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Spring 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 1 · pp. 87–102 

Ethnicity and Evangelism in the Mennonite Brethren Church

Paul G. Hiebert

Today the Mennonite Brethren, like many other churches with ethnic roots, is faced with a critical tension between evangelizing other ethnic communities around them, and maintaining their own corporate identity. Until World War II, the Mennonite Brethren preserved their distinctives largely by living in counter-cultural, rural communities. Evangelism was carried out overseas. In North America, aside from occasional business transactions, they were not confronted by the growing ethnic pluralism around them.

Ethnicity. . .can be a hindrance or a blessing. . .

That picture has changed drastically in the past decades. The success of our mission work means that we are related to Mennonite Brethren brothers and sisters who are ethnically, and sometimes theologically, different from us. We now must develop a world-wide fellowship of the Mennonite Brethren that reflects this diversity.

On the home scene, we are rapidly becoming city folk. No longer are people of other ethnic groups ‘out there.’ Today our neighbors are Hispanics, Blacks, Koreans, Chinese, and Indians. Our city schools teach in Spanish, Pharsi, Mong {88} and Hindi. Our seminary and colleges draw students from Baptists, Presbyterian, Assembly, and Free Methodist. Our conference works closely with other Mennonite and Evangelical denominations.

How can we preserve our identity, and maintain a sense of order and truth in such diversity? Preserving our identity calls us to build a common community of consensus. Without this sense of community, we cannot exist. Evangelism, on the other hand, calls us to transcend the walls that set us apart from others. Without it we become ingrown and eventually will die. It is when we look at the evangelistic outreach of our churches within their own neighborhoods while seeking to maintain our own Mennonite Brethren distinctives that the issues related to ethnicity are most sharply drawn (figure 1).

Figure 1
The Tension Between Evangelism and Building Community

Creating Community Among Us      Mission to the World Outside
Search for Identity Search for Growth
Emphasis on Unity Dealing with Diversity
Keeping the Faith Bringing in New Life
Danger of Dying as an Enclave Danger of Destroying Distinctives


Before we examine various solutions to this tension between evangelism and community building, we need to define a few terms, and make clear some assumptions underlying this discussion.

By ‘ethnic’ we mean a ‘consciousness of kind’ (to use Gidding’s term) in which ‘kind’ is defined in terms of common descent, shared ‘blood,’ and marriage. Ethnic groups take many forms, depending upon the social organization within which they are found. Single ethnic groups sharing a common territory, culture and language are referred to as tribes. Ethnic groups encapsulated within larger social systems are races or castes. In modern societies we refer to them simply as ethnic groups.

John Redekop has masterfully shown us that our Mennonite Brethren communities are based to a considerable extent on ethnic ties. We are conscious of being one “people.” By this we mean we can trace a common ancestry, we share a {89} common history, and we are interrelated by marriage. This is why we play tribal games such as tracing our ancestry and identifying one another in terms of lineage and clan. Furthermore, certain cultural symbols such as zwieback and pluma mos are visible reminders of our oneness.

Ethnic groups stand in contrast to other social groups such as classes. Classes share a consciousness of kind in which ‘kind’ refers to a common lifestyle: the kinds of houses and neighborhoods we own, the associations we join, the cars we drive, the level of our education, the jobs we have and the income we earn.

As Mennonite Brethren we also belong to different classes, although we speak less of them. In part, this is due to the fact that as a counter culture we needed to down play our internal differences, and to affirm our unity in an evil world. In part, it is due to our theological rejection of class and its inequities. And, in part, it is due to the fact that a great majority of us are middle class.

The larger evangelistic calling of the church is to people in other ethnic groups and classes. In the long run, class differences will probably be harder to resolve in the church than ethnic ones. Our task here, however, is to deal with ethnicity and the church.


Several assumptions underlie this discussion. First, as Mennonite Brethren, we have often confused our ethnic identity with our theological identity. The fact is, we need both, but, as John Redekop points out (1987), we must clarify the relationship between them.

