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Converging Into a Unified Church

5 years ago written by

John Perkins (center) speaks at Christ Community Church during an interview with Executive Pastor Derrick Shields (left) and Lead Pastor Keith Cowart (right). (Photo by Allen Allnoch)

Christ Community Church Pastors Keith Cowart and Derrick Shields had a lot in common during their high school days in small Southern towns.

For example, Cowart’s classmates voted to name him “Best All-Around,” and Shields’ classmates voted him “Most Likely to Succeed.” Their experiences at newly integrated high schools also revealed racial division was not a thing of the past. Each high school gave separate awards for white and black students.

“My wife still loves to remind me that I’m really not ‘Best All-Around.’ I was just ‘Best All-Around’ white boy,” Cowart said May 6 as Converge 2:14 participants erupted in laughter during the opening session of the two-day conference in Columbus, Georgia, that Christ Community Church sponsored with support from other area congregations, organizations and businesses.

Although the high school flashback provided humor, it also revealed the pain that Shields and other African-Americans endured in a changing South.

“There were always reminders along the way that, even though we were together in the school, we were still separate,” Shield said. “We were considered to be a little below.”

The days of segregated school awards have passed, but segregation hasn’t stopped in many churches.

“There’s more diversity in the corporate world than in the church,” said Crawford Loritts, the senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Georgia. “Racism is not just a sociological problem. It is a spiritual stronghold.”

Cowart discovered racism in his first church as a pastor out of seminary. The church’s board and finance committee chairmen told him to “tell these black kids they can’t come on our property” to play basketball even though he had invited them. Cowart lost his job after refusing to comply. He later joined the Free Methodist Church and planted Christ Community in his living room with diversity as a core value. He acknowledged that value has not always been easy to implement, and other speakers echoed that sentiment.

“Multiethnic church is a headache. It can be a pain — especially during political season,” said Bryan Loritts — the lead pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California, and the president of the multiethnic Kainos Movement — who added that diversity in the local church is the biblical model. “Our first-century roots are multiethnic.”

Christ Community convened the conference to explore how the body of Christ can live out Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

The conference drew praise from Stephanie Jordan, who traveled from northern Indiana where she serves as the assistant pastor for both the Michigan City Free Methodist Church and Springville Community Church.

“I believe that Converge 2:14 is the launching pad to abolish racism in the church. Every speaker spoke from a biblical perspective and solution,” Jordan said. “The conference was a confirmation to my spirit. I further believe that it was the breakthrough conference that will change attendance on Sunday mornings from the most segregated hour to the most unified.”

Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, noted, “It has been the history that churches have often ignored or decided to run away from difficult conversations,” and he expressed appreciation for Converge 2:14. “I am thankful that in this place, the dividing walls of hostility are falling down.”

Rah said that unlike in the Bible, today’s most popular worship songs rarely include lament. He noted plenty of tragedies for the church to lament — including that many congregations have failed to engage our changing society while buying into a lie that their neighborhoods are not diverse enough for their churches to be diverse.

“The local school is six times more integrated than the local church,” Rah said. “The evangelical church’s level of segregation is the same as [society’s level of segregation] during the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South.”

A moving time of prayer, confession and lamentation followed Rah’s message. Jordan said that “Rah spoke so profoundly and deeply heartfelt, the Holy Spirit engulfed the room. There were outcries for forgiveness and wounds being healed.”

One in Christ

John Fuder, the founder and director of Chicago-based Heart for the City, used the book of Nehemiah as a model for how we should engage broken people and rebuild our broken communities.

“Unfortunately, we are sometimes known more for what we’re against than who we’re for as Christ followers,” Fuder said. “My prayer today is that we will engage.”

Ohio State University sociologist Korie Edwards criticized our society’s emphasis on the “power of one.” She said that individuals matter, but power comes through connection to other people.

“There’s no such thing as the power of one. … People don’t live and thrive in isolation,” said Edwards, who added that Romans 12 reveals we are one in the body of Christ, and she noted Jesus’ prayer for believers in John 17. “We are to be one so that people will know that God loves them.”

Soong-Chan Rah (center) speaks during a lighter moment of the panel discussion at Converge 2:14.

Soong-Chan Rah (center) speaks during a lighter moment of the panel discussion at Converge 2:14. (Photo by Allen Allnoch)

Edwards led a panel discussion of local pastors and several conference speakers. She asked Cowart about the lessons he learned in creating a racially diverse faith community.

“It requires a tremendous amount of intentionality. It doesn’t just happen by accident,” said Cowart, who highlighted the roles of prayer and making diversity a biblical priority. “We really do have to be a diverse people if we’re going to be the true people of God.”

Seminars and Worship

Each afternoon included breakout sessions that mixed speakers from the main sessions plus additional experts such as Otto Price, a music producer and former Warner Music Group executive who may be best known as the bassist for the bands dc Talk and Sonicflood. Price recently left Nashville’s music industry to become the worship and creative arts pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, and he advised worship leaders to make music that’s informed by a variety of styles.

“If we do music that only fits our personal preferences, when people come in the church, they don’t know what we’re talking about” said Price, who was one of many musicians who helped lead Converge 2:14 in worship through a variety of musical styles. “I want earnestly to make sure we give people music that they are going to connect to their soul.”

Taste and See

Most Converge 2:14 events took place at Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center, but the conference concluded the evening of May 7 at Christ Community Church with “Taste and See: A Dynamic Experience of Diverse Worship” — a free event open to the public. Along with powerful music, “Taste and See” included a sermon by 85–year-old civil rights pioneer John Perkins of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, and Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center.

Perkins, a third-grade dropout, has served on the boards of Spring Arbor University and major Christian organizations while also advising U.S. presidents. A white police officer killed his brother, and Perkins was tortured in a jail cell. Perkins chose not to give in to hate, and he became a leading advocate for racial reconciliation. He described racism as an error that assumes more than one human race exists.

“What we’ve got to do is put justice — reconciliation — back in the gospel and not make it a second thought,” Perkins said. “We want to make it a reflection of the kingdom of God. That’s what the church is supposed to be doing.”

Cowart said that “Let Justice Roll Down,” Perkins’ 1976 book, “had a profound impact on my life. When we planted this church 18 years ago, this book planted a seed in my heart that we could not be a faithful church and not look like the kingdom.”

Perkins returned to Christ Community Church the following morning to be interviewed by Cowart and Shields during Sunday services. Visit fmchr.ch/cccperkins for video of their conversation.

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[News] · Culture · L + L July 2016 · Magazine · US & World

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