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Pursuing Racial Diversity in the Local Church

2 months ago written by

In this issue of LIGHT + LIFE, we are releasing a position paper on “Racial Unity,” endorsed by the Board of Bishops. The purpose of these position papers is to provide pastors and churches with statements that clearly articulate our theological and doctrinal convictions on the critical issues of our day. This particular statement has special significance for us as Free Methodists in light of the fact that one of the key freedoms on which our founders took their stand was “the freedom of all races to worship and live together.” The introduction of this paper ends with a statement that reflects our current reality and then asks a critical question:

“Unfortunately, tension along racial lines is an ongoing reality for the church. How do we align ourselves with the gospel to create agency for the equity and inclusiveness of all races?”

That is a question I’ve been asking myself for almost 30 years of pastoral ministry. Paul boldly proclaims, “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. … His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:14–15).

I hear and believe this statement to be absolute truth. Jesus made racial unity possible. Jesus is our peace. Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. Jesus has made us one. And yet, in so many ways, we are still struggling as followers of Jesus to live out this truth in practice. So, yes, how do we align ourselves with the gospel when it comes to racial unity? Though the answer is certainly not limited to a single response, I have come to believe racial unity is best cultivated in the context of a racially diverse local church.

If legislating it, writing about it, or talking about it publicly could possibly bring about racial unity, we would already have it. Clearly, we do not. The concept of racial unity is not difficult to grasp, but living it is another story. The challenge is that we cannot begin to understand how to live it outside the context of racial diversity. So, if we followers of Jesus hope to realize the promise of racial unity and demonstrate to the world that Jesus is the way, we must do it in the local church.

That conviction has been forged in the furnace of my own personal journey.

My Story

I was reared in a small town in Southwest Georgia in the heart of farm country. Without question there were overt racists among us, but my parents were very careful to model respect for all people and demanded the same of me. When the time came for me to start school, my parents chose not to send me to the all-white private school that had just opened down the road. I instead went to the only public school in the county that had just been integrated the previous year.

As a first-grader, being in a racially diverse classroom wasn’t particularly strange because I had never known any other reality. I would spend the next 12 years with many of those same classmates, and for the most part, we learned well how to get along. On the athletic field, we did more than that. We learned in the heat of competition, that we were all brothers aiming for the same goal. When I graduated from Calhoun County High, I would have told you I had no issues when it came to race. I would have justified that sentiment by pointing out that most of my friends were black, but in hindsight it is clear to me now our “friendships” never extended beyond the boundaries of school. We never visited each other’s homes. We never spent time together on the weekend. And we definitely didn’t attend the same churches.

Several years later, I found myself sitting in an ethics class at Asbury Theological Seminary discussing John Perkins’ outstanding autobiography, “Let Justice Roll Down.” That book cut me to the core. I realized I had spent my entire life around persons of color but had no idea what it was actually like to be a person of color in our country. I left seminary with a clear conviction that God was calling me to something much deeper than merely “getting along.”

That conviction was immediately put to the test in my first appointment (not in the Free Methodist Church). I was 26 and pastoring a church with no youth, so I started a recreational ministry to try to connect with local teens. Almost overnight, there were a dozen kids coming to the church weekly to play basketball on the court behind the church. To make a long story short, when the leadership of the church discovered some of the kids were black, they insisted I tell them they could not return and informed me of “our” policy that “only members and their invited guests are allowed on our property.” I left my first appointment because I couldn’t abide by that policy. I would have told you at the time my willingness to take a public stand at personal cost was clear evidence I was doing my part to stand up for racial unity. Today I would tell you it was just one more step in my journey of learning what racial unity really means.

In 1997, God led Pam and me to the Free Methodist Church and an appointment to plant Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia. From the start, one of our aims was to be a racially diverse church. Though that was almost unheard of in our city, I was convinced my background had prepared me to lead such a church. Once again, I had no idea how complex the next phase of my journey would be or how much work God still had to do in me. But it was here, as we ate together, visited each other in our homes, bared our hearts and bore one another’s burdens, and risked having those really hard conversations, that I first experienced the gift of racially diverse community. Without question, we made mistakes and missed opportunities, but when I was elected as a superintendent in 2018, Pam and I left a beautifully diverse congregation that enthusiastically embraced an African American as my successor.

A Few Discoveries Along the Way

I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear I haven’t “arrived” when it comes to my understanding and experience of racial unity. I’m still on a journey and learning all the time, but I will happily share a few discoveries we have made along the way (so far).

