Ten Ways to Pursue Ethnic Harmony in Your Church

Wheaton College

I came expecting to give one message and totally rewrote it this afternoon because of my sense in listening that the focus tonight is very practically on the local church, and that’s where I’ve served for thirty years. I’m very happy to adjust everything, and I’m very excited about what I have to say. I’m going to quote from you a sentence from the conclusion in Bloodlines.

The aim of this book has been to encourage you to pursue Christ-exalting, gospel-driven racial and ethnic diversity and harmony — especially in the family of God, the church of Jesus Christ. (227)

So that’s the goal of the book: to do what I’m expected to do tonight. It’s not an alien purpose that I have undertaken to advance a Christ-exalting, gospel-driven racial diversity and harmony, especially in the local church. On pages 260–62, there is a list of 34 things that we have tried to do at our local church, and I’m going to talk about ten, half of which are not on that list.

These are all my counsel to any of you who will have any influence in local churches at all — which I hope is all of you — as to what you might do to advance ethnic diversity and ethnic harmony in local churches.

1. Show from the Bible why racial diversity and harmony should be pursued.

  1. Racial diversity and harmony illustrate more clearly the truth that God created all races and all ethnicities in his own image.

  2. Racial diversity and harmony display more visibly that Jesus is not a tribal deity but, in fact, is the Lord of all races and nations and ethnicities.

  3. Racial diversity and harmony demonstrate more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church, as we see in Revelation 5:9, that he bought people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

  4. Racial diversity and harmony exhibit more compellingly the aim and power of the cross. We all know Ephesians 2:16: God “reconcile[s] us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

  5. Racial diversity and harmony express more forcefully the work of the Spirit in uniting us spiritually in one body in Christ. It’s Trinitarian. We are created in God’s image, we are reconciled by the blood of Christ, and we are ingrafted into one body by the Spirit. All the Trinity are involved in producing this, and the beauty of that, as we see it in the New Testament, is why it should be pursued.

2. Show that ethnic diversity and harmony is not a social issue, but a blood issue.

Many of the churches represented here are conservative churches. They think social action is liberal, and the cross of Christ is conservative, and therefore, they need to be shown from the Bible — I need to be shown. I’m one of those conservative guys. I’m a Bible guy. I’m suspicious of people who just try to feed bellies and let people go to hell. I don’t like it. I need to show people like me that this is not a social issue; this is a blood issue. I have in mind texts like Revelation 5:9.

You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
   from every tribe and language and people and nation.

It’s worth his blood to have diversity. That’s the issue. This is not a small issue. You need to say that to conservative people who love the cross. If you love the cross, what did he buy? Or texts like Romans 3:28, which goes to the doctrine of justification, which is blood-bought, and shows how ethnic diversity — global ethnic diversity — is woven into the doctrine of justification.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one — who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

Right at the heart, in Paul’s mind, of the doctrine of justification — which all of us conservatives love — is the global extent of crossing all those barriers to all the uncircumcised, justified by faith.

“It’s worth Jesus’s own blood to have diversity. That’s the issue. This is not a small issue.”

You know that in Galatians 2, Peter was eating with Gentiles. He was breaking the rules of the conservatives in Jerusalem, and he was eating catfish with uncircumcised people as a Jew, and he was free. He’d been bought by God for this. And here come some fellows from James in Jerusalem, and Peter loses it. He loses his grip. He backs up and pulls out of fellowship. Picture your favorite dangerous ethnicity, and you pull out of fellowship with them when the wrong kind of people show up. Paul gets livid, and the language he uses is very significant. He says that Peter’s “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).

This is a gospel issue. There are some steps you can take, like into fellowship with Gentiles, eating anything they offer you, and not in any way drawing any attention to circumcision or uncircumcision, but establishing unity in Christ, and then pulling out of it, and Paul says, “If you pull out of that, you’re pulling out of the gospel.” This is a big issue for Paul.

The point is that we need to help churches that are Bible churches — and I’m one of those. Show me the Book. Show me it’s close to the cross. Show me it’s close to the center. That is not hard to do with this issue.

