The 30-Year Free Church Wait

A prophetic challenge that deserves a hearing

The question was a loaded one, asked near the end of the recent EFCA Theology Conference: “So, Dr. Perkins, how do you think we are doing now?”

Dr. John Perkins, founder and president emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, was the right person to ask about the EFCA’s efforts toward racial diversity. After all, he stands tall among us as a prophet for social justice as integral to the gospel.

Dr. Perkins responded to the question by referencing when Elijah’s servant reported back to Elijah about the weather: “Behold a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (1 Kings 18:44).

During the conference—with its theme of “The Gospel, Compassion and Justice and the EFCA”—all of the previous speakers had been excellent. The opening message by Dr. Jarvis Williams offered perhaps the frankest challenge to the Free Church since Bill Reed’s gloom and doom assessment at a national conference back in the late 1990s.

The question remains: When will it rain in the Evangelical Free Church of America? When will the issues of racial and social justice be treated with actions that move beyond the surface?

The white evangelical response

It has been 30 years since the first wave of African Americans joined the ranks of potential EFCA leaders. Unfortunately, most of that group left the fold disappointed and disillusioned. Right from the beginning, there seemed to have been issues with blacks in leadership.

One frankly stated, “We don’t have any churches for you.”

Many of the first 16 brothers I met in the late 1980s had graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Yet, at the time, none of us could get a superintendent anywhere in the country to even accept a résumé. The only way any of us could serve was through the church-planting arm of the organization. Even this opportunity usually meant work in an economically depressed demographic.

However, it is important to note that my frustration with white evangelicals did not begin with the Evangelical Free Church.

After graduating from seminary in 1979, I approached two of the evangelical denominations where several of my classmates were getting appointments. Both turned me down without making any considerations. One frankly stated, “We don’t have any churches for you.”

So, I turned to a local African American evangelist and did church planting. After serving several years in this independent church plant, I approached the Pennsylvania Army National Guard about a chaplaincy appointment. Needing an ecclesiastical endorsement, I completed paperwork with Associated Gospel Churches and underwent training with the National Guard.

At the AGC’s first regional luncheon, however, I was informed by the regional director that I was not welcome to participate in the association because I am black. He did give me a couple of months to find another endorsing agent. The EFCA came to the rescue—picking up my endorsement in 1985 while I continued serving as a church planter alongside the evangelist.

After resigning from a local church pastorate position in 1988, I was approached by a group of believers to start a church. I immediately approached the superintendent of the EFCA Eastern District Association about the possibility of bringing a new church into the district. The superintendent told me that the EFCA was really interested and excited about diversifying its racial demographic and that I was welcome with open arms.

How do we continue the move forward and “make it rain”?

So, at the same time, I began the process of transferring my ordination from a local church to the EFCA and began receiving the Eastern District newsletters. In the first newsletter I noticed that a small but established Evangelical Free Church not too far from our home was looking to fill the position of pastor. I inquired about the position and received a curious response: “They are not ready for you yet. There are too many cultural differences.”

This person was not even willing to contact the church about me as a candidate. So, it was church planting or nothing. Our church plant was admitted into the Eastern District in 1989, the same year I was ordained in the EFCA.

False starts?

Skip ahead 10 years to 1999. Several of those who consider ourselves first-wave black EFCA pastors were tasked as a committee to help move the organization toward more racial harmony and cultural diversity. We were finally aligning with the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 and its powerful statement about Christian social responsibility and the gospel.

Suddenly that same year, the task force was disbanded without explanation and the membership was dismissed. That was the last straw for many of the first-wave members—almost all left the Evangelical Free Church of America disillusioned and hurt.

From the mid-2000s to the present, the next wave of leaders of color—led by Alvin Sanders, Danté Upshaw and Alex Mandes—have done an excellent job developing diverse multicultural ministries in the EFCA. And the 2018 Theology Conference offered hope. I left feeling as if maybe the Free Church is now ready and willing to take the issues of reconciliation seriously and get beyond talk. The question still on the table is: How do we continue the move forward and “make it rain”?

Steps to rain-making

There are three obvious areas of concentration to be addressed if we are going to honor God in our work toward becoming a true reflection of the body of Christ.

First, we must consider our thinking. By this I mean our ideology, our worldview and our theology. Second, we must consider our practices, our policies and our programming. Third, we must train our church members, starting with leadership, to not only overcome our historic biases but also begin deconstructing the legacy and residue left by those biases.

Consider our theology and worldview

I put ideology, worldview and theology first because our actions are ultimately driven by what we believe. And that’s what I want to explore a bit here. I am convinced that limitations concerning diversity and multiculturalism—in the conservative evangelical Church in general and the EFCA in particular—are driven by the way leaders and church constituency have been informed to think about what Scripture does and doesn’t teach about these subjects.