Second, we will assume here that the Mennonite Brethren Church is based on theological, not ethnic distinctives. While ethnicity has played a part in our history, a part that cannot and must not be ignored, it must yield to theology as the foundation of our community. When a church defines itself most fundamentally in terms of ethnicity, it has made an idol of race and tribe. As Mennonite Brethren we must rediscover and reaffirm our theological distinctives, and not let ethnicity be the barrier to our growth. On the other hand, we dare not compromise our distinctives for the sake of growth, for that is to destroy who we are.

Third, in the past ethnic loyalties have often been a barrier {90} among the Mennonite Brethren, preventing them from accepting outsiders fully into the fellowship of the church. Whatever role ethnicity does play in the church, it certainly must not play this one. We will not deal directly with ethnocentrism and overcoming it in this analysis, but assume that that must be dealt with in our churches.

Finally, the name of our denomination is secondary, but not unimportant. We must first define who we are, and deal with attitudes of ethnocentrism that prevent people from feeling at home in our churches. But we must then deal with the question of name, for language does perpetuate ways of thinking about ourselves, and shape how people outside see us.

The Problem

How do we evangelize people of different ethnicities, on the one hand, and build them into a common community that preserves a unique set of theological distinctives, on the other? Two basic answers have been given to this question (figure 2). We will examine the consequences of each of these over time. Interestingly enough, both lead in the long run to the same place, at least if one takes biblical teachings seriously.

Figure 2
Evangelism In an Ethnically Pluralistic World


One approach to evangelizing ethnically diverse populations is to plant separate churches in each ethnic group. Christians with the gift of cross-cultural ministry move into a particular group, learn its language, identify with its culture, {91} and plant churches in it. Or a convert from an ethnic group is supported as he or she plants churches in his or her own community.

This was the basic method used in the modern mission movement, and until recently it worked reasonably well in tribal societies. Because of geographic distance between the parent church and its offspring, there was little interaction between them. Furthermore, on the field different tribes occupied different geographical regions, so relationships between churches in different tribes were kept to a minimum. Only in recent years has the question of the unity of these churches been raised.

In multi-ethnic societies, such as India, however, this method ran into difficulty. The relationship between parent and new churches remained minimal, but on the field people of different ethnic groups lived in close proximity to each other. This raised difficult questions. Should converts from different ethnic groups be asked to join one church, or should they form separate ethnic churches? Most early missionaries said they must be one, citing the importance of the unity of the church as a new ‘ethnic’ group made up of people who have left their old ethnicities.

Church Growth Theory

In recent years, Church Growth theorists have advocated planting separate churches in different ethnic and class groups in complex societies, noting that ethnicity and class provide people with their most fundamental sense of identity (McGavran 1980). They argue that to ignore ethnic and class loyalties, and to force unity in the church hinders its growth.

Some of our M.B. home mission boards have adopted this strategy to evangelize other ethnic communities in North America such as Hispanics, Indians and Chinese. Interestingly enough, they have not applied the same principles to Anglos, Scandinavians and other ‘white’ North Americans who, it is assumed, should join our existing Mennonite Brethren churches.

The pursuit of this strategy provides an immediate answer to the problem of ethnicity. We can plant Hispanic, Indian and Chinese churches, and still maintain our own ethnic M.B. churches. The solution, however, is short lived. As soon as we have Mennonite Brethren churches in these ethnic {92} communities, the question of inter-ethnic relationships emerges again, and at a more profound level. What is the relationship of these new churches to the Teutonic M.B. churches that planted them, and to one another? How do we build a single Mennonite Brethren conference in which Hispanics, Indians, Chinese, Teutonics and others have an equal place?

Furthermore, how do we handle inter-church and interpersonal attitudes and relationships? Are Hispanic M.B.s welcome in Teutonic M.B. churches, or should they be encouraged to go to their own churches? Should marriage between M.B.s of different ethnic background be encouraged or discouraged?

There are both social and theological issues involved in the question of ethnicity. We need to consider both when we look at relationships between Mennonite Brethren churches in different ethnic communities, and between their members.

Schermerhorn’s Model

I would like to use Schermerhorn’s (1978) model of interethnic relationships to examine the questions of inter-church relationships in a denomination made up of churches from different ethnic communities, and of attitudes and relationships between members of different ethnic churches. Schermerhorn analyzes various types of relationships that develop between two ethnic groups: one dominant because it is old and established, and has power, resources and prestige; the other subordinate because it is new, and often small. In our case, the Teutonic M.B. churches are dominant because they are the parent churches. Daughter churches in other ethnic groups are subordinate because they are often dependent on the dominant churches for resources, and because they are newer and smaller groups. There is little chance in our conferences that they can out-vote the older Teutonic churches.

The relationship between older and younger churches is one of ambivalence, especially during the early stages in church planting. The younger church is thankful for the assistance of the older church, but it wants its own freedom and dignity. Rightfully it resents any attempts by the older church to control it, yet it knows that it is still dependent on outside resources for its existence. Similarly, the older church is pleased to see a new church emerge, but is also aware of the high cost involved. It is tempted to apply subtle pressures on young churches that seem to want freedom but not {93} accountability. These tensions exist when we plant new Teutonic M.B. churches. They become particularly critical when we plant churches in other ethnic communities. Many a church planting venture has been ship-wrecked by faulty navigation in these turbulent waters.

Even after new ethnic churches become independent, the question of inter-ethnic relationships remains. As a conference how do we handle the issues of theology, schools and resources? How can we organize a conference in which all the churches have equal say? The central issue here is one of power and the willingness of the older Teutonic churches to share it.

Schermerhorn outlines four basic types of relationship between ethnic groups (figure 3). We will use these to examine relationships between M.B. churches of different ethnic origin.

Figure 3
Types of Relationships Between Churches In Different Ethnic Groups

Assimilation. Schermerhorn calls the first type of relationship ‘assimilation.’ Both the older churches and the younger churches see themselves as merging in the long run. For example, in Canada the Russian Mennonite Brethren migrants often wanted to attend their own churches, but it was obvious that in time their distinctives would fade, and their churches would be assimilated into the broader Teutonic Mennonite Brethren scene.

There is no serious theological or sociological problem here. Theologically and sociologically both parties want unity. Differences between them are seen as a temporary accommodation to socio-cultural realities. The leaders, in particular, have the responsibility of building fellowship between the {94} churches, and, in time, members feel free to move from one congregation to another.

Even if separate churches are maintained for a long time, both are open to fellowship, and to the exchange and intermarriage of members. People are free to go to the church of their choice based on such factors as distance, language and style of worship.

Acceptance. In the second type of relationship, the parent church seeks the fellowship of young churches in other ethnic groups, but they want to remain separate.

There are theological and sociological issues that must be dealt with here, although not as serious as those in the two types below. Sociologically, the younger church may want to establish its own sense of ethnic identity before it relates back to the parent church. The older church, on the other hand, may feel rejected. If we apply the biblical principle of the ‘older brother’ not offending a ‘younger brother’ in order to win him (Luke 17:2, 1 Cor. 8), the parent church should be patient, and continue to reach out to the younger church. Hopefully, in time, the younger church will recognize this love and seek fellowship with the older church.

Theologically, the young church needs to mature, and learn the unity of the church that transcends ethnic differences. And when it joins the conference, the other churches must learn to accept, and share dignity and power with it, not as an offspring, but as an equal.

Separatism. Schermerhorn’s third type of inter-ethnic relationship is separatism. Here each party wants to remain separate from the other. An example may be Hispanic or Indian M.B.s that want to preserve their won cultural identity in their churches, and Teutonic M.B.s that do not want the Hispanic and Indian M.B.s to join their churches and marry their children.

There is no serious sociological problem with this position. Each group goes its own way. The result is a caste system in which different ethnic groups are encouraged or required to remain separate, and relationships between them are formalized in order to avoid conflict.