3. Use unexpected texts when preaching or teaching.

In other words, when you walk into a group like I did this morning, surprise them. I chose my topic this morning because I thought you wouldn’t be expecting it. That’s one of the reasons I went at it the way I did, because I didn’t want you to go to sleep on me. I don’t want to preach on Ephesians 2 all the time. It’s overworked.

Every year, as Martin Luther King Sunday rolls around in my church, and I’m preaching a sermon on this, I’m trying to come at it from a new angle. For example, one year I went to Luke 4:16–30. It’s a very familiar text in one sense. Jesus goes to the synagogue, and he reads Isaiah 60 — “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” — and then he says as he closes the scroll, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They say, “He speaks with such gracious words. Is not this Joseph’s son?” And then Jesus says, “You will say, ‘Physician, heal yourself,’” and he tells them a story of Elijah. Though there were many widows in Israel, Elijah helped the widow of Sidon. And Elisha, though there were many lepers in Israel, he heals a leper from Syria. And how do the people respond? They want to throw him off a cliff.

You just read that, and you say, “What? Why? You were just saying nice things about him when he said, ‘This Scripture’s being fulfilled among you. I’ve come to heal you.’” Jesus can smell a problem. He smells it. He smells ethnocentricity. He smells pride — Jewish pride in this particular case. And so he tells an Old Testament story to show how God just passed over Israel, went straight to Sidon and passed over Israel, went straight to Syria and did healing work there. And they were livid and wanted to throw him off a cliff.

You preach from that, and people never thought about that before, so you surprise people. The Bible is a wonderful book. This is a very thick book, and it is full of amazingly relevant stories. Come at it from different, fresh ways whenever you have a word.

4. Preach the five points of Calvinism and show how they relate to diversity.

If your sense of how the Bible fits together and how God makes sense in the world doesn’t address racial diversity and harmony, you have the wrong angle.

As a Reformed guy, I have to make the five points speak to this, which is not hard. I’ve preached sermons on the five points and how every one of them is a racial issue.

Total Depravity

We are all in one great, desperate camaraderie of condemnation. This is massive, to look into every ethnicity on the planet and say, “You are dead in trespasses and sins, and so am I.” What a camaraderie. No puffed-up superiority here. You’re dead. I’m dead. We’re hopeless.

Unconditional Election

Nobody pulls rank on God in getting elected. Nobody pulls out their white card, black card, smart card, or any other card. It’s free — totally free and unconditional when God chooses me from eternity to him. Nobody can boast in their election, and nobody can despair.

I’d love to preach on election right now, and how it is unbelievably relevant in counseling situations for people who think they’ve sinned themselves out of hope. You don’t get in God’s face and tell him you’ve sinned yourself out of hope. He chooses without any reference to your sin, whatsoever, and he did already a billion years ago. And all you have to do right now is trust him, and you’re in.

Definite Atonement

Definite atonement means not that Christ didn’t die for everybody, but that he didn’t die for everybody in the same way. He purchased his bride, including purchasing her faith. Therefore, he did it without even any reference to her faith, and her cultural possibilities of producing it because of where she grew up.

Irresistible Grace

Not only do your ethnic distinctives contribute nothing to your election, nothing to your ransom on the cross, but they contribute nothing to your rise of faith, because God produces that and draws you irresistibly to himself by creating your inclination to come. Whatever background inclines you one way or the other, it doesn’t stop God in the least from raising you from the dead.

Perseverance of the Saints

Those whom he calls, he keeps, and if he called you freely, he’ll keep you freely — and on and on and on the glory goes. I am a Reformed guy because I see it in the Bible, and because I find it confirmed in the most unbelievably relevant ways.

5. Celebrate historical figures who engaged with racial diversity and harmony.

I suppose we would all default to William Wilberforce, who is kind of the poster boy of an evangelical getting it right. You know that he devoted his life in amazing perseverance to overcoming the slave trade in Britain. But what you may not know is that he only wrote one book in his life. The name of the book was A Practical View of Christianity, and even fewer people know what the thesis of the book was. Most probably think it’s all about mobilizing people to kill the slave trade. It was, but that’s not what he talked about mainly. It’s a book about justification.

