A Rift in Word and Deed

People of color are leaving white churches en masse. Here’s why and what we can do about it.

There is a disturbing trend impacting the American Church: people of color, at predominately white churches, are leaving their places of worship by the masses. It is a heartbreaking truth that we must grapple with, as our brothers and sisters in Christ, once committed to a local church, now believe they must leave because they have experienced troubling and serious contradictions between the words and actions of people within the Church.

Sadly, this is not ground-breaking news.

Is there a path forward for our brothers and sisters in Christ who say, “I love the Lord and love you,” but do not practice acts of love toward minority people groups in their own congregations? Is there a way for all believers to embrace African-, Latin-, Asian-, Native-, Indian- and Polynesian-American history as a consequential part of American, and more importantly, Church history? Undeniably, the answer is yes.

I became desensitized to some of the plights and effective proclamations of the gospel meant for a diverse audience.

I hope to give a vision to all evangelical Christians so we can discern how our local church might practically embrace the cultural and ethnic diversity already present in our midst.

There is great work to be done to heal the hurt experienced by God’s people of color in America. We can confront and condemn the sin of racism when propagated by leaders and citizens in our country as well as within the family of God. There are practical ways for us to act that can stop racism in its tracks, helping our brothers and sisters of color to see that they are loved and valued in our predominantly white congregations.

Helping Christians effectively prevent diverse departures

The first time I was exposed to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, I was enthralled. I had never heard a more organized and clear explanation of certain theological doctrines. Soon afterward, I began listening to predominately white Christian leaders to help me better articulate gospel truths that resonated with the majority culture. Although this may not be your experience, as I learned how the majority culture understood the gospel, I became desensitized to some of the plights and effective proclamations of the gospel meant for a diverse audience.

1. Shepherds should love the whole flock and seek the harassed and helpless

In His kindness, God is now calling me to lead a growing local church in the Near West Side neighborhood of Chicago. I am a Christian, a pastor and also a black man. Our congregation in Chicago is small but each Sunday we worship together with approximately eleven different ethnic groups. Yet the majority of people who gather are still white. Therefore, it is imperative for us to thoughtfully consider how to care for all people well.

Pastors can honor all human life by fulfilling one of our primary roles: shepherds, called by God to care for the sheep (people in our church) who have chosen to follow our leadership. We best fulfill our shepherding responsibility when we are moved emotionally to act relationally towards all people.

Jesus modeled compassion for the harassed and helpless, those who were, “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Jesus, our true Shepherd, set the example for how we can seek and serve people of color and other marginalized people groups who have been harassed or feel quite helpless.

Only when leaders have compassion for all attenders of our congregations will we honor the authority of God’s Word, while attempting to look and act more like our great Shepherd, Jesus.[LE3]

2. Our churches are accountable to value all lives

Our church constitution follows this statement on human life:

“We believe that every human life is a gift from God, that each person is made in the image of God, and that we should love and respect all people.”

This statement embodies a basic Christian response to human life that all churches should uphold.

Our denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), also appeals to human life in three of its articles contained in its statement of faith:

  • Article 3, The Human Condition: We are all created in God’s image.
  • Article 7, The Church: We are all united in one, true church.
  • Article 8, Christian Living: Compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed is an obedient response to God’s commands.
We must proactively consider how our neighborhood’s generational, ethnic and socio-economic diversity impacts our local church ministries.

Research your local church’s governing documents to see if they include a similar written statement. If not, then graciously assist the leaders in your church by humbly reminding them of Scriptures like Genesis 1:27 (we all have been created in God’s image), John 13:34-35 (love is an active expression of God’s image to others) and Colossians 3:10 (we are being renewed in the knowledge and image of God, regularly).

If the church you attend has similar words written on paper, but they are not being demonstrated, then start asking questions. Hold your leaders accountable by reminding them of their clearly-stated commitment, ensure they have the necessary resources available, set measurable goals and times for honest feedback. We must be people who practice what we preach or we may fall to the consequence of people leaving our monocultural churches.

3. Proactively consider the mix of people in your neighborhood

In the city of Chicago, many churches are in wonderfully diverse areas. My wife and I live in an area which is considered one of the most diverse in Chicago, based on ethnic and economic differences. The church I lead is nestled in an area surrounded by great ethnic and economic diversity. We must proactively consider how our neighborhood’s generational, ethnic and socio-economic diversity impacts our local church ministries.

