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.

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8 Tips for Preaching on Race

8 Tips for Preaching on Race

Race relations in the United States have grabbed the headlines in the last few months, culminating in the shooting of five Dallas police officers in early July. In the weeks that followed I know many churches publicly addressed the issue of race relations. Some did so through special prayers, others did so through sermons. For many churches this was the first time they’d directly addressed the issue for years.

As this topic becomes more acceptable to discuss there are dangers preachers face as they dive into sensitive waters. To help navigate this challenge over the next couple of weeks I will share two lists, of Do’s and Do Not’s about preaching on issues of race. I hope you’ll add to the conversation in the comments section and expand our knowledge through your experiences.

We begin with the positive suggestions:

  1. Do speak on issues of race and culture: We all face a temptation to skirt difficult and divisive issues. It’s easy to rationalise sweeping stuff under the rug by asking, “Is it really beneficial for the church if it results in conflict and division?” But the answer is “Yes!” if approached humbly and carefully. Many of us encourage our churches to move towards relevance when discussing music choices, but true relevance means addressing topics that dwell close to people’s hearts. 
  2. Ground your sermon in Scripture: The church never speaks for itself. When the church addresses social issues it must speak for God. The preacher’s role is to persuade people that the path of peacemaking and reconciliation is God’s path for His people. We can easily find civil rights activists willing to speak out against the evils of racism. Only God’s people have the authority to speak for God. When preachers attempt to motivate behavioural changes without establishing God’s will, we’ve become manipulative rather than prophetic. Stories and statistics will play an important role in whole conversation, but in the church, it should always be a supporting role. 
  3. Have a clear goal in your preaching: Is your goal simply to say racism is bad, or to prompt the church to take substantive steps toward reconciliation? Who do you want the church to reconcile with? Is the first need in this conversation to convince people that racism still exists in our community or church? Sometimes we will address this topic from a more educational perspective than a motivational one. Our preaching needs more purpose than simply reminding the church to love our neighbours. 
  4. Be specific and define your terms: I’ve written previously about the need to define terms. Don’t assume that everyone uses technical words the same way that you do. The bigger issue at this point involves defining racism, prejudice and discrimination. Very few people will admit that they’re racist. Regardless of a person’s real views we all understand the negative implications of being known as a racist. Instead, focus on giving examples of specific behaviours or statements that your congregation may recognise. 
  5. Research the topic. Because race relations continues to raise emotions, we need to found the sermon application on verifiable research rather than impressions and personal experience.  A few years ago I read a nationally-known church member describe working in the fields alongside African-Americans and observing, “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” No preacher will get far doing nothing but comparing anecdotes. However, pointing out rates of poverty, lending practices, and education levels at that same period will paint a picture that’s much more credible. If you haven’t done much reading on the topic, you really shouldn’t say much on the topic!

  6. Provide “next steps” for hearers to take afterwards: The goal of a sermon on race should always exceed merely producing guilt. If the goal is education, suggest books, articles or movies for people to look up on their own time. If the goal is action, point people to organizations or events in which they can participate. When promoting reconciliation encourage people to share a meal or coffee with someone from a different ethnic or cultural background and listen to their stories. Even if the goal is introspection or self-awareness provide resources such as this inventory for people to evaluate themselves. And if we need to convince people of the ungodliness of racism then provide a handout of Scriptures and questions for personal study. These are simple suggestions.Whatever you do, don’t give the impression that a hearty handshake and “Well, done preacher.” sufficiently resolves the issues. 
  7. Prepare church leadership to receive and respond to likely criticisms. No matter your oratory skills, one sermon will never complete a congregation’s transformation of racial attitudes. Preachers must prepare themselves to work long-term. Ambushing elders and other ministers without warning of the sermon topic may well make the sermon your last! Even if you survive, the church will make a much greater impact when the leadership shares the vision for racial reconciliation and possesses the training and knowledge to engage members’ questions and concerns. 
  8. Pray. If it’s dangerous to address this topic without the support of congregational leaders, how much greater is the risk of excluding God from the sermon? Pray that the congregation will hear with open minds. Pray that supportive voices will drown out any opposition. Pray that real change may occur. Pray that our mission will be God’s mission. And pray for peace, courage and reconciliation that leads to lasting change.

The companion post to this article is 7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race.

Seeing Inside Out

god-sees-the-heart 01

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

Perhaps you’ve heard that verse before.

We use it to tell other people to stop judging us. “God knows what’s in my heart.”

We use it to judge other people, because although they look good God, and I, know what’s really going on in their hearts.

Sometimes we use it to include people who have a lot of tattoos, or whose clothes are shabby… “the Lord looks at the heart.”