The first thing we learned at Christ Community when it comes to racial unity was the power of prayer. Honesty compels me to admit we saw almost no progress in racial diversity in the first two years in spite of intentional efforts to target racially diverse neighborhoods. In our frustration, we cried out to God in a week of sacrificial prayer, specifically asking for a breakthrough in racial diversity. Over the next few months, several African Americans showed up for worship, most of them saying they came “because God told me to come to this church.” In some cases, even they didn’t know what they were getting into as they walked through our doors and discovered an overwhelmingly white congregation. God was answering our prayers!

We also learned that growth in racial unity happens best in the context of relationship. One of the greatest gifts of diverse community is that we can help each other see our blind spots, those areas of sin, brokenness, and wrong thinking that are so deeply engrained we can’t see them. But helping each other see our blind spots is only a gift when it is offered in the context of trust. And the only way to build trust is to get to know one another at a deep level. Hearts soften and minds open as we hear each other’s stories. At the same time, we begin to realize how much our own life experiences have shaped the ways we see the world and respond to each other. Little by little, our eyes are opened, and we begin to see as God sees. That’s when transformation begins.

Another discovery along the way is that we had to resist the urge to pursue diversity for diversity’s sake. To begin with, people want to be known and loved as persons, not notches on the belt of a cause. More importantly, while it is right and good to value diversity, we must never lose sight of the fact our mission is to make disciples. If we turn the value into the mission, we will inevitably fail because Jesus is the only One capable of delivering us from sin and making us whole. But if we lead people to Jesus, help them understand what it means to live a Spirit-filled life, and teach them to obey God’s Word, love of others – all others – will be the fruit.

One of the most challenging things we learned is that doing diversity is more powerful than talking about diversity. It’s challenging because God’s Word often demands that we speak prophetically to one another and to the world, but I’m convinced we see more fruit when we do it more than we talk about it. Talk tends to stir up things like denial (“You must be talking about someone else.”), defensiveness (“You don’t know anything about me.”), or the tendency to minimize the problem (“Can’t we just get past the past?”). But when a person experiences diversity unexpectedly, the message often gets through.

So what does “doing diversity” look like? It might mean establishing a ministry presence in a diverse neighborhood, starting racially diverse small groups, or sharing life stories that just happen to involve people who don’t look alike. Without question, it means developing and deploying a diverse group of leaders. We saw very little growth in diversity at Christ Community until our stage, staff and church board reflected racial diversity. When people enter a community and see no one in leadership who looks like they do, the message they receive is, “You are welcome to join us.” But when a person enters a community and sees people in leadership who look like they do, the message is, “We are in this together.”

Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that intentionally cultivating racial diversity within a local church is hard work — not because those who are different will make it hard, but because there is something in all of us that clings to comfort and familiarity. Let’s be candid: Racially diverse community sometimes feels awkward and uncomfortable, especially in the early stages.

I should also acknowledge that there is legitimate pushback from some who argue for the preservation of distinct racial cultures, particularly when it comes to things like worship style. To be fair, when Paul speaks of our unity in Christ (i.e., Ephesians 2:14–15; Galatians 3:28), he never suggests that one group must adopt the culture of another. In fact, he does the opposite in Acts 15 when he defends the rights of Gentiles to reject most aspects of Jewish culture. Without question, one of the most challenging issues facing churches that would embrace racial diversity has to do with worship style preferences. Do you go for a blended style that may not connect at a heart level with anyone? Is it possible to embrace multiple styles in a single community? Could a new style emerge out of a racially diverse community? These are difficult questions without easy answers.

Why Pursue It?

So, why should we pursue the more difficult path of racial diversity when an easier path exists? I would respond in three ways:

First, racially diverse community is a reflection of God’s nature as Creator. It is God who created different genders and races and called them “good.” In a similar way, Paul reminds us of the diversity of gifts that define the body of Christ. When we also consider the fact that no two persons are exactly alike, it becomes clear that beauty in the eyes of God must be understood in terms of diversity.

Second, a racially diverse church demonstrates the power of the gospel to a lost world. I believe it can be argued one of the reasons the church has lost much of its influence in American culture is because we have failed to live our own message, especially when it comes to racial unity. It must not be lost on us that Jesus specifically prayed that God would make us one “so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ is one of our most powerful testimonies to the truthfulness of the gospel.

Finally, racially diverse community prepares us for eternity.

When Jesus allowed John a glimpse of heaven, he saw the 24 elders before the throne of God, singing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10).

This is our future. May it increasingly become our current reality.

Bishop Keith Cowart, D.Min., oversees Free Methodist ministries along the Eastern Seaboard, in the South Central United States and also in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He was elected a bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA at General Conference 2019. He previously served as the superintendent of the Southeast Region after 21 years as the founding lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia.

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[Bishops] · Culture · God · L + L June 2020 · Leading Edge · Magazine