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.