By teaching the “priesthood of all believers,” Martin Luther defied the political hierarchy in Europe and challenged the “divine right of kings” doctrine as well as the religious hierarchies. These teachings had enormous, bittersweet results. True, they left indelible marks by way of the Reformation, the Post-Reformation and the theology of modern churches. In that way, Luther changed the world and the Church for good.

But those same teachings did even more. Followed, as they were, by the Enlightenment and the American Declaration of Independence, Luther’s teachings served to embed individualism deeply into the American Christian worldview. This worldview makes us hesitant to move outside our cultural comfort zones and engage people groups different from ourselves.

We need a biblical theology that recognizes God’s fullest intentions.

If we are going to move forward and make it rain, then we, as Bible-believing Christians, must develop a theology for social engagement. I don’t mean more interpretations of individual verses or sections of Scripture that support a social agenda. We need a biblical theology that recognizes God’s fullest intentions and how they go far beyond saving individuals. We need a biblical theology that reveals God’s intentions for the new Adam, the new humanity that He is in the process of developing: the Church of Jesus Christ.

Such a theology can help us rise above individualism and get our minds around the reality of the collective identity, the one new humanity in Christ, needed to overcome racism and build community.

Consider our ideology

Understanding Scripture and theology is important but so is the ability to understand one’s own culture and the ideology associated with one’s culture. This is particularly true if one is a member of the so-called dominant culture. In America, people who identify as white compose 77% of the population, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. Thus, as the majority demographic group in our nation, white people can have blindspots about their own culture.

More than a few of us nonwhite conservative Christian leaders—who are highly biblically literate—believe our white associates to be conflating Christianity, capitalism, Republican politics, white culture and western culture. If this perception is not widespread reality, what causes that perception—and, therefore, what needs to change?

Train our members and leaders

Training should start from the pulpit, by senior leadership establishing vision. Yet more in-depth growth will happen in smaller subgroups in the local church where “groupthink” is not as strong. Everyone will be at different places on this journey toward understanding and accepting the relevance of social justice and racial reconciliation as an outworking of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So small-group explorations allow people to move thoughtfully forward, alongside their peers.

What’s next?

If we are to truly see change across the Evangelical Free Church of America, what’s needed next in terms of EFCA practices, policies and programming? That’s for EFCA leadership to wrestle with, but let me offer some suggestions.

EFCA leadership may not be ready to make such a change, but it must be ready to make several other changes if the movement believes that all people have equal value.

For example, it is important to address the participation of people of color in policymaking positions and positions of authority at the national and district level and in all of our churches. What would that look like?

Over the years I have consulted with many churches with a 98-percent European American demographic. However, two “mega-churches” come to mind. Both churches had experienced visitors of color attending only once or twice and not returning. In each case, the leadership asked me what kind of programming would encourage these visitors to come back and to participate.

My response was that people need to see their people up front and to hear their sound in worship. That’s an ontological shift more than simply a programmatic shift, because change needs to go beyond what the churches do to who the churches are.

One of the pastors listening said, “If we do that, people will leave.” My response was that if people leave because you are trying to do the right thing by being inclusive, that’s their sin. If your church continues to present a face to the community that says, “You are not welcome,” then that is your sin. Which sin do you want to live with?

Those who move closest to biblical multiculturalism are committed to structural transformation, which is hard work!

Institutions of all types—including churches—operate along a range that we might picture as running from left to right: from homogeneous gatherings, where any racial or cultural difference can quickly threaten personal identity; to a type of secular multiculturalism, where racial and cultural differences are tolerated (but not more); to a biblical multiculturalism, where those differences are valued as multiplying the glory of God. (If you are interested in seeing this chart, “Continuum on Becoming a God-Magnifying Church/Institution Through Biblical Multiculturalism,” please send me an email.)

Where do we stand in the EFCA?

While I think that our overall movement is somewhere in the middle, various churches might truly be at far left: secretly (or openly) threatened by racial and cultural differences; tolerant of a limited number of people of color but only those with the “proper” perspective and credentials; intentionally maintaining white power and privilege through formal policies, practices, teachings and decision-making.

In the middle of that continuum, churches and institutions awaken to the value of differences and expand their sense of diversity to include the disabled and other socially oppressed groups; they intentionally recruit “someone of color” to serve on a committee or staff but don’t want anyone who “makes waves.” And despite great intentions, they are relatively unaware of where there is a paternalistic attitude within structures and policies.

Finally, those who move closest to biblical multiculturalism are committed to structural transformation, which is hard work! They seek full participation in the decisions that shape the institution and will commit to dismantling racism elsewhere in the broader community.

What will it mean for the EFCA to really take this seriously and keep moving on the continuum toward biblical multiculturalism?

We must continually audit and restructure all aspects of our institutional life to offer genuine participation to people of color and other marginalized groups—ensuring, for example, that we pursue due diligence in our hiring practices, confirming that the pool includes qualified people from a variety of backgrounds.

Oh, how I long to see such transformation. Are we there yet? Do we see rain on the horizon?

Photo caption: The author, fourth from left, is saddened by how few of the men in this photo are still participating in the EFCA.

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