I want to offer a word of warning and exhortation to those burdened by the need for gospel-reflecting, multi-ethnic churches that are, at minimum, as diverse as their ministry context. The exhortation is “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9). The warning is that you will get attacked, mocked, and misrepresented if you make attempts to cultivate, celebrate, and promote racial diversity and harmony in the church.
For generations we have settled for segregated churches. Voluntarily segregated churches are a pale reflection of the expansive reconciling work of the gospel, which is promised and displayed in the Scripture. Too often we assure ourselves that as long as we would receive anyone who wants to attend our church, then we are fine on the topic of race. We see no need to intentionally and strategically reach out across ethnic boundaries to display the local body of Christ as “one new man” described as “the household of God” (Eph 2:13,19).
To agitate this settled complacency about race and ethnicity with the gospel is both dangerous and necessary. The path of moving churches from passivity to strategic gospel aggression regarding race and diversity is fraught with difficulty and will result in frequent missteps that can and will be used against you. Nevertheless, attempting to do the right thing and making mistakes is far better than the perceived safety of doing nothing. Every pastor must decide if he is going to be a courageous gospel shepherd or and ecclesial caretaker of the congregational status quo.
A while ago, I wrote an article called “Jesus is not Colorblind,” arguing the Bible calls us to aggressively pursue and celebrate racial diversity in our churches because our vertical gospel reconciliation demands a horizontal display in local churches. I submitted the article to an outlet with which I had a long-standing writing relationship. In fact, they had never turned down an article I had submitted, but this time they asked me to tone the piece down a bit. When I refused, I experienced a new kind of racial profiling. The content editor said, “I am hesitant to run your article because I checked on your website and your staff is all white.” (My friends at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary gladly ran the article on their Between the Times blog here).
I explained to the editor the ethnic diversity of our congregation and that we have a staff-person whose job is to help us strategize and reach across ethnic boundaries in the Lexington Metro Area. I told him that we have an event each year that draws about 400 people from about 35 diverse ethnic backgrounds and that each Sunday we have about 6 nationalities represented in worship. I shared with him the call we received one day from a local university staff person who said, “We know that Ashland loves to serve ethnic minorities, and we have one asking about Christianity. Will it be okay if we send her to talk to you?” I also told him about our adoption culture and plethora of trans-racial families in our congregation.
What really struck me though was the tactic the editor was trying to use to suppress the article. It is as though he was suggesting a person does not have the prerogative to say what the Bible says on an issue unless they are the best exemplar of what they are proclaiming from the biblical text. If I followed that advice, I would never preach another sermon. Years ago, our church became convicted that we should reflect the reality our spiritual adoption by adopting and serving orphans around the world. We began preaching about adoption, praying for orphans, and pooling money to help people longing to adopt. About six years later, our congregation is full of children who are no longer orphans. We did not wait until we embodied an adoption culture to speak of its necessity. No, it was the call from the word of God brought about the change.
Recently, I saw the same kind of new racial profiling tactics being used against Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is hosting a conference on March 26-27 in Nashville that will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation.” The conference seeks to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. I am honored to be speaking at this important conference (I hope you will join me there). The SBC Voices blog ran a commentary by William Thornton that questioned the credibility of the conference by asserting:
For a lesson in rhetoric vs. reality, the link at the end of this sentence is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s staff directory page. The Executive Staff is all white. There is one, out of 25, African American on the page. She is a consultant.
It’s pretty safe to sit in D.C. look at the camera and call for action by SBC churches.
I imagine it is also pretty safe to sit behind the computer screen and question the actions of those who are actually in the trenches doing something about these vital issues. Moore has been in office for a little over a year, and he has already been very vocal on racial issues, and now he has organized a national conference on racial issues in the church. I must admit that I like what Moore is doing a whole lot better than what many of these critics are not doing.
We must honestly face the cultural racial tensions that have been clearly apparent in recent days with the truth of the gospel. And we must also address the failure of our churches to lead by displaying in our congregations that we are one in Christ. None of us address these issues from an ivory tower of perfection but that is not a reason for silence. It is reason for us to speak the word of God to ourselves and to one another. We must never tire of attempting to walk more in line with the gospel in our churches regarding race and every other issue.
As John Piper has urged regarding the pursuit of racial diversity and harmony in our churches, “Stay at the table when the conversation is happening, which means for the rest of your life… The most sad development is to watch people make an attempt in racial harmony, get hurt, and walk away… Those seeking racial harmony and diversity should know they’re going to get beat up regardless of how they approach the topic… they should resist the urge to quit when they do get hurt” (Christian Post).