There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham Jail
These prophetic and powerful words could have been true in any decade of American history. Sadly, this includes today. As a young boy growing up in the Chicago area, and learning of Dr. King’s work in that city, I’ve had a profound respect for him and his commitment to disturb the status quo. His influence has encouraged me to seek to break barriers as a pastor.
Building bridges to racial reconciliation
In 2016, I was called as lead pastor of the Sojourn Community Church Midtown congregation. Sojourn is a predominately white church that is nestled in an inner city with a half-black, half-white demographic. I saw this as a unique opportunity for a vibrant church in the Southern Baptist Convention to model reconciliation and the unity of the Spirit.
The level of intensity and weightiness of this assignment has felt overwhelming at times. However, the Lord is gracious, and so are his people. Together, we press on as ministers of reconciliation and are looking to be faithful and pursue diversity with three goals in mind:
1. Our vision is to present our members “mature in Christ” as Paul preaches in Colossians 1:28. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. Part of presenting the body mature in Christ is helping them to see that in Christ, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythians, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
This means being faithful to teach that God has already shattered the ethnic and class barriers in and through his Son's body. The “dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down. Multiethnic churches are God’s eternal purpose in Christ, and we must help our members to see that.
To develop a multiethnic, multicultural church, we must operate out of our identities, rather than our preferences.
In August 2009, I was able to practice this when I became interim pastor of a 148-year-old predominately African-American church in Louisville, Kentucky. The church is named Forest Baptist Church because the church’s founders were once slaves who used to gather in the forest to worship Jesus, away from their slave owners, as the “invisible institution.”
During my time there, the Lord brought the pastors of the church under deep conviction to obey the Great Commission by working toward having our congregation reflect the demographics of our community. Though the surrounding area was mostly African-American, it had a substantial Latino population.
Being committed to multiethnic ministry at Forest Baptist Church didn’t come without criticism. While the majority of our members were in support of our desire to reach every ethnic group in our neighborhood with the gospel, some were not. I was confronted by one member who aggressively asked, “Who gives you the right to have this black church welcome all these other people?”
My response was, “Jesus.” Diversity is his idea.
2. We want to build bridges as God’s church while we seek to grow as a multiethnic, multicultural congregation. As a church, we must be unapologetically committed to some core values to accomplish this. Inspired by Leonard Sweet’s Aqua Church 2.0, we’ve developed an acronym to explain what building bridges is all about.
Building into one another as family
Reconciliation is for all who believe
Inclusive corporate worship gatherings
Devoted to the Word
Guided by the Spirit
Sacrificial servants and stewards
These core values help root us as a congregation and pursue diversity by giving our church a common language and pursuit. It helps us understand that the church isn’t a building—it is who we are.
Understanding who we are as a church is vital to the pursuit of diversity. This acronym is based on the five identities that we believe describe us: family, worshipers, disciples, witnesses and servants. To develop a multiethnic, multicultural church, we must operate out of our identities, rather than our preferences. Our identities are what unify us when our preferences threaten to divide us.
3. We want to be a burning movement. As we see with the church in Acts, we believe that God has called us, not to be stagnant and spiritually scarce, but to continuously sow seeds and look to expand his kingdom. So, pursuing reconciliation means that we reject the temptation to only target people who look and think like us.
We want to be a church on the move that’s impacting all demographics of our surrounding campuses, schools and neighborhoods, even reaching the nations, with the message of reconciliation. This message tears down all –isms: racism, classism, ageism, sexism, consumerism and more.
Pursuing reconciliation means that we reject the temptation to only target people who look and think like us.
If we are going to grow in diversity, we’ll also need to express the gospel in different ways that help people appreciate other cultures. If monoethnic and monocultural churches are serious about diversity, they will have to acknowledge their preferences while embracing new expressions throughout their ministry. This is hard and requires that a congregation that is shepherded with patience and wisdom.
Since Sojourn is located in a white and black area, one of the ways that we specifically model reconciliation is by having our founding pastor, who is white, share the pulpit with me. This gives our congregations a chance to see ethnically different pastors rightly divide the Word.
Since January 2016, we have also been intentional about diversifying our staff by bringing in a Latino worship director and partnering with our non-for-profit ministry to bring on another African-American pastor.
The pursuit of diversity is not an easy path; if it were, multicultural churches would be the norm. The process is painful for pastors and congregants, alike. Not only does it challenge heart-level issues of prejudice, but it challenges lifelong preferences regarding music, expressiveness in services, preaching style and more.
We’ve faced significant challenges in this journey and certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few things we’ve tried to do to overcome obstacles along the way:
1. Shepherd your people toward diversity; don’t force it on them. Becoming a multicultural church is a journey. And when it comes to issues of race, people are in different places on that journey. Each person in your church has a story that shapes how they view the world.
For many in our context, the issue of race is only a political issue. Because of that, when we address issues of racism or have a service of lament for injustices going on in the world, we have been accused of “moving away from the gospel” or “becoming a liberal church.” So, in the pursuit of diversity, it is imperative that you gently shepherd your people to understand that diversity is actually at the heart of the gospel.
2. Listen to your people. Part of shepherding your people is having one-on-one conversations with them. The old pastoral adage is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I’ve had people send scathing e-mails and threaten to leave the church. But, instead of sending them our theological position paper on racial reconciliation, I’ve invited them to come to my office so I could listen to them. I’ve seen the eternal value in having personal conversations with people about diversity; listening has a way of disarming the hardest of hearts.
3. Ask for grace and forgiveness. Many of the challenges we’ve had to overcome are the result of the man in the mirror. Sometimes, as pastors, we’ve gone too fast or too slow and we’ve spoken too strong and too soft. I’m sure that everyone has been annoyed at some point. I sin and offend members, just as they sin and offend me. We all must depend on the same Savior. Yet, as a pastor, when you hurt people on this journey toward diversity, you should be the quickest to repent and ask forgiveness.
Many stipulate that by 2050, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority in this country. From a pragmatic perspective, our churches must begin to take steps toward diversity now, or in the near future, we will be obsolete. We’ll become monocultural silos.
From a theological perspective, if our churches pray “on earth as it is in heaven,” yet don’t reflect—or worse, don’t care about—the portrait of heaven we’re given in Revelation 7:9, then I fear we will hurt our witness.
On the other hand, one of the greatest apologetics in the next 20 years will be multiethnic, multicultural churches. As cultural divides continue, and likely deepen, I believe people will ask “Why?” when they look at our churches and see blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, young and old, women and men, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, standing, living, laughing, weeping, walking— together—and worshipping the King of kings.
These will be the kinds of churches that will be, as Dr. King said, a thermostat that will transform the mores of society. And these are the kinds of churches we must strive to be.