In this three part mini-series, we are considering this question: Is the Church leading the world, or is the world leading the Church? We are also confronting some of the distractions and inward fighting that prevents the whole church from being effective leaders in a culture and world that is dying. Part I of this mini-series confronted the theological and practical challenges we face regarding women and leadership. Today, we turn our attention to consider what it means to be the people of God in our diverse American cultural context.
Most would affirm that “good Christian folks” are not racist—that they do not hate people who are of a different race or ethnicity than them. Whether or not we show partiality, blindness, or indifference to the privilege, threats, or challenges of those who are culturally different than us is another consideration entirely. Since our political, economic, and social loyalties are most evident during times of heightened tension, it is these crucial moments that truly reveal the nature of our hearts and the credibility of the gospel. Can the church lead the world to a better place of cultural competence and understanding?
That’s what was on my mind as I sat in my pastor’s office a few years ago to interview him for a seminary assignment. He is white and old enough to be my dad. During the course of our conversation he asked: “Do you think racism still exists in our country?” As an African-American woman, I responded, “I don’t think. I know it does.”
Just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. As we discussed the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within our congregation, he then asked, “Do you think it is easier for a black person to attend a predominately white church or for a white person to attend a predominately black church?” Without a second thought, I said, “It’s easier for me to attend your church because I have to live in your world every day.”
Conversations like that one remind me of the importance of not only having a friend who is of a different racial or ethnic background, but also having honest conversations and listening well—especially when we are unaware of our blind spots or when we don’t agree—so we can understand the communities and culture that shapes the diverse body of Christ and the world. Having this framework will increase our cultural competence so we can respond to evil and injustices that negatively impact the lives of real people, whether we initially see it or not.
In this history period, “Ferguson” and “immigration” are not just nouns for news ratings, political jargon, and social media chats; they are realities that affect the lives of hundreds and thousands of God’s image bearers like you and me. A united church that loves all people can lead the world in offering solutions to the cultural challenges of our day. The Abolition and Civil Rights Movements prove that a united people have done this before, and we can lead again!
The Apostle Paul teaches that Christian leaders in society must maintain a biblical integrity and a gospel focus while understanding the culture and context in which God has called us to minister. Reconciling the church across racial and ethnic lines means that we are educated observers who are socially conscious about the issues concerning our spiritual flocks, and those who are spiritually lost within our communities.
As we improve our awareness, we must admit that racial and ethnic dynamics in America are drastically changing. In 2012, Bloomberg reported that the white population in the United States will be the minority within the next 30 years. This is crucial information for the majority of evangelical churches (and even some church plants) that still maintain a leadership staff that is predominately male and white. From education and personal experiences, white males and ethnic minorities oftentimes have vastly different opinions when it comes to practical issues like education, equal opportunity, politics, mass incarceration, immigration, and health care. In their classic book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith conclude that white evangelicals will always look for individual instead of structural solutions to problems concerning race. On the other hand, people of color better understand the history and structural dynamics that often keep racial and ethnic minorities in powerless positions in the first place.
With the massive cultural shift taking place in this country, it is important that we have Christian leaders who are racially conscious—those who acknowledge the situations that impact our racial and ethnic sisters and brothers. We must learn to articulate the issues in different contexts and to different audiences, empathize with those affected, and perhaps most importantly, be willing to take the risk, raise their voices, and commit to doing what is right.
Regardless of our cultural identity, if we want to lead in the world, Christians need to get close to the issues that are impacting our communities. It is not enough for the Christian to ask, “Am I taking care of those within my family and congregation?” We can also check the reading rates and math skills of the children within our city and offer tutoring. We can know the poverty statistics in our town, or the number of children who go home and do not have a hot meal until they return to school the next day. We need knowledge concerning the location of homeless shelters, whether or not veterans are receiving proper medical care, or if widows get regular home visits.
Different groups of people have different priorities and concerns, and that’s why it is important to have a diverse body of believers who have authentic relationships and fellowship with each other. Emerson and Smith’s research reveals that multi-cultural churches can go a long way to increase our racial competence and cultural understanding, because is it more important that we consistently connect with a diverse community, as opposed to seeking out one Hispanic or Asian friend.
Christian author, professor, and social psychologist, Dr. Christena Cleveland’s research also reveals that we truly see the body of Christ at work when homogeneous churches intentionally and consistently partner with churches in their own community that have different ethnic or economic compositions. Our ability to lead and influence our increasingly diverse world is directly linked to our cultural competence. With that in mind, I recommend the following resources:
- Read Divided by Faith and Dr. Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart.
- Read the book, The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-Taking, Justice-Seeking, Disciple-Making Congregation by Jim Martin. Then make the commitment to complete a Community Justice Assessment. This assessment will help the local church explore the diverse needs of their community and prayerfully discern where they might partner with others to declare that God has anointed us to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, recover sight of the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).
If we want to impact an increasingly diverse America, then it’s time to open our hearts, cast wide nets, and start fishing again.
Will the church lead by increasing our cultural competence and presenting a united front to a diverse world?
—[Image by Peter Shanks, CC via Flickr]