Sensible shoppers read the label before buying something. Sensible Christians, however, probably should not take too much notice of the labels that we all give to each other.
One way of labelling the world, popular with us evangelicals, is as a patchwork of perhaps 16,000 ethnolinguistic groups. (The people in each group generally share a language, marry among themselves, and consider those outside the group to be ‘foreigners’. The Bible often calls these groups ‘nations’.)
Then, perhaps 7,000 of these ethnic groups are less than 5% Christian or 2% evangelical and so are ‘unreached peoples’. This is a helpful way of unravelling Christ’s command to ‘make disciples of all the nations’. But I believe we must not press it too far. For these reasons:
1. As a way of seeing the world, it’s simplistic and can even be unkind. Cultural boundaries are fuzzy. Cultures change across generations. And different people own their culture in different ways: some reject their ethnic label (as perhaps belonging to their village) and prefer a national one (more suited to their urban life). Others do the opposite, identifying, for example, as Scots rather than Brits. And then a lot of us are a mixture of cultures or display different cultural layers in different situations. A single label oversimplifies us.
2. Whenever we humans label someone ‘the other’ we face the temptation of thinking less of them because they are ‘them’ not ‘us’. Yet at a deep level we are all ‘us’. We are all neighbours. We have all fallen short. The whole human species is huddled together on God’s naughty step. There isn’t ‘them’ and ‘us’.
3. Christians are supposed to work towards all humanity united in Christ; our aim is to weave cultural threads together, not tease them apart.
Most important, surely, Christ's way is to meet each of us as a unique person, nestled in a unique web of relationships. Our ethnic grouping is only one label, and often not the most important. Being a single mum, or a deaf person, or a millionaire (or all three) may be more relevant than the fact that someone is a Muslim of Lebanese origin. Labels have their place, and the gospel must take account of them, but then it must burrow deep beneath, down to the heart.
Photo: Laura Aziz