The church that my family and I now attend, Cottage Grove Church in Des Moines, IA, recently launched a sermon series on Ephesians. Within that larger series the past three Sundays they offered a mini-series on racial justice as they drilled down on Ephesians 2:11-22.
The passage reads:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit, (ESV)
Reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. God reconciles us to Himself through Christ and those who in Christ to one another. When it comes to racial reconciliation, the Church has a mixed record. On the one hand, Christians led the abolitionist movement. Christians led within the civil rights movement. On the other hand, there were Christian slave owners, Christians who supported segregation, and churches that were unwelcoming to blacks along with other minorities.
We can’t deny the reason black denominations started because they were not welcome in white-dominated denominations.
That is our past, and it is checkered. We should not deny it, but we do not have to be defined by it.
Unfortunately, the term “evangelicals” has become synonymous with the term “white evangelicals.”
I hate the term “white evangelicals.” “White evangelicals” are a political subgroup that pollsters have identified.
The term “evangelical,” derived from the Greek word “euangelion,” means “good news” or “gospel.” So evangelicalism as a movement focuses on the Gospel, as well as, the primacy of Scripture.
David Bebbington, a Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Baylor University, in his 1989 study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain notes that four distinct characteristics are marks of evangelicalism (HT: National Association of Evangelicals):
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
Being evangelical has nothing to do with being white or black. It has nothing to do with being a Republican or Democrat. It’s about the transforming power of the Gospel to change lives and sharing that good news with others.
A person can be true to their cultural roots and still be evangelical. That said, there are aspects of our cultural roots that are not biblically sound – whether you are white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, or Native American (I’m sure I’m leaving someone out). We should shun those because our citizenship is now in heaven and we all become sojourners when we become Christ-followers, (Philippians 3:20).
Even so, 11:00a on Sunday morning is called “the most segregated hour of the week.”
That is a reality because we have, historically, not been welcoming because of race. This notion persists today for three primary reasons.
- We are most comfortable with what is familiar.
- We like to be around people like ourselves (not bound by race, but also socio-economic status).
- We do not like change.
I served in a Christian organization for ten years where my primary responsibility was volunteer and mentor recruitment. This role meant I needed to build relationships with pastors and staff members of various churches. I had the opportunity to visit and speak in a variety of different churches, including some historically black churches in Des Moines.
There were things that I appreciated about the black churches I visited. For example, in two consecutive weeks, one week I preached at a Reformed church in a small town in central Iowa, and the other I gave a five minute “missions moment” at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Des Moines. I went from a subdued congregation to a very energetic one, and I noticed. It’s not that one was wrong, and the other was right, but it was cultural differences between a primarily Dutch congregation to a predominantly black one.
That said, I’m not a particular fan of the preaching style of some black pastors. (I favor expository preaching and incidentally one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Tony Evans, is black.) I would have a difficult time sitting under that preaching style week in and week out. It is not that style of preaching is wrong, it is just not my personal preference.
Overcoming differences and preferences with worship and preaching are difficult. We like what we are used to, and we do not like change. It becomes institutionalized.
People also like to be around those who are more like themselves. In both black and white churches I found that people would travel greater distances to be a church where they felt they could relate. This is not limited to race. My wife and I attended a large, suburban church for several years where we didn’t feel like we fit in because it was very affluent and being in youth ministry for 20 years we were not.
Also, geography plays a part. Typically churches reflect the diversity of the neighborhood/city they are located (though not always). That is difficult to overcome.
How can we get there? Here are five thoughts:
Push beyond our comfort zone.
Christ-likeness, not comfort, is our calling. We, as the Body of Christ, are to bear one another’s burdens. We are also called to deny ourselves. If we only cater to what we like, prefer, or are comfortable with how are we doing either of those things?
Distinguish between cultural preferences and biblical directives.
Churches have a lot of “sacred cows” and very rarely are they biblical directives. Take worship as an example. Worship differences are mostly generational or cultural preferences, not biblical directives. I understand that some of my “old-school” Presbyterian brethren may disagree with this, but even if you only sing Psalms does that mean the meter you use can’t change?
Create space for differences/model diversity.
I think it is much easier for new churches to do this than older churches (because we don’t like change). If you want diversity, you have to model it, reflect it on church staff and leadership (obviously keeping biblical qualifications of elders in mind), and create space for it in worship and programming.
It requires intentionality.
Quick to listen, slow to speak.
Christ-followers are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” (James 1:19b, ESV). People just do not take the time to listen anymore. This inability to hear has been exasperated by social media, especially in the political realm (I’m guilty of this as well). People are so easily offended. This should not be the mark of Christ-followers. There has to room for conversation and to ask questions. We should not assume the worst in people, especially if they are a brother or sister in Christ.
Focus on what unites us.
We must keep the focus on what unites us. The Apostle Paul said to the Corinthian Church he decided to know nothing among them but “Christ and him crucified,” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
The author of Hebrews encourages us this way:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV).
Ephesians 2 makes it clear, Jesus tore down the dividing wall of hostility. We are to be one in Christ.
Our focus should not be on cultural preferences, political affiliation or ideology, but on Jesus.
Update: I wanted to make it clear (and I realized I did not) that there are still some churches, particularly in the South, where black Christians are not welcome. This saddens and angers me, and those churches must be rebuked. That behavior is antithetical to the Gospel and must be rejected. That said, I have not experienced first-hand any churches like that, and I believe they are the exception and not the norm nationwide.