“Those who are justified bear fruit in works that vindicate their justification.”

His thesis was that morality in England had sunk to the place where it was because the people lost their grip on justification, and the order between justification and moral life. The order is those who are justified bear fruit in works that vindicate their justification. Britain had turned it around and become a moralistic people, who did their good works in the hope that God would then look with favor upon them. And do you know what happens when you do that?

The gospel, in the long run, is the source of power for the long-term, painful obedience it takes to pursue reconciliation. If in the name of getting it done quicker you reduce the gospel or reduce justification and all the details of doctrine that go with it and start pumping on this issue, you lose it. You lose the issue. The liberals of the 1920s are not effecting racial reconciliation today. They’re dead, and the evangelicals will go in exactly the same way if we start thinking it’s really justice issues, and not gospel issues that sustain justice issues.

I’m pleading with you for the sake of racial diversity and harmony, for the sake of justice issues, for the sake of trafficking issues — for the sake of all that — believe the details of biblical teaching concerning justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, which give rise to a kind of obedience that will weather all the storms of your life. I got all that from Wilberforce and John Newton, his good friend, who gave him wise counsel in that regard.

6. Tell your story with all of its warts and horrors.

I tried to do that in the first two chapters of this book, made a video of it, to just lay the ugliness of my first twenty years out. Here’s the point: tell your story by loving the gospel, loving the cross, loving substitutionary propitiation. That’s J.I. Packer’s definition of the gospel. Propitiation by substitution. I just think that’s grand, and I love that so much. God’s not mad at me anymore because of Jesus.

My sins are covered, and therefore I have no more guilt. I have a righteousness not my own. I am safe in Jesus. Go there. Love that so much that you can confess all your sins in front of anybody. You can tell your whole story. Don’t be afraid. You have nobody to impress. God’s for you. It’s what Christians ought to be. Pastors and leaders, model secure vulnerability.

I was in the hospital at the beginning of my junior year, and the chaplain said, “Johnny, you got a life verse?” I remember he asked me that. This was 45 years ago. I remember he asked me that, and I answered, “I never even thought about having a life verse,” but I answered, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

There are very few times in all of Paul where he uses the singular me, talking about the love of God. It’s usually us, and you, and they, but here, he says, “He loved me.” And since that time, I think God must have given me that. I wasn’t thinking about that as a life verse. It just seemed like a good verse to quote to the chaplain. It has been so, so sweet. He loves me. And Paul was a murderer and a Pharisee.

Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)

If you believe this, think of it. I belong to Christ, and am in Christ, and therefore I am God’s, and therefore, since he owns everything, I will be an heir of everything. Do you know the conclusion he drew from that? “Why do you boast in men?”

This is the opposite of what a lot of people might think. Like: “I’m the heir of the universe. Look at me.” That’s not the way it works. You don’t get it. You just totally don’t get it if your theology of belonging to the King of kings produces that. It breaks you to say, “Why would I need anybody to make much of me? I’m home. I’m safe. I own everything. Are you trying to impress me with your car? I own the cars. I own all the cars.”

There are so many other texts we could go to, but the point is here: be vulnerable with your story, and tell it like it is. Be vulnerable with your present story. And I want to stir in here, be vulnerable with your hero’s story. The hip-hop artist Propaganda has just produced an album called Excellence, and on it, a song called “Precious Puritans.”

He wales on us — me — for quoting from our precious Puritans. “Don’t you realize how that lands on us, because they were all slaveholders?” That’s really important for me to hear — really, really important. And the point I’m making here is: not only confess your own sins, your history’s sins, your school’s sins, your hero’s sins. There aren’t any other kind than failures. If it’s not race, it’s going to be something else. You might as well do it, because you’re going to wake up someday, and say, “Oh, shoot. I thought Piper was clean,” or whomever.

Mark Noll’s book God and Race in American Politics was, for me, on this issue, extremely helpful, by showing that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that can account for the failures to live that worldview. Very interesting thesis.