Sometimes we use it to excuse our laziness and lack of action. “I know I could have cooked a meal for that person who just had surgery. I’d have liked to but just didn’t get around to it. Well, God knows my heart.”

In reality, we all judge on appearance more than we’re usually willing to admit. Although we know and quote 1 Samuel 16:7 we often live in opposition to this principle.

We make all sorts of judgments about people based on appearance:

  • Football fans – we like people more or less depending which team they support;
  • Professional attire – we presume people are more educated and capable the more formal their dress;
  • Skin tone – we all tend to more quickly trust others who look more like us;
  • Hemlines – women in general are more regularly judged by appearance and people associate values with clothing choices us as the length of a woman’s dress.

Because we know people make judgements based on appearances we then begin to accept them and play along. We may even try to use those judgements to our own advantage.

donald trump 01“It’s not a coincidence that many politicians wear red-coloured ties with light shirts and darker suits.

“Red is the power tie,” said Mark Woodman, a trend analyst who studies colour in Laurel, Maryland, in the US. “There’s something about red that always comes back to strength and passion.”” [quoted from HERE]

When it comes to playing along there’s not much we can do about our skins. We all ‘play along’ to some degree in regards to clothing, but accepting skin colour as a reasonable basis to make judgements about a person is dangerous. Viewing a presidential candidate as passionate because he wears a red tie pales in significance compared to initially regarding someone with dark skin as dangerous or assuming that someone with white skin would ‘fit in’ better to our office atmosphere.

It’s difficult to see people inside-out when society, and perhaps our human nature, trains us to see others outside-in. Notice in the opening verse that God states that it’s completely natural for even the great prophet Samuel to judge people by appearance. But as we grow in spiritual maturity we must desire to see others as God sees them.

The apostle Paul expresses the same thought this way:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation     2 Corinthians 5:16-18

Reconciliation as described here has many different applications. Primarily all humanity needs reconciliation with God. But given the history of the United States no one can claim to be reconciled with God while neglecting racial reconciliation. Given the tragedies we’ve witnessed around this country recently, the church can’t preach forgiveness while standing on the sidelines pointing fingers at violence and injustice in others.

Christians should be leading the way in practicing reconciliation because we regard no one from a worldly point of view.

  • Can we continue to describe churches as black and white if we no longer regard others from a worldly point of view?
  • Can we tolerate education systems with disparate graduation rates running along racial lines?
  • Can we remain silent while African-Americans fill our jails at a disproportionate rate?

Do we really believe that in Christ the old has gone and the new is here? Or is it too easy for us to rationalise the points above? Do we really see people differently because of Christ, or have we just memorised a couple of feel-good Bible verses?

Steps to See Others Inside-Out

  1. Remind Yourself Frequently: When you find yourself saying, “Typical, black drivers are always cutting me off.” or “Well, that’s no surprise, Indians are taking all our jobs.” Find ways to talk back to yourself. Remind yourself that each person is an individual with struggles and bad habits just like yours. Remind yourself that God loves them too.
  2. Understand that skin color is more than skin deep. People of different ethnicities experience the world in different ways. When we intentionally try to ignore skin color we ignore important aspects of that person’s life. Seeing people inside-out means acknowledging that a black male will most likely have different thoughts about dealing with the police than will a white female. The outside influences the inside. [I’ve written further on this topic HERE.]
  3. Ask Questions: Spend time with people from other ethnicities and cultures. Don’t tell them what the people in the news are doing wrong. Listen to their experience with the issues that interest you. Don’t argue! A simple ice breaker might go something like this, “What’s something about your experience living in the US that you think would surprise me, or I wouldn’t experience?”
  4. Make New Friends: If you live in a racially diverse community, and all your friends come from the same race as you, it’s time to develop some new friendships. It’s hard to demonstrate that you’re an agent of reconciliation if your friends are all one color.
  5. Be Color Brave: Encourage your church to address issues of racial reconciliation. If you live in an area with single race churches, then speak up for unity services and other forms of cooperation. Don’t pretend that race-based churches provide an acceptable status quo. Push for your church to embody the truth that “the Lord looks at the heart.” [Check out a great TED talk and other thoughts HERE.]

It has taken the United States centuries to reach this point in race relations. While prejudice may never disappear from our society, Christians have an opportunity, and responsibility, to demonstrate a better way. We can show the world what a difference it makes to move through life Seeing Inside-Out.


This summer I’ve been participating in a Summer Blog Tour with some excellent bloggers. Our theme for the summer is “[         ] Inside Out“. You can follow their work on my primary blog: www.ozziepete.wordpress.com. This post will also be shared on their sites in the coming weeks.
Church Inside OutAs part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly  released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.