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What our church staff took away from the MLK50 Conference

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.  

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