7. Get a mission statement or core values in your church that speak to racial diversity and harmony.

I’m going to tell you the story here about how ours came about, just as an illustration of how it relates to racial harmony. God, if he wants to get hold of you as a church, and spank you, and fix you, and turn you around, he may do some horrible things.

For us, it was the early nineties, and I discovered a tape of one of my staff members talking romantically to another female staff member, and I pursued this for six weeks, making hundreds of enemies because they thought I was unduly suspicious until he repented. And it turns out they’d been in an affair for seven years. That cost us 230 people. It cost us four years of no growth. It cost us income, and it disillusioned dozens of people, both with the faith, and with me, and with worship because it was so involved with worship. It was a dark, dark season.

“The gospel is the source of power for the long-term, painful obedience it takes to pursue reconciliation.”

God knew exactly what he was doing. The first year we call the year of tears — just grieving. That’s all we did, trying to keep everything from falling apart. The next year we began to ask, Who are we? What did we do wrong? What is the Lord saying? And in seasons like this, this church is not popping with growth. There’s no great story to tell. It’s just languishing, and trying to stay alive.

You don’t have to do it this way, but we formed a team of twenty-three people. I think there were four staff on that, and the rest were laypeople. And those twenty-three people met biweekly for about six months, asking, Who are we? Where are we going? Is there a future? What should define us now? Musically, what should define us? And out of that came the question, Racially, what should define us?

About five months into that process, they sent me away for two days, and said, “Create a mission statement. Bring it back, and we’ll take it apart.” I did, and after being taken apart, and put back together, it’s been our mission statement since 1997. So on the wall at the church, it’s the mission statement, I’m happy to say, of my life: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things — like race relations — for the joy of all peoples.

We could have said people, but we said peoples. The s on the end of peoples was an explicit statement that people groups of every ethnicity are being pursued for their joy in the supremacy of God in this church. It’s going to be who we are, both globally and locally.

And then that committee produced a twelve-page booklet with two columns. That’s been edited twice in the last fifteen years or so. One of the ten core values is racial harmony. The point there is: don’t make God spank you like that. At some point in the life of your church, gather people around and say, “Let’s figure out our identity, at least in regard to these key things. Let’s come up with some kind of mission statement and core values that will guide us in these regards.”

8. Put your situation in a global and national context.

If you just start talking about your neighborhood or just start talking about your situation, people are going to feel this is narrow, this is small, or that it’s not really relevant for them where they live. So I think it’s very helpful for leaders to put this in a global and historic context. When we say racial or ethnic disharmony, what do we mean? Things like:

  • The Armenian genocide in Turkey: a million people slaughtered
  • The Holocaust in Germany: six million
  • The Soviet Gulag
  • The massacres in Rwanda
  • The Japanese slaughter of six million Chinese, and Indonesians, and Koreans, and Filipinos, and Indo-Chinese

And the litany of hatred goes on and on and on. You need to help your people say, “Oh, oh, I see. I see.” And then it’s not like, “Oh, we dealt with this in the sixties, didn’t we?” You’re on another planet. You’re not even alive on the earth. You don’t know what’s going on, if that’s the way you think. We’re talking about something massively relevant in every country of the world, and some countries way more painfully than other countries.

In America, minorities make up roughly a third of the population, and that thirty percent will be fifty percent by the year 2042. Twelve years from now, half the babies born in America will be nonwhite. I’ll be alive, I hope, and talking about this. The people who don’t think there’s any reason to think about this, perhaps because there’s nobody around who’s different from them, need to know the realities that the world deals with.

The Hispanic population is projected to triple from 46 million to 132 million by 2050. Hispanics will jump from fifteen to thirty percent. The black population will grow from 41 million to 65 million.

In the Twin Cities, the Hispanic population doubled from 1990 to 2000. It’s the eighth-fastest-growing Hispanic city in the world. The light rail system in Minneapolis has four languages on the machines: English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. The Phillips neighborhood, where I live, has one hundred languages spoken there. In the Twin Cities, there is the largest Hmong, Oromo, Liberian, Karen, and Somali populations in the country, and the second largest Tibetan population in the country. This is the reality of the Scandinavian Twin Cities. Our people need to be shown that.

