouldn’t choose 12 JEWISH men to be his disciples.”

During his earthly ministry, Jesus devoted special time and attention to a small cadre of Jewish men. Now, this doesn’t make us think that he doesn’t value people who aren’t Jews or people who aren’t men. But if ethnic specific ministry went against the gospel of Jesus, why would he participate in it?

Jesus’ life teaches us a challenging lesson in what CS Lewis called “the scandal of particularity.” We particular humans are locked into particular places and particular times. We can’t be everywhere at once. We can’t engage everywhere at once.  When God took on human flesh, he accepted our particularity. And so he had to focus.

Don't let anyone try to convince you that ethnic groups are homogeneous.

Perhaps that’s why he worked with a small group of Jewish men. But even in that group, we see diversity: economic and political and geographical diversity. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that ethnic groups are homogeneous.

Looking at Jesus in this conversation does something else for us. He’s more than a model for us. Apart from what Jesus has accomplished through his death and resurrection, ethnic specific ministry would trap us into selfish ghettos. Only through Jesus’ power can ethnic specific ministry lead to a multiethnic church.

For Reflection: How does Jesus’ example and power shape your engagement with the conversation about ethnic-specific ministry?

"4 Misconceptions of Ethnic Specific Ministry," by Orlando Crespo, director of InterVarsity's National Latino Fellowship (LaFe)

"How To Help Your Ministry Understand Ethnicity," watch the Ethnicity Matters video with free downloadable discussion guide.

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