There are, however, serious theological problems with this approach. It may be a simple and pragmatic solution to the problem of ethnic differences, but in the end it divides the church. Neither church has come to grips with the Gospel that {95} calls for reconciliation that breaks down the old walls of hostility that divide us—walls of ethnicity, class and sex that are the result of sin (Gal.3:28). And neither church has understood that in Christ we are a new people—a new ethnic group, if you will (Eph. 2). Both ignore Christ’s prayer for the unity of the church (John 17:20-23), and John’s warning that love of our fellow Christians is the key sign of our love for God (1 John).

We dare not leave out, for the sake of social comfort, what is clearly the heart of the Gospel, namely love of neighbors and enemies, reconciliation and common fellowship in Christ. Both churches need to be taught the whole Gospel. Beginning with the leaders, bridges of fellowship need to be built between the congregations and individuals.

Segregation. The fourth type of relationship is segregation. Here the younger churches want fellowship with the parent church, but the parent church rejects them. Often this rejection is rooted in a hidden sense of superiority, and an unwillingness to share power and resources. An example of this is many white churches in North American and their relationships to black churches and Christians, and the segregationist section of the white church in South Africa. Both have lost their witness and discredited the name of Christ.

Sociologically, segregation leads to oppression and injustice. The dominant society uses the minority groups for its own purposes, but refuses to admit them into full membership in the society.

Theologically, too, this position is evil. It rejects reconciliation and love as the basis of the church, and denies the unity of the body of Christ. The older Christians, who should be spiritually mature, not only refuses to adjust so as to win the weak and lost, but also reject any efforts by the weak and lost to have fellowship. The sin here is with the dominant church which is in need of biblical teaching regarding the nature of the church and reconciliation.

A long range view. It is important when we begin planting churches in other ethnic groups that we take a long range view of the matter, and prepare our conference and our Teutonic M.B. congregations for future inter-ethnic fellowship. How can we do so?

First, we need to keep our Teutonic churches well informed regarding church planting in other ethnic groups, {96} and prepare them through teaching and preaching for fellowship with these churches. We must help them to learn to know more about other ethnic groups, and to develop relationships with them in order to remove ignorance that so often gives rise to fear and hostility.

Second, we need to begin early to build bridges of fellowship between churches of different ethnic groups. This may take the form of joint fellowship meetings in which members from Teutonic churches are encouraged to visit with people from other ethnic churches, and to make them feel welcome. It may take the form of occasional visits by members of one church to another—possibly to present “special numbers” in a service.

Third, we need to consciously restructure our conference so as to give leaders in new churches respect, a voice and power.

Migration and Assimilation

We face a second problem when we plant churches in other ethnic groups. We must keep in mind that those ethnic groups are not static. They, like we, are in constant social change through assimilation into the North American society. For example, the Koreans are at present the most successful church planters in Los Angeles. In the past decade they have planted more than two hundred Korean churches, made up mostly of recent immigrants. Their children, however, do not want to be Korean. They want to be Americans. And they are leaving the church. An estimated 40 percent of the American born Korean young people leave the Korean church. Most find no other church home! The same problem confronts the Mong, Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant groups in varying degrees.

As Mennonite Brethren we should be particularly sensitive to the problems of migration and assimilation, for we have gone through the process ourselves. We have wrestled with the problems of language change, of parents who longed to preserve their old cultural ways while the children reject them in order to find acceptance in the dominant society, and of the identity crises of the first and second generation young people born in North American. We are facing the question of marriages in the broader American community.

As ethnic groups assimilate into American society, where will {97} the younger generations go to church? Should we plant first, second and third generation Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese churches? Many of these young people want to be accepted in our older M.B. churches which they identify with mainstream America. If we send them away, and encourage them to form their own churches in order to preserve the cultural heritage of their ancestors, most of them will leave the church. We must accept them into our churches.


The second approach to evangelizing our ethnically plural society is to welcome people of other ethnic backgrounds into our congregations. This requires us to break out of the ethnic walls that have been both our home and our prison. John Redekop has done us a good service in analyzing the ways ethnicity has been both a blessing and a curse to those of us who are Teutonic M.B.s. It has helped us preserve a set of values and a way of life. It has also been the subtle barrier that keeps us from reaching out to our friends and neighbors.

What should be the relationship between theological commitments and ethnic loyalties? John is right in saying that we must first separate the two. Obviously, people must be invited and welcomed to be Mennonite Brethren, and that without buying into Teutonic ethnicity. Moreover, they must be full and equal members in the church, with a right to celebrate their own heritages just as we celebrate our heritage. Our churches must not be built on any one ethnic identity. Rather, they must be defined in theological terms—on the basis of a new spiritual ethnicity.

How can the church both affirm ethnicity, and yet keep it from becoming a hindrance to growth? Here identity theory can be of some help. All of us have many identities. For instance, I am a teacher, a father, a Mennonite Brethren, a citizen of the U.S. and of California, a deacon, and so on. Each of these provides me with an identity in a specific setting. At home I am a husband-father; at work a teacher; at church a deacon; and so on.

My identity is all of these, but it is more. At a deeper level, I have ordered these various identities in terms of their importance to (figure 4). For example, I am more committed to being a Mennonite Brethren that I am to being a Californian. {98}

In other words, if it came to a choice, I would leave California rather than give up my M.B. identity. Our forefathers made similar choices when they left Russia for the sake of their faith. I am not so sure, however, if we would be willing to leave North America for reasons of faith. Is it possible that we are more deeply Americans than Mennonites, or even Christians?

Figure 4
Levels of Identity

A second example can help make this ranking of identities clear. The parents of a white Christian young woman dating a black Christian young man said, “We would rather have our daughter marry a non-Christian white than a Christian black.” Obviously, their ethnic identity was deeper than their Christian identity.

What does all this have to do with ethnicity and the church? Let me make two applications. First, a church must be based on a theological not ethnic identity. Otherwise the church has lost its soul and made something other than Christ its Lord. Its beliefs have become a civil religion justifying the existing social order. Scripture is clear, the church is first and foremost the new community of believers who have made Christ the lord of their lives, not a people whose primary loyalty is to a common ancestor or shared race.

Second, Christians must be taught to see their most fundamental identities as human and Christian. Ethnic, political, social and economic identities must be secondary. This is not easy because our work, our social life, our political involvement, and our participation in the world around us reinforce these other identities, and claim their priority. Our nation demands our ultimate loyalties, and claims the right to send us to war. Our businesses claim precedence over family and church. In the world, church often comes after entertainment {99} —last on the list of priorities.

If other identities are more fundamental in our lives, the church will always remain divided. If, for example, my deepest identity is Teutonic white, I may fellowship with Black, Hispanic, Japanese and Anglo Christian brothers and sisters, but there will always be a hidden wall between us (figure 5). I know deep in my heart, that if a conflict arises, I will side with my non-Christian ethnic Mennonites against Christian Anglos, Blacks (as in slavery or in racist churches), Hispanics (as in part of L.A.), or Japanese (as in World War II). I will also be willing to kill a Christian brother for the sake of my country. If this is true, then Christ is, indeed, not the Lord of my life. He is only a leader in one area of my activity.

Figure 5
Underlying Divisions Fragment the Church

On the other hand, if being Christian is the most fundamental identity in our lives, ethnic differences will not divide the church. In fact, they can enrich it (figure 6). Each ethnic group in a congregation can share its ways, and be celebrated, for all know that underlying these surface differences they are one in the Lord. When such a spirit prevails, there can be true unity and fellowship amidst diversity.

Figure 6
Underlying Unity Celebrates Surface Diversity

All this is rather elementary. The real task is putting it into practice. How can we learn to let Christ truly be the Lord of our lives, and see our Christian brothers and sisters as closer to us than blood relatives?

Here, again, we need to make a distinction between young believers and old saints. We cannot normally expect new {100} believers to make Christianity the deepest level of their identity in a moment, although it does happen to a few. For most, their Christian identity is something new that must be learned. At first it is located somewhere in the middle of their being. Consequently, we may allow them to meet in fellowships in which they feel comfortable, and recognize their ethnocentric feelings. There may well be separate services for Koreans or Hispanics or others wishing to reaffirm their cultural identity.

