Don’t Diversify if…

In early July I gave a presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration. I spoke on the topic: Practical Steps to Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Church. You can listen to the 50 minute presentation HERE. Since time didn’t permit me to cover all the points in my notes, I thought that I would use the presentation as a template for a series of articles addressing the individual points in greater detail. So here we are…


This blog is dedicated to promoting the need for multi-ethnic churches and providing encouragement and resources for existing multi-ethnic congregations. I’m all in regarding the virtues of diverse congregations. But I don’t believe that every church be ethnically diverse.

The primary reason a church shouldn’t feel pressure to become multi-ethnic, is if your surrounding community is mono-ethnic. These churches should remain willing to transform into diverse churches if circumstances change, but a church in a city community filled with people of color shouldn’t obsess about adding white members. Likewise a church in rural Minnesota shouldn’t feel inadequate because they have no African-American members.

At other times,  churches just aren’t ready to increase their ethnic diversity. If you’re a member in one of these churches, you need to a) be aware that pushing for increased diversity will be difficult; b) consider moving to another church.  Here are a few ways of telling if your church is ready to take the next steps:

  • If putting the sign “A House of Prayer for All Nations” on your church’s front lawn would create controversy, you might not be ready for increased diversity.
  • If you need to warn your friends of color before inviting them to you church, you might not be ready for increased diversity.
  • If your leaders don’t see a need for intentional diversification of your church, you’re not ready.
  • grayscale portrait photo of shocked womanIf your church members don’t like they way “they” sing, you probably aren’t ready for increased diversity.
  • If your church leaders haven’t noticed that the neighborhood demographics have changed, they might not be ready for increased diversity in the church.
  • If your church leaders have noticed that the neighborhood demographics have changed and they want to relocate the church….
  • If making the observation in Bible class, “You know Jesus wasn’t white, right?” would result in a knife fight, you might not be ready for increased diversity.
  • If people of color begin attending and original members of the church feel a need to increase security, they probably aren’t ready for increased diversity.
  • If most of your members don’t understand how Democratic voters can be Christians, they might not be ready to welcome people of color.
  • If people express a desire to welcome all ethnicities to their church but they don’t want anything to change, they may not be quite ready to diversify.
  • If church members believe that people living in the United States should either speak English or “go home”, the church may not be ready to diversify.

I’ve tried to keep this list lighthearted, but the underlying attitudes of fear and prejudice are anything but humourous. For some people the concept of segregation is so deeply embedded that they may never be ready for an ethnically diversified church. Sometimes, it’s necessary to start new churches for new people.

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When Someone Different Comes to Church

In early July I gave a presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration. I spoke on the topic: Practical Steps to Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Church. You can listen to the 50 minute presentation HERE. Since time didn’t permit me to cover all the points in my notes, I thought that I would use the presentation as a template for a series of articles addressing the individual points in greater detail. So here we are…

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The main stage at Summer Celebration

Before getting into specific practicalities of making a multi-ethnic church work smoothly, we need to consider the goals that pursuing.

A few years ago I put considerable effort into improving our church’s hospitality ministry. I read books. I held meetings. I moved some furniture around and recruited volunteers. I laid out a vision to the volunteers of how we could greet guests and provide a pathway for them to assimilate into our congregation.

The goal of the hospitality ministry was assimilation: the process of a stranger becoming family.

When I reflect on that hospitality process it occurs to me that it functions under the assumption that people coming to our church will generally share our values and appreciate the same things we appreciate. We assume that most people will want to be part of our church and that assimilation is the process that facilitates their incorporation into the life of the church.

However, this process breaks down when the people walking through the church doors for the first time come from different cultural backgrounds. The church can no longer assume that we share the same values or appreciate the same customs. While the church still longs for these people to become part of the church family, assimilation no longer provides the best model.

Assimilation contains the idea that the newcomer will adapt and change in order to match the culture and values of the church. Over time the individual reflects the congregation. At first glance, this appears deeply spiritual. The church represents God and Scripture tells us that “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18) All followers of Jesus are on a journey of transformation into the image of God.

While it seems logical that if the church reflects God, then as individuals reflect the church they’re also reflecting God, this line of reasoning overlooks the humanity of the congregation. United States’ churches can generally recognise that churches in other parts of the world will look and sound different than churches in this country. Those churches will reflect their cultures while still remaining true to the teaching of Scripture. This principle also holds true within the United States. U.S. churches reflect a culture. We may not recognise it because we’re immersed in it, but it’s true. When we expect newcomers to reflect our church, we’re not only asking them to reflect spiritual principles, but cultural customs and values also.

Accommodation vs Assimilation

When I was a kid and my friends came over for dinner, they were assimilated into my family. The same rules applied to them as applied to me. They ate the same food as the rest of the family. They sat in on our family devotional time with the rest of the family. If they were sleeping over we’d make up a mattress on the floor.

When I was a kid and guests from out of town came to visit, my family accommodated them. Family rules didn’t apply to them. Rather the general rules of politeness were in force. My mother would find out if there foods they couldn’t eat or that they particularly liked. They could choose whether to join our family devotional time, and at night they slept in the family’s beds while my brothers and sisters dispersed to couches and floor mattresses all over the house.

Accommodation requires that the church intentionally adapt in areas of culture and custom to meet the needs and interests of newcomers as a means of demonstrating God’s love for them. None of this diminishes the need for all people to be transformed into the image of God, but it acknowledges that not everything we do at our congregations reflects deep spiritual truths. Much of what we do reflects our culture and we need to be willing to make cultural accommodations where necessary in order to communicate love to people different than ourselves.

Over the next few months we’ll discuss what some of these specific accommodations may look like.

Don’t leave the World at the Church Doors

Yesterday I prefaced my sermon by making this statement to the congregation. I’ve edited it a little to make it more readable to a broader audience.

I’ve often heard it said in church that, “We should leave our worries outside and focus our minds upon God as we come to worship him.” There may be times where that is good advice. In general, I believe that worship provides an opportunity to bring our concerns to God, and to hear His response. Thus I provide this commentary this morning.

We come together today as a multi-ethnic group of Jesus followers as once again we see our TV screens and internet explode in racial violence. If you paid any attention to the events in Charlottesville over the past few days then like me you’re probably filled with many emotions. I’m not going to say a lot this morning, although I could.

Why should I say anything? Because it occurs to me that when Muslim extremists conduct acts of terrorism, one of the comments I hear most is, “Why don’t other peaceful Muslims condemn them?” So while I don’t believe that anyone here blames me for the events in Charlottesville, I don’t want to leave any question of my thoughts regarding this white supremacy rally and associated violence.

Let me clearly say this morning the white extremists who spew hatred, incite violence, and seek to use fear to intimidate, and who do so while claiming that God is on their side, do not represent white Christians as a whole and certainly do not represent the white Christians at this congregation. Furthermore, not only do these views not represent Christianity, they oppose God. It is not enough for us to say that the people on television don’t represent us. We condemn their actions. We condemn their violence. We condemn their hatred. We condemn their words. We condemn any attitude, theology, or philosophy that challenges the God-created value and equality of all people.

In addition, I ask each of us to make a particular effort this week to stand together in Christ. It is not sufficient for us to wag our finger at the television. We must take action to love in repsonse to others’ actions of hate.

two coffee cupsTo my white family I ask that you make an effort to demonstrate your faith conviction of God’s love toward people of all races. Spend time, a meal, or coffee, with an immigrant or ethnic minority. Listen to their thoughts on condition of race relations in the United States and our community in particular. Seek to understand them.

To my black family I ask that this week you make an effort to speak up for Christ, and remind your friends and family that you’ve experienced the true beauty of God’s multi-coloured family and it’s nothing like what we see on television. Invite people to come and experience your church. Invite people to Worship in the Park at the end of the month and encourage them to experience God’s love expressed through unity in diversity.

Specifically, one way that we can all demonstrate respect for each other and to display unity is to support the Gospel meeting at Central Church of Christ this Wednesday. I know not everyone comes out for Bible Class each Wednesday, and I know even less attend Gospel meetings, and I know that even less of our white members attend Gospel meetings at other churches. But this week, if you’re sickened by the racism you see and hear in other parts of the country, you have an opportunity to do something tangible. And I encourage you to do that.

Lastly, I want to say that I’m honored to serve this church family. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes. Sometimes I’m insensitive, for which I value your grace. But I’m grateful that together we get to explore what it means to live life together as children of God.

Can We Talk About Race at Church?

It’s the type of thing that church leaders lose sleep over: Someone sits down in a planning meeting and suggests the church needs to holds a class addressing one of the most polarising social and political issues of the day.

I was that person when I suggested to my fellow leaders that I teach a class on race relations from a Biblical perspective.

They were nervous.  I was nervous.

The class just finished… and it went well.

Let me give you some background.

  • Our church of 120 members is approximately 50/50 African-American and white.
  • The church has been racially diverse since the early 1990’s.
  • Since 2009 we’ve held an annual one Sunday celebration of ethnic and other diversity in the church that we call HARMONY Sunday.
  • Since 2013 I’ve blogged on the topic of multi-ethnic churches and researched it for years before that.
  • I was still nervous.

