A Birmingham Letter for Wittenberg’s Door
Great, another art project.
My restless peers fought over the red, purple, and green crayons to color in Joseph’s coat, and the yellow crayon to enliven the sun. I counted the minutes until I could leave.
During my youth Sunday school days, I remember noticing that the kids in my youth group rarely colored in the people. Eve’s apple, Noah’s animals, and Moses’s parting sea were all vibrant with color, but the people remained as white as the paper.
No one ever fought over the black, brown, or tan crayons.
Historically adults have not fought over the brown crayons either, at least in the West. Jesus has had flowing brown hair, sky blue eyes, and white skin for centuries. But while the assumption seems harmless in majority culture, the father of lies has devastated inner-city minorities with this little, white lie.
You can hear Satan’s hiss in a friend’s comment to me recently, from one black man to another, “Christianity is a white man’s religion.” His warning was clear to anyone with cultural sensitivities: Don’t sell out.
To follow the Jewish Messiah into a gospel-preaching community — where most of the brothers and sisters were white — was to relinquish the only possession that white imperialism hadn’t taken yet: my soul.
And my friend is not alone.
The father of lies devours minority souls, barring them from the gospel of grace and eternal life, simply by whispering, “Christianity isn’t for you. Whites only.”
When Christianity is whitewashed, when the church becomes associated with suburban country clubs, when our celebrated leaders and theologians throughout time have almost exclusively white faces, when Hollywood confirms that Noah looked like Russell Crowe and Moses like Christian Bale, when Jesus is seen as lead candidate for a political party, when the Father is the old white man in the sky who blesses white faces behind white picket fences, minority souls close their ears to the gospel and die in their sins.
This parasite, this unchallenged assumption causes many minorities to throw the baby born in Bethlehem out with the murky bathwater of European colonialism. And I fear that many evangelical churches unintentionally give minorities the impression that being a Christian entails the cross of Jesus Christ plus assimilation into white culture.
Unreached Within Reach
I am not at all interested in needlessly adding to white guilt. I’ve sat down with white brothers and sisters who fear God and love their cities. They champion diversity. They want to reach their neighbors. They are honorable people who feel shame because they are white in a predominantly white congregation. I do not seek to add to their angst.
That said, black souls are being lost without ever hearing the biblical gospel. Many from my childhood have never been confronted with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Even if they grew up in Grandma’s church, they most likely heard some form of “the prosperity gospel” — which is no gospel at all. I have talked with several black men who, since coming to faith, marvel in horror at how devoid of the gospel their neighborhoods are. Black communities starve theologically, perishing down the street from a healthy and fruitful gathering of saints.
And when some do wander in, many struggle with their identity in this community. They struggle to fit into the typical Hillsong-and-Hymnal liturgy, majority-culture Christianese, and high academia often required for expositional listening. If they join the church, they struggle with not seeing many people that look like them in the pews or the pulpit. They struggle with the fact that they have to leave their neighborhood and culture behind to meet up with their small group.
So, what can be done? Older, wiser men will likely have more to say. The following are simply considerations I hope will advance an important conversation in your church.
To Those in the Pew
Pew ministry is vital in the trend towards diversity. Pastors are given to the body to equip you for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Here are two things, among many, to consider:
1. Die to preferences for cultural exclusivity.
It saddens me to hear how much resistance there has been to the slightest alteration with “tradition.” The reasoning goes like this: “If they” — the others among them who would feel loved by some cultural differences added to the service — “truly loved Jesus, they wouldn’t care about the cultural distinctions.” Well, lost minorities do care about that more than Christ — they’re lost. And you can love your saved brothers and sisters by meeting them on their side of the field from time to time.
Furthermore, this reasoning seems all too convenient coming from the Christian with unflinching commitments to, well, their own cultural preferences. We, unlike other religions, have a gospel that celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity. It is our joy, then, to meet the lost where they are, becoming all things to all people so that we might save some to share in our blessing (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
This does not mean that a local church can have no cultural distinction. It means that they have no exclusive cultural distinctions.
2. Diversify your dinner table.
You may never have an opportunity to preach a sermon on racial reconciliation, but you can invite people over for dinner. Starve bigotry and prejudice over delicious, home-cooked meals. Weaponize spoons and forks, casseroles and (glorious) fried chicken legs, against racism and functional segregation. Invite someone who looks different than you over for dinner.
This will be uncomfortable at times. But Christ hung uncomfortably on a tree, bearing the discomfort of God’s wrath, that you might imitate his love towards those who you don’t think will necessarily benefit you.
Share stories. Share perspectives. Glory in how God makes you the same — and different. Mobilize your dinner table in the cause for Christ.
Again, pastors, you are given to the body to equip your people for this kind of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Here are several things, among many, that you might consider:
1. Don’t dismiss social justice as “not a gospel issue.”
Many minorities have not had the luxury of ignoring social issues. Injustice has been the lion’s share of African-American history. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to fighting for civil rights and economic equality, ethical implications of the Christian gospel have never been mere abstractions.
