Walking the Racial Tightrope for Jesus

There are times when multi-ethnic churches seem glamourous. They’re trendy. They’re healing. They’re redemptive. They embody reconciliation. Above all, they’re Godly as they proclaim God’s love for ALL people.

As a minister in a small multi-ethnic church I can attest that they’re also FRIGHTENING!

Missteps are common. Disaster constantly appears to be just the next word away. “If we get this wrong… half the church could leave this week, and never come back.

Racial and cultural integration is unnatural. We naturally affiliate with those who are similar and familiar. So ministry in multi-ethnic churches often feels like swimming up stream. And as much as we dream that the whole church shares our vision we routinely find ourselves promoting diversity and cross-cultural appreciation to people who’ve begun a move back to their familiar social circles.

Ministry in multi-ethnic churches brings tension. Something as fundamental as asking how to refer to the racial minority segment of the church is fraught with controversy. If I want to express my respect for the minority culture, should I call it: black culture, African-American culture, the culture of people of colour, or just refer to it (and the people) as the minority culture?

Earth hands 01This quandary would provide enough challenges if the mission of a multi-ethnic church was just about bringing black and white Christians together. In reality, we have members from the Caribbean, some first and second generation Hispanic families, students from China and in my case a preacher from Australia! Must our church respect all these cultures and races, or should we give priority to the largest minorities?

Then perhaps the most challenging question for traditional churches is how will this diversity impact our worship service? If you’ve ever attempted changes to an established worship structure in a mono-cultural church, you understand this minefield. If the mingling of hymns and “camp songs” gives Sister Brown a hernia, what will happen when we break out in Calypso? Or have a prayer lead in Spanish?

But ministers are familiar with many of these challenges. We face similar issues as we attempt to meet the demands of older and younger members. We practice reconciliation as different dominant culture sub-groups seek to express worship in a way meaningful to themselves. We took Conflict Resolution 101 in seminary, and often that training is sufficient to successfully navigate these bumps in the road.

Multi-ethnic churches find their greatest challenges in the arena of social justice.

Because of my context, I felt a burden this past Sunday to intentionally talk about the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. (I’ve written about that here.) In an all-white church it would be prudent not to pry open the lid on Pandora’s box. I suspect that in an all black church it would be unthinkable not to speak of justice and oppression, probably with strong rhetoric.

In a multi-ethnic context the church finds itself filling the role of educator as well as prophet. Church leadership must guide the congregation through the process of listening to each other. At times the pulpit will be used to provide a voice to a minority that will not otherwise be heard. As an example, Matt Chandler ventured into this role as he took time in his sermon this week to explore the meaning of the term “white privilege”.

This additional role of educator brings additional hazards with it. In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson makes this statement, “Most misunderstandings come not from missed definitions but from missed contexts.” (p125) How can a dominant culture speaker accurately reflect the context of the minority? It requires that we have awkward, frank conversations about impolite topics. I must ask “dumb” questions. I must listen to the stories of my minority members and reflect their experiences in my sermons.

Multi-ethnic churches, more than most churches, depend upon two Godly virtues for our existence: Humility and Forgiveness.

Although I live in the US and am married to an American, I will never understand American culture as well as my wife. Humility reminds me of this fact and prompts me to keep asking questions and learning. Cross cultural churches need to cultivate an environment that encourages the asking and answering of questions. This is the only process that will lead to cultural competence and understanding.

I also rely upon the forgiveness of my church as I minister to them. Because I’m continually learning, sometimes I’ll say too much, or too little. Sometimes I’ll say or do the wrong thing. I’ll offend and upset people. Some members will think I’ve getting political instead of Biblical. Other members will think I should discuss contemporary social events much more than I do. Because I’ll never get a balance that pleases everyone I depend upon their grace as we explore together what it means to live in Christian community as a collection of diverse cultures.

Finally, as I worship with people of minority populations, I accept them as my spiritual family. This means that we love one another. Because we love one another, when they hurt, I cry. When they succeed, I cheer. When they’re oppressed adn discriminated against, I stand with them. I can’t just pat their hand and say “there, there” on Sunday morning. This article provides some good suggestions to help white people and churches moving from rhetoric to reality in supporting their black neighbours.

blog tour 01I’ve decided to make this post part of the Compadres Summer Blog Tour. This is a group of Christian bloggers who are taking turns over the course of the summer to write about the Glory of Christ. You might wonder how this blog post fits that criteria. It doesn’t… until now.

The events of Ferguson and the ensuing barrage of related articles have served to remind me how ill equipped I am for this ministry context in which I find myself. Yes, I have relevant training and life experience, but the issues revealed in Ferguson run so deep. Any steps toward solutions or reconciliation that I might propose seem so inadequate. I’ve preached for this church for 6 years and yet at a moment of crisis like this I question my credibility to speak meaningfully into the lives of those most touched by the death of Michael Brown.

But before I drown in my doubt and self-deprecation, I find hope in 2 Corinthians 12:9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

I constantly need the reminder that the presence of a multi-ethnic church in this community is not a personal accomplishment by me. The church was here before I arrived. Rather, multi-ethnic churches bring glory to God because it is only his grace and power that allows them to work. They exist as entities giving glory to God. Without God’s presence my efforts to build a multi-ethnic organization would fall miserably flat.

So we step on the tightrope. Aware of the dangers of falling. Trusting in our God to carry us.

We step.

Not recklessly. Knowing our capacity to hurt others even more than ourselves.

We step.

Not because we need to. Because those with weak hands and voices need ours. Because God calls us to love our neighbours.

We step.

Because Jesus stepped into our world, our culture. Now he calls us to follow him. Along a tightrope. And through places we might otherwise avoid. He calls us to the other side. And so we step.

Colossians 3:10-11 beautifully describes how the church has adopted a new identity in Christ and “is being renewed in the image of its Creator.” What does the Creators image look like? Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” While we all can and should work to eradicate racial prejudice from our society, ultimately we can only accomplish this when “Christ is all, and is in all.”

To God be the glory!

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