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What helped this class work?

  • We limited the class size to about 15. The class as I taught it would not have worked with 50. This size encouraged interaction and comments.
  • We acknowledge the possibility that some ideas or comments in the class could be offensive, but we asked members to commit to presuming good motives behind those comments.
  • Not all areas of interest can be discussed in class. Some comments will have to be followed up in conversations outside class.
  • A key aspect of the class was outside reading. Each week I would email links to a selection of articles, videos and audio resources. Some of these expanded on the class discussion and others prepared for the next week’s topic. This meant that people knew that all their questions didn’t need to be answered in the class.
  • Clear time limits. The class ran for 7 weeks and each class was only 45 minutes. This short class length meant that we all knew we couldn’t dig deeply into topics. The class was a survey, not an excavation.
  • We had a mix of ethnicities in the class. As a white, non-American, leader in a multi-ethnic church I depended on the contribution of the Africa-American class members to give the class material credibility. While the material I provided was a helpful guide, not surprisingly, some of the most helpful thoughts came from class members sharing their experiences and from the interaction between black and white class members.
  • A clear syllabus. This limited each class session to topics I had studied and prepared for. It also prevented the class from roaming to every hot button issue or personal sopabox. While those issues are important, this wasn’t the time or venue to discuss them.
  • Have a Goal. While most of the class time was spent dealing with broad social issues, the final week of the class discussed how our church could better embrace all minorities. We asked, what goals should our church have when it comes to race relations? While we didn’t settle on definitive answers, we raised awareness of issues and started a conversation that I know will continue.

Topics Covered

For those who are curious, here are the 7 class topics:

  1. Introduction – Why this class now? And the history of the Church of Christ regarding race relations.
  2. Defining terms and considering personal bias.
  3. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Institutions
  4. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Individual (Compound Deprivation)
  5. White Privilege
  6. The Cross & the Lynching Tree – How life experiences colour our faith
  7. What does this mean for our church?

Measuring Success

I expect that each church may have different goals pertinent to its situation. When I say that the class was a success, here’s what I have in mind:

  • There was no yelling, no one stormed out of the class, and no one left the church!
  • A diverse range of views and life experiences were expressed.
  • People shared life experiences.
  • At the end of the class members from disparate backgrounds said they had learned something.
  • We’ve demonstrated that complex, emotionally charged topics can be discussed in a Godly manner.
  • The class ended with members asking how they could continue to build on the topics we covered.

Down to the River

I am currently teaching a class at my church using material created by Eric Gentry, a minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis. While the concept I present here isn’t original to me, I have expanded upon it considerably.

In 2013 James H. Cone published a book titled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“. One aspect of this work suggests that one’s life experiences impacts the way we read Scripture. In particular, Cone argues that the closer one’s proximity to the lynching tree the more that person identifies with the suffering of the cross. This extends to the point that the cross is viewed as a lynching tree (Galatians 3:13) and the thousands of lynchings the African-Americans experienced throughout the U.S. are regarded as a “uniting with Christ in his death” (Rom. 6:5).

For white Christians comfortable with a well-established historical understanding of the significance of the cross, the idea that a community’s shared history can lead to a different perspective of the cross may create some discomfort.

Similarly, African-American culture has often viewed baptism through a different lens. White Christians commonly regard baptism as a moment that a divine transaction takes place; it’s a physical representation of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a moment of commitment, of forgiveness, of new life and orientation. It is a mental and emotional undertaking to trust one’s future to God and to make changes to live in harmony with God.

Within black culture baptism has often held dual hopes: an immediate hope of physical rescue and the spiritual hope of forgiveness and eternal reward.

In my mind, these different perspectives (and yes, I know I’m painting in broad strokes) are well portrayed in three songs written around the familiar Gospel theme of “the river”.

This traditional spiritual has a catchy tune that disguises the gravity of the lyrics. There are at least three ways to understand this song:

  1. The song speaks of baptism and putting on the long white robe down by the riverside. However, the lyrics don’t view baptism as addressing a sin issue. Rather, there’s the immediate connection of “studying war no more” and “laying down my sword and shield”. It demonstrates a view of baptism that relates it to the immediate physical need of escaping or ending violence. Sadly, that hope seldom came to reality in this realm, but it reminds us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and thus condemns those who make their living through violence.
  2. While this song doesn’t name the river, Gospel music often refers to the Jordan River as the point of transition from life to death. This image draws from the Old Testament account of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. According to this darker perspective this song declares that the slaves Promised Land and only escape from life’s burdens and violence is death.
  3. When I played this song in class an older black member quickly commented that the spiritual language was a metaphor for slaves crossing the Ohio River to reach the relative safety of the non-slaveholding states.

