I was born in 1965 in the deep south right at the epicenter of the civil rights movement. At the tender age of four my uncle and I developed a call and response routine. He would, “What do you want? And I would reply, “I want my freedom, now!” Cute for a four-year-old, but potentially deadly for a twenty-four-year-old in the racially charged South.
I never felt I limited by the color of my skin. I grew up in the church. I hoped the church was the answer to all the racial tensions in the world. God moved me at a very early age to be a pastor. God has a sense of humor. He called me to be a preacher in a church body that is one of the least diverse church organizations in America. Still, I had hope that the color of my skin would not matter. That hope would face a stiff challenge.
During my four-plus years at the seminary, those cracks would develop. At first, I ignored comments, which should have opened my eyes to the enormous tasks that would lie ahead. They just seemed odd at the time. I was determined this was my path, so I ignored them.
One comment kept playing in my head. “Your career in this church body will be limited by your marriage.” I should put that statement in context. God blessed me with a beautiful wife. She is my greatest cheerleader. But we come from very different origins. Her ancestors are of German-Prussian descent. My ancestors came from mother, Africa. This inappropriate comment should have angered me. Instead, it motivated me. I am wired a little differently. Everything inside me was stirred up. If you want to discourage me, that had the opposite effect. You just gave me a deeper resolve to prove you wrong. You tried to dissuade you instead, inspired me. I love stepping up the challenge of doing something that no one has ever done it before. Stand back and see what God does through me.
The road was not easy by any means. There were moments I seriously considered quitting. Was this worth all the pain. There was not financial reward only debt and a call that most likely would qualify us for government subsidy. My desire was upon completion of my Seminary training was to serve college students. They have a real hunger and thirst for seeking the Divine. Unfortunately, due to my denomination’s lack of pastoral diversity, I was sent to an African American Church in Detroit. Culture shock for a small town southern boy. I spent the next thirteen years in smallish, dying, urban, mostly African American congregations, with one simple mission: revive the dead and deal with rejection very people I was called to serve. My wife would never be accepted in that community, so we were strangers in a foreign land.
This blog post is not about slamming the church or my church body. It is meant to open the eyes of the church. Are we doing ministry in multi-ethnic settings in a way that is pleasing to God? Should the church reflect heaven? How can the local church accomplish this? Are we who God called us to be?
We have heard the statistics, but here are some more from LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer:
“Everybody wants diversity,” said Stetzer. “But many don’t want to be around people who are different.”
LifeWay Research surveyed 1,000 Americans about race. They found only about a third (34 percent) of Americans have regularly attended a house of worship where they were a minority. Among those who had attended a church as a minority, one in five said their ethnicity hindered their involvement.
Of those who have not been a minority in the church, nearly a quarter (22 percent) say being a minority in a congregation would make them feel uncomfortable. Many Americans believe churches should be more diverse. Half (50 percent) agree with the statement, “Churches in American are too segregated.” Four in 10 (44 percent) disagree.
A major hindrance to diversity is human nature.
To summarize all the data, the biggest impediment to a multi-cultural church that reflects what heaven will be when God calls us all home to be united again with him is US! We like to hang out with and be around people who look like US! If we truly are a new creation, then our outward appearance is also new. You are no longer white, or black, Latino, or Asian. We have the presence of Christ. Read what the Apostle Paul says,“…put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it. 11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.” 12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”
Derwin Gray, of Transformation Church, a multi-cultural church in Indian Land, SC said this, “We shouldn’t wait long for racial diversity – we should long for the proclamation of Jesus, which creates ethnic diversity,” he said. “The apostle Paul didn’t start one church for Jews and one church for Gentiles in the New Testament. The Gospel brought people together.”
Ed Stetzer of LifeWay reminds us “The Bible talks a lot about men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation being in heaven, so it might be good to get accustomed to that heavenly expression here and now,”
Hopefully, I have given you food for thought. I honestly believe the church can reflect heaven on earth, probably because someone told me it cannot be done. Regardless of why I believe it, the key to that dream becoming a reality begins with the people of God, seeing themselves as citizens of heaven not a group of individuals from different earthly tribes.
Finally, for those who wondered how my career in the church as gone so far, I am currently serving as a Mission Executive for one of the largest districts in my church body, not to brag but to prove God has bigger plans than our minds can conceive.
Other posts in this series: