Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:
- An open letter to members of the Churches of Christ -ministers, scholars and thought leaders within the fellowship
- Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.
The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.
Church growth theory
In fairness to today’s membership, today’s segregated churches do not reflect today’s attitudes so much as the consequences of racism of prior years. That is, white and black congregations, once formed, tend to retain their racial characteristics long after the leadership is open to having a racially mixed church – due in part to location and to the fact that people naturally tend to join a church with a membership that looks like themselves. It’s not only about race but also the natural human tendency for people to socialize with people much like themselves. College-educated people tend to join college-educated churches. Wealthy people tend to join wealthy churches.
On the other hand, I see very little effort being made to reverse the consequences of the racism of prior years. I hear a lot of talk. I see very little action. It does happen, but not nearly often enough. Rather than fighting against our very natural, very human tendency to be with people like ourselves, we just assume that this is the nature of things. It’s comfortable, and so we feel no need to change.
In fact, the church growth experts tell us that churches grow best by appealing to people like themselves. And it’s kind of true.
The homogeneous unit principle was originally described by Donald A. McGavran in Understanding Church Growth (Revised Edition, Eerdmans, 1990).
It takes no great acumen to see that when marked differences of color, stature, income, cleanliness, and education are present, men understand the Gospel better when expounded by their own kind of people. They prefer to join churches whose members look, talk, and act like themselves.
McGavran is describing what is, not necessarily what ought to be. But many church leaders and planters have operated on this basis. Although the homogeneous unit principle might work, it’s also immoral, sinful, and utterly contrary to the gospel. We forget that we weren’t just called to be baptized so we can go to heaven when we die. We were also called as part of God’s mission to end racial and national division:
(Gen. 22:18 ESV) “[I]n your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
(Gal. 3:28 ESV) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Col. 3:11 ESV) Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
We need to be attractive by living the gospel.
There is much debate over being “attractional” versus being missional. The problem isn’t that the church shouldn’t be attractive. Of course, it should be! But it should be attractive because it reflects Jesus – who is attractive.
Therefore, we should be attractive, not because white churches appeal to white people and black churches appeal to black people, but because racially diverse churches reflect the heart of Jesus, who loves everyone without regard to appearances. We should seek diversity because the gospel requires it – and we’ll then be attractive in a very different but much better way.
Indeed, while Millennials are just as inclined to join a church like themselves – filled with Millennials – just like any prior generation, they find racial discrimination abhorrent and intolerable. We are blessed to live in an age when doing the right thing happens to also be the thing that will draw young people to our churches.
Contextualizing the gospel
However, the homogeneous unit principle has the advantage of allowing leaders to design the assembly to match the tastes and sensibilities of a single culture. Black church assemblies can be very different from white church assemblies. So how do we design an assembly that makes both whites and black comfortable? Or equally uncomfortable?
If we were training a missionary to Sub-saharan Africa, we’d train him to distinguish the gospel itself from the gospel as enculturated in America. For example, there are many stories of Africans being converted to the gospel and then required to purchase Western suits so they can attend an American style church in a society in which suits are not only foreign, but extremely expensive — perhaps more than a year’s salary! Obviously, the missionary confused the gospel (which says nothing about suits and ties) and American culture.
I entirely agree with the importance of both removing American cultural notions from the gospel and with the wisdom of preaching the gospel in terms of the local culture and worldview. I mean, it would be foolish to speak in terms of college football metaphors in Brazil, even though those metaphors work quite well here in Tuscaloosa. You have to speak in the language of your audience.
And you don’t have to sing using shaped notes and four-part harmony in a culture that sings modal scales and has no understanding of harmony. Those alto leads don’t appeal to people outside the American South.
But, of course, the gospel is constant and unchanging. No compromise of the gospel may be allowed.
This problem is commonly discussed among missionaries, but it’s rarely brought up in domestic church work, even though the same problem arises in our highly diverse American culture. Not everyone enjoys country music. Not everyone appreciates a lesson on Greek declensions. You have to know your audience.
And when your audience is mixed — black and white, rich and poor, post-graduate and high school educated — it’s tough to design a sermon and a song service that works for everyone.
The common response is that we are there for God, not ourselves, and then the leaders insist on the style that the leaders like! Right?
If you want black Christians to be a part of your predominantly white church, you need to bend a little and make sure your services don’t sound as foreign to your black brothers and sisters as a mass celebrated in Latin would be for most of us Protestants.
In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”
Whether translating the Bible or developing relationships with non-Christians, we’re to be missionary minded in everything we do. That takes work—the hard effort of maintaining the big picture and communicating comprehensibly and compellingly to those who don’t share our convictions and worldview. Therefore, every day and in every circumstance, we need to be consciously and rigorously translating our faith into the language of the culture we’re trying to reach.
This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.
I think that’s exactly right. I think we over-contextualize to our well-educated white audiences by teaching a gospel shaded to be comfortable for untransformed white Christians. And I think forcing ourselves to rethink what we do, so we can honor God’s will for a multi-racial, multi-cultural church, will make for better preaching for whites and blacks both — because it will force us to re-think and so refocus on what really is gospel.
Ed Stetzer addresses contextualization in a multi-cultural congregation in a post at The Exchange —
[I]f you’re going to engage in multi-cultural ministry you’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings or have your feelings hurt. … So it will be in any form of a multicultural ministry. People will get their feelings hurt and apologies should flow quickly (and forgiveness should flow quickly as well). …
[A] multi-cultural church will grow slower than a mono-cultural church. It’s simply a statistical reality that when everyone thinks similarly, they can engage others more quickly and more effectively and churches will grow. One reason for this is that healthy multicultural churches are built on cross-cultural relationships of transparency and trust; and these take much more time to form and develop than do those relationships with people of similar backgrounds. Furthermore, trust is not a commodity so easily assumed in a room full of people not like you. …
But I explained in my talk just how complicated communication can be, particularly when you cross cultures.
Notice that multi-cultural churches are harder to lead than homogeneous churches. But the problems they face sound very much like the problems Paul addresses in his epistles. People got their feelings hurt. Growth was erratic, and churches struggled to get along with each other. Communications were difficult, and Paul’s word were often misunderstood. This happens when you try to blend different cultures, languages, and ethnicities in one body, one household, one church. But Paul preferred unity and gospel to pragmatism and ease and even growth. Why grow at all if you aren’t growing a church built on the full, real, authentic gospel?
Sometimes the journey is the destination. The struggle to get along despite our differences will change us in profound ways. It’ll be hard, but all growth is hard. And being transformed into the image of Jesus is hard — so hard that it requires divine intervention in the form of the Spirit to happen.
It’s my firm conviction that making the effort to be fully multi-racial (and hence multi-cultural) in all congregations that exist in multiracial or multicultural communities will be good for us and for the world around us. The lessons we learn from each other and from the struggle to make it work will make us better Christians. And in the long run, the effort will plant seeds that will blossom into a more cross-shaped church, a church that will be far more attractive than even the fastest growing of our homogeneous churches of today.
PS — Perhaps the key to a multicultural church is to talk to the members of all cultures. You have no idea what mistakes you’re making until you have a conversation in which members of different cultural groups are welcomed to give honest, even painful, feedback.
Don’t buy a book. Don’t try to talk like black people on TV. Take people to lunch and be open to some hard lessons. And do so continuously.
In my experience, the most important thing a church leadership can do to make a church appeal to a different race or different culture is have these conversations. Don’t just invite members to call you if they have concerns. They likely will not. Get on the phone and invite your members to meetings, breakfasts, and lunches — and don’t be defensive. Listen!!