Each of these understandings stresses the immediate hope of peace and escape from oppression.

Eric’s class notes pointed me to a more recent (2015) song by Leon Bridges simply titled “River”.

Bridges describes his motivation for writing this song in this way,

I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother.  I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality.  The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

Bridges’ iteration of the river theme has a darker melodic feel and the video captures the daily struggle of life. While the lyrics turn hopeful the links between the river, baptism and hope for a new life in the present remain intact.

Finally this contemporary Christian song titled “The River” was also released in 2015 by Jordan Feliz.

Writing for a predominantly white audience Feliz describes his journey to the river more in emotional and spiritual terms than the concrete realities of the previous songs. On his website Feliz reflects,

“Musically ‘The River’ is my own personal happy place. It’s a great driving groove that just feels good to sing. The song itself is an invitation to anyone who hears it—whether they’re stuck in pride and legalism or wallowing down in the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s an invitation to take whatever we have and to run to Jesus. It’s an invitation to go down in amazing grace and to rise up being made new.”

The first two songs regard the river as a place of hope, peace and freedom. However, the suffering still experienced in the present prevent it being the “personal happy place” that Feliz describes.

This contrast of emphases regarding baptism does not make one view right and another wrong, but the songs demonstrate a diversity of perspective even regarding a Christian sacrament at the core of our faith. They remind us that our way of viewing the world is not the only, or best, way. They remind us that we are all interpreters of Scripture seeking answers to our questions within its pages.

For multi-ethnic churches we’re reminded that we need to hear diverse voices in our teaching and within our congregations, because no single voice will speak into each hearer’s life. The way we express and apply our faith will have different points of emphasis to different cultures. We can’t be so arrogant to think that any one person can cover all the cultural bases. Diversity is not just different skin colors or even languages in one room. Diversity involves accepting different ways of thinking ans seeing the world.

(If this post brings other “river” songs to mind, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below along with any other reflections you may have.)

Hospitality & Reconciliation

The Islamic month of Ramadan this year ran from June 6 to July 5. During that month a local Turkish Cultural Center hosted a series of community meals. They offered a variety of formats.

First, they invited community members to come to their facility and enjoy a meal with a large group of people. Second, they offered to prepare the meal but host it in our church’s fellowship space. Third, if people were interested they would schedule community members to come into their homes and share an iftar meal with them.

international-food-map-01As I talked with them they explained their simple reasoning. Sharing a meal together breaks down barriers. It encourages conversations as people share the experience of meeting a fundamental human need, eating. They longed for their neighbors to see past their religion, or different clothing to recognise and acknowledge our shared humanity. In discussing the experience we talk about the food and their favorite Turkish dishes. They share what they value about Ramadan and we exchange notes on the Muslim and Christian practices of fasting.

By sharing a meal we discuss topics we would never broach talking to each other across a desk or in a classroom.

Jesus knew the power of meals. In the Gospels we find him frequently eating with a variety of different people. Often, Jesus ate with those who were furthest from the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ dining habits were apparently a frequent source of conversation to the extent that Luke describes the criticism Jesus recieved,

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7:34)

A couple of weeks ago my church declared October our “Month of Hospitality”. My sermon that week was based on Ephesians 2:11-22. I suggested that if Jesus died to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to each other, and if “you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:22) then we need to actually be doing something.

wp_20161014_12_20_22_richWe gave the church the simple task of using a meal to break down a wall by eating with someone on the other side of a divide. We provided a few guidelines:

  1. You should invite someone from our church that you don’t know well to share a meal or a coffee.
  2. The person should be on the other side of a divide: race, nationality, age, marital status, education, income, etc.
  3. Given the context of our church, this is a great opportunity to intentionally break racial barriers and specifically ask each other how you perceive the racial climate in this country at the moment.

The natural next step is to expand the hospitality to bridge divisions with those outside the church. Each of those steps takes more confidence and requires a greater investment, but the results make it worthwhile. Even in a multi-ethnic church people often need encouragement to break out of their comfort zones, spend some time building relationships and destroy some dividing walls.

We make this as simple as possible. Although we use the word “hospitality” we don’t pressure people to invite others into their home, or to cook a 3 course meal. The goal is to sit, eat, and drink together. If that happens at a Wendy’s or a Starbucks, or if the bill is split rather than one person treating another, it doesn’t matter as long as each person knows the other a little better at the end of their time together.

When we first did this in 2014 we posted the above board in our foyer and encouraged people to record their participation. It’s gone very well and I’d love for you to try it in your church setting and hear how you improve it.

