Becoming a Multi Ethnic Church: It’s Biblical, not Political

I did a sermon last Sunday (at bottom) that looked at how to apply the many biblical texts about oppression and injustice to a 2017 American context.  At Crossroads, we are making intentional steps to become a multi-ethnic church. I’ve been immersed in the multi-ethnic and racial reconciliation conversation since 2008 (when I first read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith).  Many think there aren’t more multi-ethnic churches because of worship style, preaching style, cultural differences, and the general human inclination to clump with people who are like us.  In my observation, these are not the real reasons.  The primary reason there are not more multi-ethnic churches is because white Christians can’t typically be trusted with the experiences of people of color.  What I mean is, church is community.  The evangelical church is humorously known for overusing cliche words like “authentic” and “real” and their many synonyms.  This is what community is supposed to be.  But when a person of color shares their authentic and real experience–the daily racial micro-aggressions they endure, the history of our nation that created the disadvantages they face daily and have to strain to overcome, and so much more–white brothers and sisters in Christ either have no category for these things and are just confused, or at worst, deny these experiences and disadvantages all together.  If you can’t be real and authentic about your life experience in your Christian community, then you aren’t going to stay in that community.

Historically, the reason we have black denominations, seminaries, and churches is because the white churches and organizations did not let black people in…so they had to go and start their own.  And what we have today is the recent-byproduct.

So a solution to this mess, and a return to the biblical model for an ethnically-united church, is multi-ethnic churches.  This is the journey Crossroads Church is on, and we are ramping up our intentional efforts.

I’ve been reflecting on why this conversation shuts some people down and wanted to sift through some of those triggers here.  What Sunday’s sermon was about was 1. noticing God’s heart for the oppressed and his commands for justice in Scripture, 2. emphasizing that we are to apply these texts today, not just read about them — one of those areas of needed application being systemic racism, & 3. that a solution to systemic racism is the multi-ethnic church, which we are becoming at Crossroads.  These conversations and sermons are needed for us to be able to become that.

But a biblical, solution-oriented message can easily be confused because of the ideologies we all bring with us to the Scriptures and to our church experience.  One thing I’ve noticed is that “systemic racism” is a trigger-word that shifts people’s minds to politics.

I had a conversation with a friend from my church on the phone last week.  I asked them where they had been on Sundays and they said they found a new church that only preaches the Bible, not politics and opinions.  I asked them if my sermons were too political for them and they said they liked sermons that “only preached the Word, not ones that mentioned Black Lives Matter.”

This brought up two thoughts, one is that we aren’t to apply the Bible to today.  The other is that for many, as soon as “race” or “injustice” is brought up, they can’t help but automatically see things as political, like they are in the political boxing ring, rather than seeing something as a biblical issue, something that might fall outside of political debate and political pundits’ “solutions.”  (Many systemic issues are a result of legislation, both past and present.  I’m not referring to specific legislation, as yes we must deal with that as Christians, but to how fiercely we hold to one political side of the aisle or the other.  Where every issue gets a label of Republican or Democrat.)  I said something in my sermon that I wish I had nuanced more so it wasn’t a distraction or a hindrance.  I said that in my experience, the people who think the reason whites have 13x more net worth than blacks is because black people don’t have the same amount of work ethic as whites–are white Republicans.  And in my sermon, I referenced genetics being a factor in that understanding (Basically the belief that black people are poorer because they are lazy, genetically).  I would like to nuance that here…

Not all Republicans think this way.  The individuals who express that view to me have always been Republican though, that is just an objective observation. But that’s not to say all Republicans are this way; I apologize for my sermon potentially alluding to that, it was not my intent.

I am not for the Democrat solution to systemic racism.  Nor am I advocating political solutions in my sermon.  I am advocating multi-ethnic churches and a ministry approach that seeks to love, dignify, and lift up those who have been beaten down by systemic injustice.

I am not pro-Democrat.  I am also not pro-Republican.

I do not like how biblical issues such as systemic racism, oppression, and generational poverty are turned into a political debate point.  It’s not a political issue to talk about systemic racism or poverty in a sermon.  In the same way I do not like how abortion is turned into a political debate point.  It’s not a political issue to talk about abortion in a sermon, but a biblical one.

With those nuances, the point I wanted to make is that both sides of political aisle have faulty ideologies, ways of viewing the world that those who are allegiant to their party are steeped in.  The political parties chain a bunch of ideologies together to ensure the votes keep coming in and the fight remains one polarity versus another on all subjects.  One of these ideologies for the Republican Party (though not all individual Republicans) is that if someone is poor, it was a choice they made.  That if they worked harder, they could stop being poor.  That their environment is the same as mine.  That systemic issues (government laws that created the poverty these people have been born into for generations) don’t exist or do not apply.  The ideology is that we all have equal bootstraps to pull ourselves up by.  That everyone is born at the same starting line.  The idea that white people get a big head start and that black people have to start way behind the starting line (and history objectively records the domino effect that created this) is completely rejected by this group of Republicans.  Not every Republican believes this, but this is an ideology of the party:  If you’re poor, you chose it.  And if you don’t want to be poor, choose your way out of it.  As if one person has the same choices, environments, or opportunities as another.  It denies the power our environment as on us, and it denies that over centuries, our government created a devastating environment for blacks and an optimal environment for whites.

