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.

Is It My Turn To Speak?

Jason Whitlock writes headlines before he writes articles. He likes to get people’s attention. As an African-American sports journalist he often leverages his heritage to write from a “black perspective”. He commonly uses sports events as a basis for social commentary.

With that said, I found one of his recent articles very interesting. You can read it HERE.

In this article he uses a tantrum thrown by Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Dez Bryant, as a springboard to make the point that his behaviour was not a product of his race. “Dez Bryant’s inability to control his emotions is not a racial issue. It’s a family dysfunction issue.” He goes on to write,

If this country wants to really invest in young people, we must first invest in restoring the traditional family unit. As long as 68 percent of black women who have children are unwed, there are no cures for the social maladies preventing black progress.

Much of the high-profile lawlessness and dysfunction we see in professional sports are a direct result of the impact of Hurricane Illegitimacy. It is not a coincidence that Bryant consistently struggles with his emotions and decision-making and [Calvin] Johnson does not. Johnson did not grow up amid chaos. He and his sister were raised by their married parents, who worked as a railroad conductor and an educator.

Anyone familiar with my work realizes I do not shy away from discussing race. It’s an important, vital discussion. But so is the discussion of family. In many respects, the conversations go hand in hand. The man-made factors energizing Hurricane Illegitimacy unfairly and, in my opinion, intentionally impact the black and brown family structures. The drug war and mass incarceration are targeted at poor, dark-skin communities.

I find his article compelling reading.

As a minister in a multi-ethnic church I have members that fit this demographic. Young black women in the pews each week who experience the social pressure to start a family without a husband. To what extent is the pressure greater on these black women than the white women sitting next to them? Because they all face some pressure.

As a white minister in a multi-ethnic church it is difficult to know how to address the issue. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I do not believe a white journalist (or preacher) could safely write the article that Whitlock did. God absolutely requires all preachers to promote purity and holiness. God wants all preachers to uphold his design for stable, loving marriages and families. Yet the question remains, “In a multi-ethnic church how do teachers address issues that have greater prevalence within a particular cultural community?”

Do we avoid the issues? Should we never mention that 68% of black women who have children are unwed? Or just teach other topics? Or just address it in private, maybe even segregated, forums?

Do we treat everyone the same? Should we pretend that every member, urban and suburban, faces the same pressures?

Do we just lay it out there and let the chips fall where they may? Of course no one would set out to be offensive, but should a white leader discuss this issue as sensitively as he can even though in all likelihood it will upset some?

Do we find a black leader to address the topic? Does the race of the speaker make a difference? Should this make a big difference?

Whitlock himself recognises that this is a difficult issue to discuss, “The normalization of illegitimacy is so pervasive in black America that people are afraid to publicly address its dangers and consequences out of fear of being labeled a sellout or a racist. It’s been so normalized that some people honestly don’t believe it’s a problem.

On the one hand it’s a family dysfunction problem. On the other hand, it’s a family dysfunction problem that’s more prevalent (not uniquely prevalent) within the black community. Can multi-ethnic churches address one issue without addressing the other?

Without being specific Whitlock demonstrates the difference between racial and cultural issues. He compares Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson. They are both super-talented, young, black, wide receivers playing in the NFL. However, their family upbringing is so disparate that it’s not fair to compare their personalities just because they play the same position or share the same race. The culture (or sub-culture if you prefer) that influenced them is completely opposite.

Johnson was raised in an environment that valued citizenship and education. In contrast, it’s a miracle that Bryant avoided the life of crime and drug addiction to which his mother succumbed. All at once the issue is racial, but also cultural. Church leaders need to be vigilant not to assume that because people have one trait in common they have all traits in common. For the 68% of unwed mothers there’s also 32% who are married. Who are you speaking to?

Leading a multi-ethnic church requires knowing your members more than your statistics.