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Racial Reconciliation May Not Be What You Think It Is

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The real question of Christian discipleship is not can I be your brother in Christ, but can I be your brother in law?

I first heard this statement from my good friend Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero in a class he was teaching. Who can’t your child marry? Questions like these help us get to the core of racial reconciliation. It’s one thing to be in close proximity to someone who looks different than you. It’s another to be in deep relationship with one different than you. Sadly, the Church in the United States (and around the world) has had a hard time living into this beautiful kingdom reality.

What Reconciliation is Not

Racial justice and reconciliation remain one of the most urgent matters of faith and public witness. One could argue that the primary fruit of the gospel is not going to heaven when you die, but the miraculous new family that is created out of death and resurrection of Jesus.

In this respect, the cross of Christ isn’t just a bridge that gets us to God, it’s a sledge hammer that breaks down walls that separate us.

What does it look like to reflect this reality? Well, it first entails we clarify what we mean when we speak about racial reconciliation. Before I offer some ways forward, let’s examine ways that have led us backwards.

First, reconciliation is not colorblindness.

For many people, colorblindness is seen as a virtue. Some proudly say, “I don’t see color, I see people.” I understand the sentiment but colorblindness is not a virtue of the Kingdom of God.

In the book of Revelation (7:9) we see the people of God gathered around the throne and it lets us know that they are from every nation, tribe and tongue. God sees and celebrates color.

Second, racial reconciliation is not diversity.

To be sure, diversity is a good thing, but in itself it is not reconciliation. On the surface diversity looks wonderful. However, the temptation is for us to stop there. When we do we are no different from New York City subway cars. NYC subway cars are crowds of diverse, anonymous people in close proximity. But the church is called be more than a sanctified subway car.

When the gospel is deeply at work, racial reconciliation results in a diverse community that embraces the unique gifts and acknowledges the distinctive sins of their ethnic-racial-social makeup while experiencing loving communion with others under the Lordship of Jesus.

This is a nice vision, but to get there means we have a lot work to do.

To be sure, diversity is a good thing, but in itself it is not reconciliation. Click To Tweet

In my work as lead pastor at New Life Fellowship in Queens, NYC, we have people from over 75 nations. We’ve been working towards racial reconciliation for nearly three decades. Although we have a long way to go, over the years we’ve learned some important lessons and have seen remarkable fruit. It’s out of our community life that I offer some ways forward.

Racial Reconciliation (especially in the US) requires us to have a number of items we thoughtfully work through as the people of God. Hopefully this short list can help us get going.

What Racial Reconciliation Requires

A deep commitment to listening to others even when it’s hard

When it comes to conversations on race our level of “offendability” often reveals the level of our maturity. If we can’t get through this point, we are not going to get very far. Reconciliation requires us to listen deeply to one another.

Our level of 'offendability' often reveals the level of our maturity. Click To Tweet

As Douglas Steere has said, “To listen to another’s soul may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”

But let’s be clear. The ones who need to listen first and more often are the ones who have enjoyed the privileges of power. Racial justice and reconciliation requires a self-emptying; a kenosis as it were. Those without power are already empty. The onus is on those with power to listen deeply, relinquishing their social power for the greater good of reconciliation. In this country, our White brothers and sisters need to lead the way in listening deeply to the stories and experiences of people of color. This doesn’t mean people of color don’t need to listen (we do!), but order is important. There must be a relinquishing of control. This is the way of the cross.

The onus is on those with power to listen deeply, relinquishing their social power. Click To Tweet

This requires us to have a level of self-awareness that aids us whenever we are triggered and want to shut down. Without question, to offer faithful presence by listening deeply is hard, but it certainly is possible.

An honest wrestling with the history of racial oppression in our country

You can’t understand the current experience of racial hostility in this country without also honestly facing the history of racial oppression experienced first by Native Americans, slavery experienced by African American people and racial discrimination that’s taken place throughout our country’s history. We can’t just “get over it!”