But we should not let young Christians remain immature all their lives. Through conscious teaching, and involvement with other segments of the church, we must help them to make Christianity their most fundamental identity. The process may be slow, but it must be started.

What about the mature saints? They are Christians first, then males and females, Whites, Hispanics and Blacks, Republicans and Democrats. As believers, they long to win people of other ethnic and social groups. They therefore, as Paul points out, are willing to change in order to make others feel at home in the church. They are willing to try new forms of worship, and adopt new cultural ways in the hope of winning some. And some of them will move into other ethnic communities to identify with the people and plant churches.

Maybe this is asking too much of our older M.B. members and churches. But so long as our ethnicity is our deepest identity, our churches will not grow. Moreover, we as believers remain immature Christians. We must learn how to welcome people of other ethnicities into our churches and make them fully a part of our community, and fully at home.

How can we make this practical? First, we must become aware of our deeper, often unconscious, attitudes and identities, and the subtle ways in which we reinforce them in our churches. We must be taught not to play ethnic games that exclude others. We must learn how to deal biblically with our unregenerated attitudes towards people of other ethnic groups. The responsibility here belongs to the leaders and mature Christians in the church.

Second, we can begin by various types of “cultural immersion” that bring us into close contact with people of other races and cultures. Often our fears are rooted in the fact that we have never related closely to people in another ethnic community. Joint work projects, evangelistic outreaches, picnics and {101} worship services can help us to break down our deep prejudices. We must be careful, however, even in these to consciously build bridges between ethnic groups. Too often at such gatherings members of the dominant white church gather in groups and make no effort to include or learn from those of other ethnic communities. After such gatherings, we need to reexamine our feelings and deal with them in prayer.

Third, we need to learn more about other groups, their history and their ways. Just as we work to inform our church members of other lands where we have mission work, so also we need to help them learn about their neighbors next door. Ignorance is one of the great barriers to fellowship and love.

Fourth, we need to celebrate the ethnic ways of non-Teutonic groups in our churches. We need to hear their singing, eat their food, and worship in their ways. Then we too can celebrate our own ethnic heritage and rejoice together how the Lord has made us one in all our diversity.

Finally, we must deal with the core of ethnic animosities—the fear of intermarriage and children of mixed ethnic parentage. This may not be where we begin with new and weak believers, but we must confront the issue if we want to truly welcome non-Teutonics into our churches.


Today, we as Mennonite Brethren must face the challenge of ethnic pluralism. We can no longer avoid the problems of ethnicity by living in our counter-cultural rural communities, and hope to evangelize the world by starting churches abroad. Nor is it enough to plant churches in ethnic communities around us. Once they exist, we must relate to them and their members. We now belong to one world—a world that is increasingly becoming one city in which we work, live, eat, travel and marry with people of other ethnic groups.

On the other hand, we must build our distinctives as a people rooted in faith, and transmit this faith to our children. And we must do so in a changing world.

There are no simple solutions in dealing with the tension between evangelism and preserving the church as a countercultural community of faith. Both are needed if we wish to continue as a people of God. Christ calls us to evangelize all peoples (Matt. 28:16), and one day people from all races, {102} classes and sexes will unite to worship him (Rev. 5:9-10).

We must be careful, however, not to confuse either of these with ethnicity. Ethnicity influences evangelism and the building of Christian community. It can be a hindrance, or a blessing, depending upon whether or not we bring it under the Lordship of Christ. But just as we must learn what that Lordship means in our economic affairs, so in our day we must learn what it means in our relationships with people of other ethnic groups. If we fail here, God will judge us, and find us wanting.


  • McGavran, Donald. Understanding Church Growth. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1980.
  • Redekop, John H. A People Apart. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Press, 1987.
  • Schermerhorn, R. A. Ethnic Plurality in India. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1978.
Paul Hiebert, anthropologist and missions consultant, teaches at the Fuller School of World Missions, Pasadena, California.

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