When we were young Bible students in Dallas, my husband was the pastor of a small church there, and we had children of almost every color running through the halls and climbing in our laps. We loved it. We felt like our church family was a small glimpse of what heaven will look like: every race, color, and tongue joined in sweet unity. Diversity united in glorifying the one God we all love and serve. We felt like our church family looked like God’s family.
Today, sadly, our church is far too white.
There are several factors that contribute to the problem of one-color churches, whether that “one color” is white, brown, yellow, red, or black. A blog post can’t scratch the surface on this topic, but I’m going to throw out a few brief thoughts today on why there hasn’t been more progress toward multi-ethnic congregations.
In our area of the South, most churches have been “happily” segregated for years. People settle in and stay with their “own.” In many cases, it may not be that people oppose attending a church with an ethnically mixed congregation, there just aren’t many options in our area and most people aren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone to be the first to break down those walls.
For those of us in the South, we’re well acquainted with the traditional “good-ol’-boy” racism. You know, it’s that attitude that if you’re not a truck-drivin’ confederate-flag-wavin’ beer-drinkin’ redneck, you’re not quite American. And if you’re black, you’re less than that.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard a racial slur. I was a little girl, uneducated to the world of racial hostility, and the slur came from my grandfather. I was shocked. This normally kind-hearted man morphed into an ugly racist whenever the topic of black people came up. I was too young to really understand what he was saying or why, but I understood the heart behind the message: hostility.
When racism is in the air the culture breathes, there is fierce opposition to a mixed congregation.
When my husband was in his first pastorate, he was barely eighteen years old, still single, and student at a state university. He was pastoring a church on the Arkansas/Louisiana border and it was starting to experience growing pains. The congregation was made up mainly of one large, blue collar, hard working, family who had been in that church for generations. There were a few other families mixed in and several who were brand new believers.
He’d only been pastoring there about a year when he invited a campus ministry’s small student choir to come and sing for a special Sunday morning service. By that afternoon, my husband says, he realized he was in big trouble. He got a phone call warning him that there was going to be a meeting that night, after the evening message at church, and he probably would not survive.
You see, the singing group was multi-ethnic, and not one black person had ever walked through the church’s doors before that day. The congregation was hot. And my future husband was facing his first real test as a pastor.
At only eighteen, he was faced with the decision of whether he would hold true to the gospel or cave to the fear of man.
He planned a “grand entrance” for what might be his final message at this little country church. When he walked through the doors of the sanctuary that night, the first two hymns had already been sung. He carried a suitcase in each hand as he walked down the middle aisle of that small church. By the time he got to the front of the sanctuary, the music had stopped. He placed a suitcase on each side of the pulpit and opened his Bible to deliver the Sunday evening message.
His text was James 2:1–9, but he especially stressed these verses:
[box]If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2: 8–9) [/box]
He added several supporting verses to the message:
[box]“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)[/box]
[box]“Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart . . .” (1 Peter 1:22)[/box]
[box]“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)[/box]
[box]“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves . . .” (Philippians 2:3)[/box]
He told the congregation that he understood the cultural challenge this was for them and that perhaps they’d never realized all that God’s Word had to say on this topic. Knowing him, I’m sure he delivered a pastoral message with compassion, encouraging his flock to love and good deeds.
I’ve never heard him “bully” a congregation—even when it appeared that battle lines were drawn and Scripture was being misinterpreted, abused, or ignored.
He closed his message with an invitation to the congregation. He challenged them to consider where their hearts were in light of God’s opinion of those who were a different ethnicity than them. He asked them if they were willing to accept others and love others as Christ had accepted and demonstrated love to them.
He said that he understood how difficult this would be for them, but he also told them that this would be an issue where he could not compromise. He let them know if they were ready to remove him from the position of pastor, he would willingly go rather than bring things to an ugly public debate. He told the congregation that he would be standing down front if any wanted to come and speak with him about their concerns, or if God had dealt with anyone’s heart from the Word.
After offering his challenge and invitation, he stood alone in front of the Lord’s Communion table. No music was playing, only a holy hush falling on a small group that had never considered these Scriptures in light of their personal prejudices.
My husband says he waited for what seemed an eternity. It seemed like no one was going to move, no one was going to accept the invitation from the Word. But he wouldn’t budge. He stood alone and prayed silently, begging God for a breakthrough with these people he loved so dearly.
Finally, the elder patriarch of the church’s founding family rose quietly from his seat. He slowly made his way down the aisle and took my husband’s hand. The gentleman whispered these words in my husband’s ear:
“Pastor, this is the way I’ve been raised. They have their place, we have ours. I’ve never felt like the two should mix . . . but after what you told us God’s Word says about this, I want to change. I see now the way I’ve been raised was wrong. How I’ve thought about this was wrong and I want to do what God’s Word says.”
My husband embraced him and commended his courage to go against the tradition of his culture in order to obey God. While he was praying for this newly surrendered patriarch, a long line of repentant church members began forming in the aisle, waiting their turn to confess and seek prayer from the pastor.
In the next 6–8 weeks that little church saw a gospel explosion. More than forty people entered God’s kingdom. My husband believes God’s Spirit had the freedom to work in that community once they repented of their sin of prejudice.
What does God want to do?
I believe He has a vision for the nations to worship Him in Spirit and truth—together.
This week, I’ve invited my friend, Trillia Newbell, to share her heart on this topic. I’ll also be offering her book, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, as a gift. Check back tomorrow to read about the opportunity to enter the give-away for her book.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net