I know the heart of these Republicans is to emphasize that personal choice matters.  But it’s not an either / or, which is what I hate about politics.  And I mean hate.  We need to get away from knee-jerk responses.  I know personal choice matters.  I live in a poor neighborhood and it is my primary mission field.  I know that sex (specifically pregnancy) outside of marriage and drug use and dropping out of school contribute to generational poverty.  And I know that those who were able to get out of generational poverty did make choices for that to happen.  And in fact, I’m trying to get them to make those same choices, including the most important choice: to repent of their sins and follow Jesus.  But that doesn’t mean that the environment that the poor black kids in my neighborhood were born in to was the same environment the affluent white kids I went to school were.  Environments that deprive you of opportunity and resources that shape you in deep and lasting ways.  (In fact, part of my intentional response to systemic racism is to make sure I pour myself into these kids’ lives in any way I can)  So we must ask how did the environment for those things get created specifically for black people and not for white people?  And how must we now work to reverse that?  The answer is not in having segregated, all-white, affluent suburban churches and communities, I can guarantee that.  I know that’s hard to digest, but it’s okay for something to be hard.  Objectively, I’m only stating that having homogenous, resource-packed, segregated churches is only going to make the 13x more net worth stat worse, not better, every year that passes — versus if we had intentionally multi-ethnic congregations that were intentional about building community from within the redlined black ghettos of our cities and beyond.  That’s a hard statement to argue with.

(And please know that while systemic racism is a serious economic issue, it’s also much broader than that.  Many white people were born into poverty as well, but never had to deal with the discrimination and micro-aggressions even the richest people of color have to go through.  Poor white people also have significant obstacles to overcome, but they were not obstacles engineered by the US government based on skin color.  Both are serious, but are not the same conversation.)

So I do want to make it really clear I’m not arguing that some sort of welfare is the solution to this.   The welfare system is riddled with problems.  But showing how legislation caused our disparities is different than jumping into the pride-filled political pundit boxing match.  In thinking of much more practical solutions: white people do have a vast majority of the resources, this is undeniable, as do white churches in comparison to black churches.  What we (white people) need to understand is that our networks are more valuable to fixing what has been broken than our checkbooks or tax money are.  “Resources” are not the same as “money.”  This is a key distinction.  Because frankly, the black church is filled with resources that the white church desperately needs, they just aren’t of the economic variety.  And on the flip side, we all know that it’s not typically about what you know, but who you know that gets you a job.  And who knows the people who own most businesses?  White people and white churches.  This type of multi-ethnic networking comes through intentional relationships; relationships that acknowledge what is wrong so that we can be in real, authentic community together.  But that community will seldom happen without intentionality.

It frustrates me when some brothers and sisters of mine are so steeped in their political values and ideology that they can’t see something as a ministry issue and biblical issue, considering that their pundits could be wrong without it automatically meaning the pundits on the other side are right.  It’s not a pundit vs. pundit debate, it’s simply objective reality of the human experience.  Maybe it’s because I don’t bother to listen to any of the pundits about anything that makes it so I don’t understand the thinking that something must be one of two polar extremes.

As Christians, we need to be humble enough to grab a hold of what is true, even if it differs from what we hear from politically conservative television and radio pundits.

And yes, the exact same thing could be said about many issues relating to those who hold allegiance to the Democratic party, even as it relates to their solutions to systemic racism.

But my point here is in presenting the multi-ethnic church as a solution to systemic racism.  And I don’t believe a church can genuinely be multi-ethnic if the white people in the church are unable to acknowledge the experience of the people of color within their community.  And if systemic racism can’t be acknowledged as true by these white people, then this will be impossible.

The point of all of this is to be solution-oriented and create multi-ethnic churches, not to beat up on or shame white people.  I believe that’s another auto-programmed response we have as white people.  No one is trying to make you feel guilty, they are trying to show you a great opportunity God has presented you.  We have a great opportunity to do something about the disadvantaged societal environment people of color are born into.  It’s okay to not know this stuff.  It’s okay to just start waking up to it, realizing your whole life is built around this, and have questions, confusion, and desiring to learn more and desiring to ask tough questions.  That’s a great place to be.  But it’s not okay to dismiss it, deny it, and fight against it, at least it’s not okay within a multi-ethnic church.  That view is not compatible with creating a safe, biblical place for people of color to be in authentic community.

Forgiveness means to stop feeling angry or resentful about something harmful that was done.  But reconciliation, an extremely biblical term, means to make things right.  It means to reconcile the debt.  (And no, not in the Democrat agenda way)

There might be white people who are too damaged by the political ideologies of conservative political radio and TV to ever really be able to honestly listen to people of color, and that is a tragedy.  I pray for those in that boat, that the Lord will blast through and show the need to listen to those who have been oppressed.  That He’ll show that the oppressed have a better perspective about the situation than the historical oppressor and contemporary beneficiary of that oppression does.

We aren’t trying to be a multi-ethnic church because it’s trendy or cool, but because we believe the Bible commands us to.  If our church shrinks to the point where we no longer can have salaries, that is not a problem.  You can’t not preach or not do what God tells you to do.  That is the boat we are in, and we are thankful for it.  We are becoming a multi-ethnic church because we believe it is a true solution to cancer of systemic racism that has seeped throughout our entire society.  Not that it will solve the entire mess, but it will move us toward the solution, rather than sitting back and letting the problem continue to get worse.

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