9. Reach out to friends who are different from you and listen.

I know this is going to be criticized. “There goes another white person needing a project.” Look, that kind of talk doesn’t help. Rather, what we need to say is, “How about just trying blatant honesty?” If I call up the black pastor down the street and say, “Arthur, can we have lunch? There’s something I want to ask you.” “Sure.” You meet and say, “You know, I hardly know any blacks in this city, and I know the first thing you’re thinking is, ‘He needs a black project, and I’m him. I’m the project.’ I know that’s what you’re thinking, and if you don’t want to do it, I totally understand, but mainly I want to listen. I want to learn. I don’t know where to turn to grow.” And he just might have some mercy toward you.

“Christ died for this, and we need to make that plain to our people.”

Why make it anything else? Why not just be flat-out honest? I’m broke, I’m not effective in relationships like this, and I just need all the help I can get. I took another friend in my church out to lunch not long ago. I wanted his feedback on Bloodlines. And he gave me his feedback — “yes, but” kind of feedback. “You should have done a little more here, should have a little more here.” I said, “Got that. Understand. Helpful. Thank you.” Then I said, “Okay, help me understand so-called gay marriage in the black community. What’s going on here in the Twin Cities?”

What I’m illustrating is, I need this friend because I’m not getting it, and I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I was at the pastors meeting, all right? Every black pastor in the Twin Cities just about was there, and this has been talked about. I was there. To a man, none of them affirms so-called gay marriage. None of them.” I said, “Okay, I hear that. So what about Obama?” He said, “They’re all going to vote for Obama.” I said, “Okay, can you talk some more?”

For the next twenty minutes, I get an education. This is gold. Absolute gold. I just need to hear what this guy’s saying, because I can’t compute. The point here is that I’m listening, because I live in a world of white majority culture, and I get everything through filters, and I hardly ever get it from the horse’s mouth, and so that was a golden opportunity. Have those friends, and do serious, long, long listening. The longer you have them, the more you can push back, and have the rough and tumble that good friends have.

10. Pursue leaders who are ethnically different from yourself.

We’re talking the dangerous language here of racial preference and affirmative action. Loaded phrases, right? You’re a pastor — you have some influence over who your colleagues are. You live in an area where there’s a significant diversity of various ethnicities, and you’d like to have some color on the staff for the reasons I gave at the beginning — not because it’s the thing to do, and your conscience will be relieved, and people will admire you for being cutting edge, but because it’s right. It’s helpful. It displays more of the kingdom and more of the gospel, and the people need it, and the kids need to grow up seeing it, and all kinds of reasons.

What do you do? I wrote down four things here.

  1. Pray like crazy that God will arrange things and do wonders for you.

  2. Prepare the people — this may take years — by teaching the kinds of things that I’ve been saying.

  3. Probe like crazy on the Internet, among all your friends, gathering people who would qualify, and seek to assemble a coterie of people that you can know and that might be possible staff members.

  4. In interviews, you make it matter. You make it matter, and you don’t buy “competency is all that matters here.” That’s not all that matters, because part of competency is, How well will we say what we want to say by being who we are? That figures in.

Nobody gets hired at Bethlehem for their color. We don’t make it the top priority. The Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith is the top priority. Doctrine trumps race. We can talk about that on the panel if that sounds wrong to some of you, but I think race is sold down the river in the long run if race becomes our God; if it becomes our gospel.

There is a gospel. There is a whole counsel of God around that gospel, and that gospel is the power source by which we will be able to pursue this issue till Jesus comes with gospel- and Christ-exalting forcefulness. If you switch it around, and start hiring people who aren’t with you on the gospel because they’re with you in diversity, you won’t have the gospel in the long run. I have seen agencies and churches go that way.

Christ died for this. That’s the main point. Christ died for this, and we need to make that plain to our people.