Tag Archives: Racial Reconciliation

My Brother Zach

I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I heard the gospel preached. Four years ago this month I was invited to a Bible study for football players at my university.

I had never attended a Bible study, so you can imagine my unease and anxiety when I arrived. But when I walked into the room I was shocked to see it filled with young, African American men who you wouldn't think would ever be sitting in the pews of your local church.

Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.
Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.

Then when I met the leader of the Bible study I went from being amazed to perplexed. He introduced himself to me as Zach Marcum, a short white guy from rural Kentucky. Zach isn't one of those guys who tries to act like he was from the "hood" in order to fit in; he is 100 percent suburban white. Neither is he one of those guys who keeps on talking about his favorite African American movies or rappers in order to prove that he understands "my people." Zach is simply an honest, genuine guy who shows everyone genuine Christ-like love and affection that isn't based upon reaching some ethnic conversion quota.

God has used Zach to lead not only me to Jesus, but also dozens of other African American men on campus throughout the years. How does he do it? What is his magic formula?

There isn't one. He is simply a man with a genuine love for people who are different from him. And he has decided to move outside his comfort zone and obey God's call to make disciples of all nations.

End of Tension

We often hear about ongoing racial tension. Did you know that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week because of homogenous church services? Did you know that many church leaders of the past owned slaves and supported their beliefs with the Bible? Did you know that many evangelical seminaries did not allow minority students until the latter half of the 20th century? These questions and many more remind us of the challenges.

But as we ask these questions we must also seek answers to the problems. How? By looking at the early church we're inspired as we see the beautiful message of the gospel spreading to people of all nations and places (Acts 2:1-41). We see new believers from Ethiopia (Acts 2:24-29), Egypt (Acts 18:24-27), Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), and Rome (Acts 28:23). Remarkably, they were all led to Christ by Jewish men and women who were ethnically different from them. The Holy Spirit tore down the dividing wall of hostility in order to show that "in Christ we are all children of God, through faith" (Gal. 3:26).

The early church knew that Jesus made it possible for all people—regardless of race, creed, or nation—to join the trans-cultural family of God. These Christians didn't view people of other ethnicities as projects, and they didn't view them as "those people" they were guilted into helping. They saw these men and women from around the world as created in the image and likeness of God, as purchased by the blood of the Lamb. Still today such Spirit-empowered Christians share this heartbeat. Captivated by a beautiful vision of the diverse family of God, such believers trust God to end the ongoing racial tensions in our country.

Heavenly Destiny

The day Zach got married, I still remember crying as I sat in the church. At that moment I reflected on our love for one another, a bond stronger than blood brothers. The world says we could never be friends. But my friendship with Zach offers a glimpse into what relationships are going to be like in heaven. Before the throne of God we'll enjoy love between people of all races and places as together we worship Christ (Rev. 7:9-10).

We serve a God who is big enough to bring together for his glory people who have been segregated for years. We will never experience this family perfectly until eternity. But we can still catch peeks of our destiny today.

John Piper Explains Why He Tries for Ethnic Unity

In pursuit of racial reconciliation, America still has a long way to go. But even saying so remains controversial in the Land of the Free. And don't look to the church of Jesus Christ for racial harmony, either. Ethnic tensions and a checkered past have muzzled the strategic mouthpiece of the body. Yet this struggle has not discouraged John Piper from entering this seemingly hostile fray.

JohnPiper-360x240Piper, a white man who grew up in the South, might not seem like the obvious choice to consult on race relations. But he has contributed his time, pen, wisdom, and life to the goal of racial harmony. Pastors, church planters, urban leaders, and even rappers benefit from his biblical insights.

"The impulses that move me start with God and the Bible," Piper explained in a recent interview with the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) about ethnicity and the church. "I can't love missions and be ethnocentric. I want every people group on the planet evangelized."

Though Sunday morning remains largely segregated, Piper charges church leaders to keep trying. "When you make an effort, and it doesn't seem to go well, you'll grow." Far from claiming mastery of the subject, Piper nevertheless encourages all church leaders to pursue ethnic unity, no matter their context.

"A lot of guys don't feel like they minister in a place where there's a lot of cultural diversity, but we cannot be silent on this matter," Piper says. "We've got answers for this."

These answers did not seem obvious to many in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, an event Piper vocally addressed. "People should not minimize the pain or diminish the racial dimensions of it," he says. "We need help to see through each other's eyes." Never diverting from his standard of theological faithfulness, he added solemnly, "We have a Savior who can forgive the sins of white and the sins of black."

Why Try?

Piper's 2011 book Bloodlines is part theological exposition and part public mea culpa for his own skewed vision growing up in the segregated South. Reception to the book was mixed, but he remains encouraged by the small victories he sees. "It feels like a victory of God that we're talking," he says.

Still, the onslaught of criticism begs the question: What made a pastor with his clout and reputation dive into these swirling waters? "The reality is there for me everyday." This reality is his adopted African American daughter, Talitha, a tangible reminder for him and his wife of the grace of Christ. Piper beamed as he spoke of the young woman's beauty and growth in the Lord. The beautiful tapestry woven by God into his family ensures his voice will never be silent when race is the topic.