What we are experiencing is the fruit of centuries of racial oppression and hostility. Often people will look to President Obama’s election as proof that racial oppression has been eradicated. But that’s much too simplistic a view. The residue of racial oppression remains. On a personal level we can’t understand our present reality without an honest recognition of our past. The same principle applies to our present national reality.

What we are experiencing is the fruit of centuries of racial oppression and hostility. Click To Tweet

Cultivating the language and practice of grief and lament

Reconciliation can’t happen without us lamenting together. Two-thirds of the psalms are songs of lament. In the practice of lamenting, we pour out our souls to God, and in turn receive grace to respond. Lamenting is an act that promotes individual and personal shalom.

The sad truth about modern spirituality is we often avoid feeling our own pain and in the process we avoid feeling the pain of others. When this happens it’s impossible to do the work of reconciliation. We are instructed in Scripture to weep with those who weep. Why? Well, beyond receiving personal comfort, it is often our tears that serve as the impetus for a new social imagination.

Why lament? Because often our tears serve as the impetus for a new social imagination. Click To Tweet

Personal acceptance and appreciation of your racial/ethnic identity

How can you be reconciled to others if you first haven’t been reconciled to yourself?

The book of Revelation teaches us that our ethnicity will last throughout eternity (cf. 7:9). Therefore, we better start getting used to being comfortable in our own skin! Self-hatred is not a fruit of the Spirit. As a pastor of a very diverse congregation I regularly have conversations with people who exhibit some form of embarrassment about their racial or ethnic identity.

The gospel doesn’t dissolve our differences, it celebrates them. When I see folks honoring their racial/ethnic identity, whether it be their Nigerian, Italian, Colombian, West Indian or Korean makeup, it serves as a reminder that the kingdom of God is a rich buffet. The faster we unapologetically celebrate who we are, the faster we can do the work of reconciliation.

A deep spirituality of prayer

The racial hostility in our world is so deep we would be mistaken that we can make significant progress without deep spirituality of prayer. There are principalities and powers at work in the world. As I’ve heard my friend Glenn Packiam say, “Praying ‘thy Kingdom come’ is one of the most powerful things Christians do.”

The church is in desperate need of reimagining of prayer on two fronts, namely, personal prayer and congregational prayer. As a pastor, I’m most concerned about the lack of time people give to prayer. This lack of prayer has marked our lives to be functional athiests.

At one point in the gospels Jesus said to his disciples, “this (demon) can only come out by prayer.” When it comes to this evil power of racial hostility the same principle applies.

The church needs to reimagine prayer on 2 fronts: personal and congregational. Click To Tweet

Growing in awareness of our implicit racial bias

One of the ways we dishonor the image of God in people is by uncritically examining the assumptions and biases we have against them. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus calls us to the way of interiority, that is, gaining awareness of the underlining feelings and thoughts that often lead to violence against others.

We have all been socialized by our families of origin and surrounding culture to see people in particular ways. We often live our lives without ever reflecting on the stories and lies we’ve been told about certain groups of people. Consequently, we perpetuate the myths and stereotypes unconsciously. Racial reconciliation requires us to have a level of self-awareness that often is tragically missing in our culture.

Regular confession, repentance and forgiveness

Finally, reconciliation requires regular confession, repentance and forgiveness. We come together as deeply broken and frail people. At our church when we gather for communion we recite a historic confession. This confession anchors us as people in desperate need of regular repentance and forgiveness. I submit this as a confession we regularly repeat as we work for racial reconciliation:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. 

Amen.