The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. represent many more minorities than majority culture might assume,
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.
In an effort to preserve the pure gospel against liberal theologies, many Bible-believing churches abdicated gospel-love for their neighbor’s social needs by standing against the Civil Rights movement — and lost many blacks as a result.
Social justice is not the gospel — but it is a result of the true gospel, and can be instrumental in directing souls to the true gospel. Jesus did not speak the second great commandment in vain. Paul did not draw in gospel ethics as a peripheral matter. Christians care about all suffering — including societal suffering. Especially when addressing societal suffering opens a doorway to share the only message that can prevent eternal suffering.
2. Diversify the liturgy.
I love hymns now — but I surely didn’t before I was saved.
What did thou even mean? Why were words not finish’d? Did Shakespeare write some of these? The use of archaic language made evangelical churches to me — in my unregenerate state — seem extra-white.
Every Sunday, I went from living in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to stepping inside four walls of Downton Abbey. The transition was jarring. But they had the words of eternal life, they preached Christ crucified — where else could I go?
Now, it would be a crime to scrap the hymns. But just know that these precious songs use a strange tongue that can alienate the foreigner to the congregation. Diversify the music and explain some of the old hymns. I’m sure most will be helped by an explanation of what I’m actually raising when I raise mine Ebenezer. And furthermore, what an Ebenezer actually is.
Add some songs that might tempt even the Swedish Baptist to sway and clap.
3. Diversify leadership.
Qualified diversity in leadership lends itself to a healthy diverse church.
Although none of the elder qualifications have to do with skin color (for or against), having shepherds who all share the same mission — while contributing different backgrounds, perspectives, and culture — strengthens the church and casts heaven’s shadow upon earth.
This may not be possible for you in your setting, but as far as it is, seek it.
4. Tell stories and quote the preaching of saints from other cultures.
The church has been greatly benefitted by European theologians, but white faces have almost exclusively dominated what we consider authoritative and helpful. Even Augustine (who was African) is paper-white on the front of my copy of Confessions. That the vast majority of evangelical Christians do not even know the names of orthodox pastors like Daniel Payne, Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, and many others is unfortunate, to say the least.
Intentionally read works from other ethnicities and cultures, and sprinkle them throughout your preaching ministry to remind people that God has revealed himself to non-white thinkers, writers, and preachers.
5. Preach the ethnicity-filled text.
Pastors don’t need to make up original ideas to mention ethnicity. To preach from the Bible, you would have to go out of your way to never mention it.
The Bible is a book featuring what Western civilization would label as “minorities.” No one in the Bible was Caucasian. Nobody looked American. None remained untouched by a crayon.
According to Daniel Hays, in his excellent biblical theology, From Every People and Nation, the closest people to Caucasians were Indo-Europeans, who included groups like the Philistines — although they looked more like modern-day Greeks or Turks than Americans or Europeans. Identifying that the non-European figures in the Bible were, in fact, non-European, helps undermine the myth that Christianity is only for whites.
6. Preach the gospel intelligibly.
If the preaching is unintelligible to those without a college degree, it is not good preaching. The complexity of language should not be the barrier to heaven; a God-hating heart should be. The offensive person of Jesus Christ should be what the rebel dismisses, not a preacher who gets lost in abstractions.
Putting one’s preaching on the top shelf will ensure that only those who are already tall will be fed, while those dead in their sins will keep descending, uninterrupted, into hell. The plea is not for shallow preaching, but rather for piercing, substantive, winsome preaching that challenges, convicts, and comforts normal people.
7. Strive to make the local church local.
Aspire and pray that the demographics of your church might generally reflect the neighborhood it belongs to. Barring extreme cases, the local church should be made up of, well, local people. If you pastor a rural church in Iowa, you may be hard-pressed for much diversity — although diversity should still be a conviction the church embraces (and diversity is never merely racial).
The temptations for an inner-city church of commuters is that it can rally around one cultural expression of worship — not feeling any need to contextualize for the people in that area, and feeling little investment in the community where it gathers because no one actually lives there.
Jesus, King of the Nations
Jesus, the Son of Man, was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that people from France, Morocco, Ghana, Indonesia, and Albania — speaking Arabic, Swahili, and Mandarin — should all serve him. His multiethnic, multilingual kingdom, is an everlasting kingdom, one that racists, supremacists, and bigots shall not destroy (Daniel 7:13–14).
Therefore, he gives his followers a great charge: Go to the plains of Africa, scale the mountains of Asia, sail across the mighty Pacific, enter the Ecuadorian jungles, drive down the crowded Chinese streets, and make disciples of North Koreans, Somalians, and Venezuelans, baptizing the Cubans, Canadians, and Kenyans in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching Jamaicans, Latvians, and African Americans to observe all that he taught us. And behold, he will be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20).
Lift up your gates, O racial barriers,
Be lifted up, O ancient doors of prejudice,
That the King of glory may come in!
Jesus Christ is the King of the nations. He calls many different people from many nations to share in his everlasting kingdom — not just whites only.