Religion and Ethnicity- Orville Boyd Jenkins

a_panta_ethneIn some lists of databases of ethnic groups, we see names like “Agaria, Hindu” and “Agaria, Muslim” (India).  What is the role of religion in ethnicity? Is it the religious aspect of culture that is being designated?  When does religion become the determining factor in identity?

The distinctive element we wish to emphasize is that of culture. Religion is an important cultural characteristic.  How important the religious identity is varies from people to people.  As we evaluate all the various cultural characteristics, we have to determine (discover) which of those are most determinative within the self-identity of the particular people themselves.  Different cultural characteristics are given different relative value in each ethnic group.

We see some related ethnic groups with two or more divisions, according to religious identity, such as Arain, Muslim; Arain, Sikh; Arain, Hindu (in India).  Such a name does not necessarily mean to imply that every member of the group is Hindu, or Muslim, or whatever the case may be.  Such a designation in the formal listing of an ethnic group is not meant to preclude the individual options of members of that ethnic group.

Religion in Culture
Rather, the intention is that the religious reference given reflects the distinctive culture of the group.  Religion is one of the factors involved in what we call culture.  Religion is one of the ethnic “descriptors” — critical factors that may be observed to identify ethnicity.

Religion is one of the factors that help define culture, and thus ethnicity.  There are cultures in which the religious identity is a primary defining factor.  In many cultures it does not matter.

Thus in such discussions, it is the cultural character of “religion” that is in focus when we identify a people as “Hindu” or “Christian.”  On the other hand, we don’t need to feel compelled to over-generalize.  This can lead us to feel we must define some religious aspect in the name or basic identity of the group.

The commonly agreed guiding factor is the extent to which the broad religious identity determines how the people themselves identify themsleves.

Mission Context
In this regard, traditional religious systems of any kind, whatever they may be called (even “Christian”) is a different factor from the identified factor of “New Testament” believer, or “evangelical” or “born again,” by which we may, for gospel strategy purposes, distinguish the New Testament church as we understand it in terms of mission.

Such believers, and such a church can exist in any culture (theoretically), no matter what the perceived general religious character of the culture might be.

For example, in the Roman Empire, Rome’s official religion (cultural religious character) was a Paterfamilias state paganism, with aspects of emperor worship which gained in strength from the late first century of the Christian era.  But there was an identifiable and acknowledged population of Christians, and their churches.

These Roman Christians surely were, for the most part, what is commonly identified today in mission terms as the New Testament or “evangelical” church!  But the Roman Empire’s peoples were not Christian in culture, nor was Rome Christian in culture.  There was no Christian ethnicity at that time.  The “Christians” were a mix of different peoples, with a predominance of Jews that diminished as the first century progressed.

A Conceptual Problem
While religious identity, in principle, can be the determining and defining factor in ethnic identification and communication, we encounter a conceptual problem in the following regard.

When someone in the ethnicity designated as Muslim, for instance, becomes a believer in Christ, what do we do with that designation?  Since he is now not a Muslim, do we consider him to have changed ethnicity?  Further, what about the concept of establishing an indigenous church planting movement within the ethnic group?  If by definition any convert to Christian faith is no longer a member of the “Muslim” ethnic group, how is it ever possible to establish a church in the ethnicity?

On the other hand, maybe it is the definition of “Christian” that throws us off here.  Normally it is intuitively understood that certain peoples are “Christian,” and that they do, indeed, define themselves that way in regard to other similar peoples around them.  But we understand that to mean culturally Christian, a separate question from matters of individual personal faith.  Likewise the concept of “cultural Christianity” does not rule out personal “evangelical” faith, as often used in mission circles.  Perhaps the concept of “Muslim Background Believer” (MBB), used by access teams of many agencies, can be the bridging concept.

Culturally Muslim Christians?
In this sense you would have cultural “Muslims” who DO stay within their culture (religious ethnic and social group) while still faithfully following Jesus.  In fact, there are specialists studying such situations to propose guidelines for enhancing this process.  We will watch for contributions on this dialogue.  A goal of this perspective would presumably to encourage such young “Muslim” Christians and embryonic churches to accelerate such developments into an indigenous church planting movement.

We need to step back and consider the role and level of validity of people group listings.  Descriptive listings of peoples, which may include religious characteristics as ethnic components, may not be definitive in determining the relationship between individuals of whatever personal faith commitments and the broader group.

Christian Identity in Non-Christian Ethnicity
In that sense, “Christians” from a “Christian” ethnic group, otherwise similar to another “Muslim” or “Hindu” ethnic group, might be considered as being of a different ethnicity from from believers in Christ who remain among the latter two groupings after they discover faith in Jesus Christ.  Let’s continue to consider implications at the conceptual and practical strategy levels.

We might consider the religious designation, for those peoples whose cultural ethnic identity seems to be primarily defined by their religion, as a sociological factor or terminology.  Likewise, it is a valid anthropological designation or distinction.

This impacts our classification or listing of world ethinicities in a manner that affects our strategy needs in regard to the identification of ethnicity.  But it may be helpful to keep in mind that sociological categories draw upon a different set of perspectives from anthropology, though they relate and overlap somewhat.  The sociological factors in religion may not be fully congruent with common mission designation of “Christians” within the society, for mission strategy purposes.

I tend to be somewhat cautious in excluding a religious identity.  But from a series of email discussions on this questions with researchers and strategists worlwide, I think there is a general consensus on the basic principle.

Guiding Principle
I would state the guiding principle this way, in three parts:
(1) work to identity peoples and develop strategies in such a way as to facilitate the gospel being planted and arising among any defined grouping
(2) the believers should remain in the group as the basis of the gospel spreading through that group
(3) the church should develop indigenously (in a culturally-appropriate manner and in the heart language) for each culture group.

Also related:
People Groups and the Homogeneous Unit Concept

Related on the Internet:
Religion as Culture
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group (A variation on the above topic)


First notes written August and September 2003, in an email conference with cultural researchers in various parts of the world.
Expanded and finalized as an article 07 December 2006
Last edited 23 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.