As Piper slowly walked to the pulpit last year to deliver the closing sermon at the Legacy Conference to a cheering crowd filled with mostly young minority faces, he paused briefly to survey the diverse landscape. Undoubtedly, this moment marked a small victory on the journey toward racial harmony. Training urban leaders, speaking out on public issues, and raising a daughter who does not share his skin tone reveal Piper's commitment to think about and act on ethnic unity in the church.

Looking hopefully into the eyes of two African American brothers, he uttered what seems to be his life mantra: "I'm just a pastor who's trying."

Editors' note: Watch the first installment of the RAAN interview with Piper. More clips will be released weekly.

The Joyful Pursuit of Multi-ethnic Churches

Forming multi-ethnic churches seems to be appealing at first, but unless believers grasp the profound joy of pursuing diversity, the challenges of this type of ministry will quickly deflate them.

Churches that desire a more multi-ethnic membership desire a good thing, but it's not easy. Some churches are located in areas with virtually no ethnic diversity. Other churches across the spectrum still have leadership or laity who actively fight against any mixing ethnicities in their congregation. Still more churches may have the desire but lack the resources to effectively pursue multi-ethnicity.

While these problems are real, the right motivation can help churches persist in the call to multi-ethnicity. But people often have the wrong motivations. Guilt can be a motivation---this is especially true for people in the racial majority. The argument goes: "Whites have marginalized and oppressed blacks for so long, churches need to make it right by 'reaching out' to different races and ethnicities." While guilt has its place, this emotion will hardly give churches the determination they need to persevere through the difficulties of becoming multi-ethnic.

Another common motivation is fear. Christians fear lots of things about being in a mono-ethnic church. We fear that as neighborhood demographics change we will lose people. We fear that we will become irrelevant in the community. We fear being racist, or classist, or elitist. Fear, too, has its place. But that won't keep churches moving toward a multi-ethnic vision.

We need to be reminded of the joy of diversity. We need to keep that joy before us so it can motivate us for the marathon that is multi-ethnicity ministry. Here are six joys of pursuing a multi-ethnic make-up in churches.

1. You become more racially, ethnically, and culturally savvy.

In a healthy multi-ethnic church it becomes acceptable to talk about differences in race, ethnicity, and culture. Continual interactions with people different from you makes you into a person who is more sensitive and aware of culture and ethnicity. You make fewer missteps and feel less awkward when engaging people across racial and cultural gaps.

2. Your church becomes a safe haven for lots of different people.

Regardless of one's ethnicity, everyone wants to worship in a place that feels "safe." As an African American who longs for biblical teaching and preaching I do not feel at home in church that has erroneous theology but is more culturally familiar. Nor do I feel comfortable in a church with sound theology but is culturally distant. A multi-ethnic church becomes a place where I can get both sound doctrine and an accessible cultural experience. What is true along racial lines is also true along economic, linguistic, and other lines. Multi-ethnic churches communicate that it's all right to be different, and then lots of different people start coming.

3. You begin to understand what is primary and what is preference.

In a multi-ethnic church you have to constantly work to address the diverse needs of several ethnic groups. So you start having lots of conversations about what elements of worship are primary and which ones are preference. Churches that do this well begin to hone in on the essential truths of the gospel and communicate them more clearly while at the same time demonstrating flexibility and wisdom regarding culturally conditioned opinions about worship.

4. You want to invite people to church.

How many times have you hesitated to invite a person to church out of concern that the person wouldn't "fit in"? In many churches there is an unspoken expectation that people will wear a certain type of clothes, speak a certain way, know certain songs, have a certain background, and the like. Multi-ethnic churches make it easier for different people---folks with purple hair and earrings in their eyebrows, folks who can't afford a suit and tie, folks who have never been to church and don't know how to pray, folks of a different color---to feel at home. This, in turn, makes you bolder and more confident to invite people to church.

5. Your church becomes an authentic witness in your community.

Ethnically diverse churches authentically witness the gospel's power to reconcile people to God and each other. In a society shredded by sectarian interests---political, ideological, racial, you name it---churches that demonstrate unity in diversity attract attention. Multi-ethnic churches demonstrate that "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" (Gal. 3:28).

6. You get a glimpse of God's kingdom come.

Revelation 7:9 gives a concise depiction of the heavenly kingdom: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands." Scripture teaches that an essential aspect of the heavenly congregation is racial and ethnic diversity---Christ is calling people from all nations to himself. Multi-ethnic churches excite God's people because they truly reflect God's people.

The Joy of Unity in Diversity

We delight in multi-ethnic churches because they reflect the essential nature of God himself. God reveals himself in the three persons of the godhead--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Yet these three are one. The Trinity gloriously displays the unity and diversity of God. And God has so ordered the congregation of his people to reflect his three-in-oneness.

Although imperfect and incomplete, we can truly enjoy this reflection in our churches. The joy we feel in a multi-ethnic gathering of worshipers is the joy of feeling God's pleasure as we glorify him in his triune being. May God's church joyfully pursue diversity through our unified faith in Christ.