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23 responses to “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big? by David Fitch

  1. I’m down with all that, certainly… one (very minor) push back…small does sometimes mean a dead or dying church…if the witness isn’t there to the Kingdom, if it is insular, if it maintains an implicit culture, a church can be small and still not be a representation of the Kingdom…

  2. I think this sort of fits in with #3, but as a former youth pastor in a non-mega church I can say that family programs tend to be a BIG draw for people to go to the larger churches. Churches that can offer large, attractive, professional and safe places to drop off their kids tend to bring people through the doors. I bet more people transition between churches for kids/youth programming than for their view of the pastor. I’m struggling with this a bit in my own family as I desire to be in ministry, hopefully in a smaller, local community church environment, but there is a pull to make sure there is a place for our daughter.
    However, I think in there is something to having a church where everyone worships together and learns to be a part of the community together, kids included. This can demonstrate the importance of families to the church in a more holistic way rather than having special places and age-specific worship for everyone in the family.

  3. David,As a former Mega Church Pastor I’ve know all these to be true. You’re saying what many of us have been nervous to say face-to-face.

    The difficulty in speaking to this issue is in coming across like a “disillusioned hater”. My own church planting denomination is championing the mega/satellite/organizationally-sparkly approach. It’s touchy, touchy to dialogue around whether Mega is unintentionally reinforcing our consumer/individualistic/celebrity/pragmatic tendencies.

    The mega mindset seems to have crept into the missional church culture as well. It really is often an un-critiqued ideology. Here’s my thoughts on mega-n-missional http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2012/10/go-small-go-missional.html

  4. Smaller churches often feed into this. Most smaller churches aren’t truly missional. They’re just failing in their attempts to get big. Why would someone choose to go to a small church that is simply trying to get (or be) big and deal with all the envy that exists there (often expressed in criticism of the big neighbor) when they could just go to the church down the road that’s already big?!?

    1. Yeah, Jon, that’s my take on all this too. Maybe because I have frequented “smaller churches” all my life, and have only had minimal experiences with mega-churches (all of which surprised me as being quite qualitative, by the way), I see more small-church people resenting even the growth in their own churches. Some folks just love “our little church” so much they don’t WANT to see too many new folk come in. I don’t know today’s statistics (Fitch no doubt does), but in years gone by a vast majority of self-identifying Christians in America attended churches of less than a hundred, regularly. Has that overall tendency really changed that much, or are the few mega churches just more visible because of their notoriety and, as Fitch suggests here, the celebrity status of their pastors? Admittedly a congregation of thousands is striking, but I don’t know that it accurately represents “American Christendom” as a wide general sociological phenomenon.

  5. I suspect that gathering in ever larger groups preserves the appearance of relevance and keeps us from having to acknowledge that our world is post-Christian. As the numbers dwindle we stream to fewer but larger venues, refusing to read the obituary of Christendom. Long term hope lies in mustard seed communities that inhabit a post-Christian environment.

  6. Just seeking some clarification: how big is big? Is a mega church more than 1,000? More than 5,000? The percentage of all churches in America with more than 1,000 in attendance is very small. Most Americans who attend church probably attend a church under 200.

  7. Make I offer a small suggestion? Try to avoid using quotation marks when you want to emphasize a word. While this is more and more the fashion to many readers these look like scare quotes, which are traditionally understood to indicate a sense of disagreement with the word/phrase/term. So a phrase like: be present “among” us, might be taken as: be present (supposedly) among us (but not really). If I were to write: David Fitch is a “missional” blogger … that would suggest that I’m trying to say David Fitch is a so-called missional blogger … which is not what I want to say at all.

    1. Thanks Brian,but don’t scare quotes also imply that I am simply alerting the reader that the word or phrase is being used in an unusual, special, or non-standard way? In my case an intensely theological way? What other ways might I achieve this effect?

  8. I would like to see some statistics supporting “most Americans prefer big church”. I am not sure that is true. We need to see how many people actually attend both small and mega churches across America. Then that needs to be broken down into actual definitions of what mega and small represents.I attend what you would consider a small church of 200 and the majority of people who attend there left larger churches to get away from their long distance approach as well as perceived distance from true Christian teaching.

  9. Great reflection!
    Most simply from my vantage point people do not want a small missional church because they don’t have the imagination to see how they and people around them could flourish.

