What our church staff took away from the MLK50 Conference

April 11, 2018

Good Friday 2018 was an amazing time for our staff. We had a packed day, but no one knew just what kind of effect it would have on us. I accepted an invitation to preach at a predominantly black church at noon. I, an African-American, was slated to preach the sixth slot of an all-black lineup of preachers—and our staff decided to attend.

Though we have some diversity on our staff (two black men, one black woman, one half-Mexican woman, six white men, and two white women), most of our staff has not been in a primarily black church. As preacher after preacher got up, and as spontaneous worship (led by an incredible female vocalist) continued to draw us into deeper reverence, it became clear to our staff that we had been missing out on something profound. This solidified for many of us that diversity isn’t a novelty but a necessity.

This was only a foretaste of what would prove to be one of the most eye-opening, mind-provoking, tear-jerking weeks we have experienced as a staff. We attended the MLK50 Conference, and we were burdened, blessed, broken and brought back together because of the words of each speaker. Here are three overarching observations that capture what we took away from the conference:

1. Listen and learn

There’s a saying that “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Listening needs to be a perpetual practice in our apprenticeship to Jesus Christ. However, when it comes to race relations in America, one voice has been given a social megaphone, and other dissenting voices have been silenced. White America continues to have the privileged place of teacher in most conversations concerning race matters. Beth Moore brought this point home, saying that there needs to be “a role reversal” as it relates to race relations, allowing for the silent voices of black and brown communities to lead, and for the loud voice of the white community to learn.

Diversity isn’t a novelty but a necessity.

This also means that we must know what to study. Those of predominantly white backgrounds must understand that they have an incomplete racial history in some instances, and an intentionally incorrect racial history in others. But ignorance is not bliss, nor is it blessed. As a matter of fact, Paul, in Ephesians, makes it clear that the “futility of the mind” is “due to [our] hardness of heart.”  We don’t know because we often don’t want to know. In order for us to move forward, our white staffers, laypeople, and pastors must be willing to admit their ignorance, acknowledge the importance of the past, and affirm history as presented by marginalized voices.

This also means we need to expand our libraries. My favorite preachers right now are Bryan Loritts, Eric Mason, and Charlie Dates. Many of those on our staff love listening to John Piper, Matt Chandler, and Tim Keller. I am thankful that four out of the six spoke at the conference. However, I am saddened by the fact that many on our staff had never heard the black preachers before the conference. As a minority in majority culture, I have had to know the works of the three white men, yet the reciprocal is not true. We must take the necessary steps to listen to black preachers, learn from minority theologians, and engage with the ethical practices of marginalized churches.

2. Controversy isn’t always bad

Oftentimes, when a person’s legacy made a great impact on society, we arrogantly assume that we would have been on the same team. We say things like, “If I had been there, we would have been allies.” Russell Moore destroyed these false assumptions in the very first session of MLK50. As Moore said, “The reason why you are so comfortably able to honor them is because they can’t speak to you any longer!”

This isn’t just the case with Dr. King. Mohammed Ali was celebrated by millions at his funeral, but in the 70’s he was seen as a vigilante and enemy of the state. We stand proud of Harriet Tubman, but in her day, she was one of America’s Most Wanted. Luther is now seen as the leader of the Reformation, but in his time he was seen as the leader of a rebellion. Moses is remembered as an amazing prophet, but to Pharaoh he was seen as an antagonizing problem. Even Jesus is often honored as a moral teacher and the standard of peace, but he was murdered for his teachings.  

Controversy is a common mark of those we honor from the past. And now we stand in a controversial time ourselves. Sadly, when it comes to race relations in the U.S., the secular realm has often appeared to be more righteous than the evangelical church. And that is a dangerous place to be. The Lord’s address to the Israelites in Ezekiel 16:47 should be a warning to us: “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways!”

Oftentimes comfort, not controversy, characterizes our ministries, but this should not be the case. As Christians, we must understand that nothing is more controversial than the cross. And the One who died on it came not from the left or the right, but from above.

3. Embrace real relationships

During a family worship service this year, our mostly white church invited all of the kids up to the front to “lead” us in worship. My two kids went up reluctantly and stood there with the others. I was struck by how engaged and excited the other children were. I initially thought, “We are going to need to have a talk when we get home. My kids need to learn the importance of worship.”  

After giving it a second thought, I remembered many instances at home where they chose to watch a worship concert of Tye Tribbett (an African-American worship leader), rather than some of their favorite Disney movies. I wondered what the difference was between their excitement to worship at home and their lack thereof at church. Then it hit me: they don’t know these songs. CCM music is not a staple in our home. Their difficulty in worship is the same difficulty that many minorities experience.  

Upon recognizing this, I shared it with our worship director. Instead of becoming defensive, he listened and wept. The more he listened, the more comfortable I felt sharing. The more questions he asked, the more I wanted to answer. I could see he wasn’t questioning me to dismantle my worldview. Instead, he was asking questions to empathize with me.

Likewise, if we are going to have real relationships, white brothers and sisters must move from behaving like critics to behaving like Christ. There’s a difference between those who are interrogating and inquiring. It’s only the latter who will become true allies in the fight for racial unity.  

All of this is only possible with the presence of real relationships. Trip Lee said it best, “Don’t let black music be your version of, ‘But I have a black friend.’” In the same way that watching “Golden Girls” doesn’t mean that I have a white grandmother, listening to black podcasts or engaging in black music is no replacement for real relationships. It’s helpful, but it’s not enough. We must be willing to go outside of our comfort to befriend those who are marginalized. When we do so, their loss becomes our loss. Their fears become our fears. Their joy becomes our joy. And their tears become our tears.  

We must no longer talk about racial injustice as though it's not a church family issue. We can’t derail the cries of a family member in Christ by telling them to stop fighting for their own personal and political agendas. The feet of Christ are sore, the leg of Christ is bruised, and the back of Christ has been whipped. Other members of the body must no longer ignore the pain of these body parts. We must bear the burdens of one another and show the world who our true authority is.

There is a lot of work ahead for our staff. The courage it takes to speak up in kid’s ministry, women’s equipping, and from the pulpit through preaching and worship will likely cause adversity. However, we came back from MLK50 remembering that we are using our voices, not primarily to spark a movement, but to support members of our church family. And if family matters as much as Christ says it does, we will speak with the boldness that comes from knowing that our Savior is standing beside us.  

Rechab Gray

Rechab Gray is a teaching pastor at Cottage Grove Church in Des Moines, Iowa.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24