On any given Sunday at New Life Fellowship, worshipers from more than 75 ethnic backgrounds gather at the church’s three services in Queens, New York City. But during the week, an increasing number of them go to small groups intentionally split along ethnic lines.

Congregations like New Life face a challenge when it comes to small groups: the things that make small groups thrive—like common interests, backgrounds, and culture—often work against the church’s goal of building multiethnic community.

Some church leaders believe homogenous small groups actually attract diversity. At New Life, ethnic fellowships function as a “great entry point into a multiethnic church,” said small group pastor Phil Varghese, the son of Indian immigrants.

“It’s a cultural shock for newcomers to see so many people groups gathering,” he said. “We’re building Spanish-language and Filipino, South Asian, and Indonesian ethnic fellowships.”

Such groups can make new immigrants feel at home. Knowing that they can find weekday fellowship in their own language, many “first-generation parents will sacrifice not hearing a Spanish-language message [on Sunday morning] because their kids are loving what they are getting at our church,” said Jorge Molina, an El Salvador native who pastors small groups at Christ Fellowship Church Miami.

Instead of small groups, his church uses weekly volunteering as the place where its 3,000 members can interact with people from other ethnic backgrounds.

Other church leaders are skeptical of monocultural small groups. If members don’t build friendship across ethnic lines outside of Sunday morning, they argue, the church’s ...

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