    Most people start with “what they’ll get” and therefore a smaller missional church that demands a missional life, intentional community, actually LEADING something is hard to see as congruent for that original question in their mind. It won’t give them much if they stay passive and they can’t stay passive in that kind of church. .

    1. Beau,
      I think your first paragraph reveals the bias that we are all tempted towards and is part of the point I made in my earlier comment. To say that ” people do not want a small missional church because they don’t have the imagination to see how they and people around them could flourish” is to imply that a small missional church is not already flourishing.

      People want to be somewhere that is flourishing. We almost always equate flourishing we size…even if it is accidentally. As long as we believe (or talk like we believe) that this is true and communicate to our people that this is true we cannot expect anything other than the quest for the mega church that we see already from both “attendees” and pastors.

  10. What say you? Why do people resist “going” to a small community?In my experience going to a mega is simply easier than the hard work it takes to find, create and/or fit into a small missional community. I also know that a lot of small missional communities are created out of dislike of the mega system, so its existence seems to come off as a little bitter and/or angry. People seem to sniff that out pretty quick, and since 95% of most people don’t like living in the tension, where I think a lot of missional communities find themselves in, they leave. Lastly on this point, megas offer exceptional goods and services. So, why would someone want to enter into some small community that is awkward, still figuring things out, questions and doubt are present, kids might be running around in our midst, etc., when I can go to a facility where I am met by a cheery greeter, cold AC, a cup of Starbucks coffee, directions to a multi-million dollar kids area with bounce houses and Jesus holograms, followed by a rockin’ praise service. At this point, even if I think the dude preaching is a buffoon, I can just read my iPhone until he stops or head out to the coffee shop for a refill and maybe stop by the bookstore. In my experience, it has been very hard to get people to leave the ease of that involvement.
    How do you think missional communities can build bridges to those leaving mega churches? Or should we? I think as people who follow Jesus we should always be willing to offer a bridge, just don’t expect many from a mega mindset to walk on it. As someone who has tried to create one, and I guess failed at it, here is what I learned. Don’t create out of dislike for organized church or mega church. I struggle with this answer because at the same time I believe that if you’re beginning to think your chruch resembles Walmart more than Jesus, then you should do something about it. The problem is that if you decide to do something about it by challenging or questioning the system in the hopes it might foster change, you come across like Dan Jr. said and are labeled a “disillusioned hater” or “unhealthy” or maybe worse in a church structure “unsubmitted”. If you find yourself labeled as any of these, you might as well leave because any chair you had at that table will be gone the next time you show up. So, you leave and try to form another community, one that’s more missional, but it’s created more as sort of a middle finger to the system you came out of versus an actual call of God to make a community that is the living expression of Jesus. If you have started a missional community as a sort of middle finger, don’t invite anybody to become part of it until the middle finger is healed and not so prone to go up. Maybe a way to build a bridge is by simply telling the truth about what your missional community actually offers and what the mega actually offers. Then if they choose the missional, make sure what you have said it contains is actually evident and not just words.

  11. We are in Australia. And we have been part of a 20000 member church in Texas, A missional church in Sydney, Australia, a Baptist church and now a Sydney Anglican Church.
    If we had a mega church in our area we would attend because it gives my kids the ability to form friendships with Christ following kids who will also go to their same school. A church of 200 here will often have kids spread out all over Sydney attending various private schools. Also, we know lots of non Christians with young kids. If we want them to be in an environment where church members can talk to them, it often means they need to feel their kids are safe and not being a distraction. It is painful to watch unchurched families attend a church that isn’t prepared for three year olds whose parents have no idea how kids should behave in church. Those families rarely come back, and so they are hardly ever invited.

    While mega churches may look all sparkly, they usually are also doing the grunt work of diaper changing and pushing the cry-cart. 250 member churches that want to stay that size inherently provide a warm welcoming environment for the staff’s kids, but I see a lot of families on the edges of these churches that fall by the wayside.

  12. […] Why does it seem that so few people want to give a small church a chance?  David Fitch suggests some answers in his blogpost “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big?”  […]

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