 

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on RaceSadly, not everyone in our churches will jump for joy when we introduce a sermon addressing issues of race.

Some people have heard speeches on the topic for years and are simply worn out.

Other people get defensive and insist that there’s no problem to discuss. At least not with them.

I’ve attended churches where people fear confrontation. Since this topic smacks of controversy, they’d rather not talk about it.

There are always some people who enjoy the status quo and believe it’s okay and reasonable to discriminate against minorities. Alternatively, they see accommodations granted to minorities and believe the discrimination is against them!

Any of these people can get hurt or angry when discussions around the issues of racial equality arise.

Then there are always inherent risks for the preacher when presenting these ideas. Numerous ways exist to speak insensitively, use the wrong words, or misrepresent an issue. Fear of these mistakes has often prompted churches to avoid the topic. In today’s society churches cannot afford to skirt issues of race. So here are some mistakes preachers should work hard to avoid:

1. Do not stereotype! Not all Indians are good spellers. Not all Chinese are mathematical geniuses. Not all African-Americans grew up around gangs in urban environments. Even large churches have experienced trouble using stereotypes as the story of this Asian-based VBS curriculum reveals. Stereotypes place a large group of people in a single box, and that box is often demeaning.
When strangers quote Crocodile Dundee to me they imply that all Australians carry knives, live in the desert and wrestle crocodiles. In fact, Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse and urbanized countries in the world. Stereotypes most often make the person using them look ignorant.

2. Do not mimic or imitate cultural differences. By all means, please do talk about racial/cultural differences. Your congregation needs to have this open conversation. But how you conduct the conversation is crucial. RESPECT is vital. Talk about cultural differences. Describe awkward situations and misunderstandings. However, if we start adopting accents, or walking in different/funny ways to illustrate a cultural stereotype, we instantly move much closer to mockery, than respect. Focus upon speaking clearly, not theatrics.

3. Do not think that there won’t be any misunderstandings. No matter how gifted your speaking abilities, people will still hear what they want to hear. If you say nothing about affirmative action, some people will think your whole talk was about affirmative action. Some people will criticise you for bringing politics into the church even if you spend the whole time exegeting one verse. No single sermon can address all objections. Expect misunderstandings.

4. Do not feel pressure to tell people “I’m sorry”, unless you are. This is a complex topic, but here are a couple of simple thoughts:

  • Don’t apologise for things you haven’t done… unless you represent institutions that have committed wrongdoing. You can can express sympathy for suffering, outrage at injustice, regret for the actions of others, but you can’t apologise on behalf of those other people. The exception is demonstrated in 1999 by Dr Royce Money the Chancellor of Abilene Christian University when he apologised for policies and practices of the university in years previous.
  • When we simply say “I’m sorry” we place a burden on the other person to forgive. It’s as though “I’m sorry” says, “I’ve done what I need to do for reconciliation, now it’s up to you.” We make it easier for minorities to forgive when we demonstrate contrition by taking tangible steps toward reconciliation.

5. Do not merely mention racism as a footnote in a sermon on another topic.  This might not apply if you’ve already raised the issue in a serious way, but simply including racism in a list of vices does not count as “speaking on race”. When you decide that you need to address racial issues with your church, preach from the best biblical texts. Because of #3 above we should address these issues with clarity. Assuming that people will catch tangential references and understand our goals reflects a misplaced confidence.

6. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one person has all the answers. Reading a book, talking to a minority friend, or having a dramatic story to tell, doesn’t make anyone an expert. After working in multi-ethnic churches for almost 20 years and researching as much as I can on the topic, I still find I have more questions than answers. As a leader in the church you might have clear insight into the next step the church needs to take. You might have a clear view of the goal of racial reconciliation and unity in the church. Those things are not the same as “all the answers”. ALWAYS preach and speak with humility on this topic.

7. Don’t minimise challenges. Related to the previous point, we face the danger of communicating a message that says something like, “If we all just did what the Bible tells us and loved our neighbours, racial prejudice wouldn’t be a problem in this country.” Other observations like, “If they just did what the police told them they wouldn’t get shot” fall into the same category. These types of statements minimise centuries of mistrust and abuse. It can be akin to telling a minority person to “suck it up and get on with life“. But life is not simple. For example, many of the factors that contribute to disparate educational outcomes for students of different races involve complex sociological issues. Loving more, or allocating more money to a school, won’t alter rates of childhood poverty. Honestly acknowledge the size and scope of the challenges ahead, then break it down into smaller steps for your congregation. Remember that what seems like a small step for you, may be huge for other members.

For some positive suggestions when preaching on racial issues check out this previous article: 8 Tips for Preaching on Race.