Our church leaders in Chicago are fervently praying that 2021 will be the year we experience significant numerical and spiritual growth, much like that of the first-century church. So, if the Lord chooses to grow our local church, our leaders are being intentional about identifying and repenting of our sins so we might proactively avoid any form of favoritism, racism or neglect.

Notice what happened in the early church as the number of disciples were increasing:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1).

With church growth came neglect. Widows who practiced Greek customs and followed Greek culture were not receiving equitable treatment as compared to their Hebrew counterparts. And this was considered sin. What did the church leaders do about it?

The apostles selected more leaders, called deacons, to care for the growing number of diverse disciples.

In our efforts to love all people, especially those whose cultural traditions seem strange, we remind ourselves of what it means to model hospitality.

These deacons, who were placed in leadership to address the issue of neglect, were people with good reputations, filled with the Holy Spirit, servant-oriented and diverse (Acts 6:2-7).

It is the practical and sociological will of God that our churches be diverse. We don’t pursue caring for the diverse mix of people in our neighborhoods as a national fad; rather, we do this in obedience to the eternal Word of God. As we evaluate our commitment to the local church, wisdom calls us to consider how leadership prioritizes biblical diversity.

Observe the leadership structure in your church and discern their intentionality in appointing and hiring a diverse team. Diverse leaders can equip the body to be aware of the blind spots created from our own biases. They can help us to recognize the sin-laden prejudices which are often directed at those whom the Bible calls “the least of these” (Matt 25:40, 45). Pursuing biblical unity and [LE10] diversity will liberate followers of Jesus as we aim to know and meet community needs with equitable love and respect for all people.

4. Engage in relationships across cultural and national lines

Years ago, I spoke with a Christian student from India who questioned which cultural traditions should be observed in a wedding ceremony. He asked, “Should women be prohibited from wearing a vermillion mark?” A vermillion mark is a symbol used for wives to show their commitment to the long life and well-being of their husband. A local Indian pastor gave a wonderful and helpful response:

“Cultural expressions are not sinful and should be allowed, as long as there are no religious implications or personal preferences that conflict with biblical convictions.”

In our efforts to love all people, especially those whose cultural traditions seem strange, we remind ourselves of what it means to model hospitality. You see, it is wholesome and biblically necessary for pastors, leaders and congregations to consider modeling hospitality (Lev 19:33-34, Matt 25:31-40, Heb 13:2). When every Christian begins to engage in relationships across cultural and national lines, we will be hospitable and receive hospitality in new ways.

By God’s grace, there are a multitude of practical ways to engage in biblical hospitality.

  • Check your attitude before reaching out to others. Don’t let your preconceived notions prevent you from listening to and serving others. Focus your attention on their experiences.
  • Observe and honor others’ familial traditions by simply asking this question: “What is the cultural significance of your family’s practice?” Recognize the inherent value in other cultures by allowing people to publicly share their diverse stories and practices.
  • Ask how the gospel has shaped others’ unique cultural experiences. Consider adopting the verbiage and illustrations of others so you can share the gospel in new and contextualized ways.
  • Pray for motivation to give the gift of time. Memories are a far more valuable commodity than any financial gift or material blessing. Dedicate part of your day to engaging people with diverse giftings.

Yes, being hospitable to all people as they are represented within our congregations is a lot of work, but it is the biblical responsibility of all members of the Church. Congregations that are void of cross-cultural, ethnically diverse relationships can lead to isolation and loneliness for many people. And every believer will stand before the Lord of heaven and earth to give an account for the way we have welcomed others into our midst.

Diversity is a biblical reality

The Church is and will continue to be ethnically diverse. The apostle Peter reminds us that this has always been part of God’s plan.

God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35).

Clearly, God’s kingdom as expressed from Genesis to Revelation, includes all people groups who will worship Him. Christians can prevent the trend of departures by agreeing with God.

By the power of Christ at work in us, we can value diversity as God does.

And when we fail, God’s grace and goodness will lead us to repent of any sin in these areas and turn to the Lord. He alone can bless our efforts to love the diverse Church. We, the Church, should make it our aim to acknowledge the vulnerable, injured and suffering while we warmly welcome all people into our church spaces. We can help those who have experienced church-hurt and treasure our diversity while finding hope and healing in Christ.

Let us all obey God’s command to love, care for and serve all people “for the sake of the gospel, that [we] may save [some people] and share with [all people] in its blessings (1 Cor 9:19, 22-23, emphasis and exegesis mine).

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