Last night, some of our dear friends took me and my wife to a concert featuring the Brooklyn Tabernacle Singers. We enjoyed a very nice dinner together and then headed over to a large local church for the concert. Now, if you know me at all, I’m not into listening to music. If I had an IPod (I don’t, but wish I did, hint, hint), I’d fill it with preaching and teaching more than music. I don’t dislike music. I enjoy it while it’s happening. I just don’t crave it like some people do. I like words. I want to hear or read clear, uncluttered sentences which challenge me, speak to me, make me think. Music requires too much of me — I have to pay attention to both the lyrics and the music. (Maybe that’s why if I do listen to music, it’s often simply instrumental. Oddly, I’m somewhat a fan of both Barque music and Bluegrass…as long as no one’s singing.)
But I enjoyed last night’s concert. Oh, the music was fine. My wife, who tends to be more of a music aficionado than I do, was in heaven. The auditorium was packed and we had seats on the sixth row which just made me as nervous as all get out. Julie loved being that close to the stage. She sang, she laughed, she cried…it gave me a lot of pleasure knowing that she was thoroughly enjoying it.
It was genuinely worshipful. We started off singing a wonderful positive and upbeat arrangement of “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” which segwayed into a praise chorus of the same theme. The orchestra was fantastic, the Hickory Grove Baptist Church choir was awesome and the worship leader was one of the best I’ve ever seen. They Brooklyn Tab Singers wove testimonies of changed lives into the evening via video and live testimony in such a way that I left challenged and inspired to my core. Pastor Jim Cymbala preached a clear gospel message and a challenge to prayer that confronted me personally. I enjoyed being with our friends and in the vicinity of several pew-fulls of Northside members who were also there.
But most of all, I enjoyed the diversity of the audience as they worshipped together. One of the songs was sung in Spanish and the numerous folks in the auditorium who were of Latin descent were singing along — some weeping or holding up their hands. Then they did a rousing Gospel number and I couldn’t help but grin as a row full of African-American ladies in front of me jumped up, threw their hands in the air, opened their mouths and hearts and sang along with all they had. It was the closest thing to a mosh pit I’ve ever been near. They cried, they sang, they stepped to the music (that’s Baptist for danced), they were fully engaged. There were several intense and quietly reflective songs that resonated with this ol’ conservative Baptist preacher.
I looked across the auditorium and was struck and moved by the tremendous racial diversity that was in that room and because of the uniqueness of the Brooklyn Tabernacle ministry, most every person in the room could identify with at least one of the singers in the group ethnically. But more importantly, every believer in the room could identify with the focus of the worship. We were diverse and we were unified. I couldn’t help but think that this must be what heaven will be like as we gather around the Throne of God singing in full throat and quiet intonations, dancing jubilantly and falling prostrate, weeping at times and shouting at times — people from every generation, every tribe, every race, ever accent — diverse and unified in the presence of the Savior. Last night was a little bit like a rehearsal, I’m guessing.
The first time I preached at Northside, I was the candidate to become the third pastor in the church’s history. In the 60’s and 70’s, our church had a history of supporting racial segregation. That history was evident in the auditorium in December of 1999 as I looked across a sea of white faces with very little color offering any other contrast. I asked a friend of mine specifically to ask a question during the public Q and A session that is part of the tradition of pastoral interviews. I asked him to ask, “How will Northside be different in 10 years than it is today?” I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I want it to be less white than it is today. If that was going to be a problem, they needed to know it right away. (It wasn’t based on the vote of approval I received.)
My first church, Berean Baptist in West Palm Beach, had over 3 dozen different ethnic groups in it. It was not unusual for us to have 20 or 30 different nations represented on a typical Sunday. Anglo’s were quickly becoming a minority in the church. It was wonderful. From Latins to Africans to Europeans to Asians were hailed from all over the world. We had folks from the Caribbean Islands and Long Island. There was every hue of skin under the sun and under the Son in the congregation from week to week. I don’t miss a lot about South Florida, but I DO miss that.
When we worshipped, it was a delight. The first generation Latin would be sitting next to a graduate from Bob Jones University and two more different worship participation styles could not be found — but NO ONE cared. The Island blacks worshipped completely different than the African Americans…and NO ONE cared. The wealthy sat next to the poor, the educated next to the illiterate, the foreigner next to the daughter of the American Revolution and NO ONE cared.
Certainly, there were cultural differences. My Jamaican friends often teased me and laughed at me for my insistence in starting services on time. They lived by “island time” which meant that church started when ever everyone got there — not according to a schedule. My African-American members teased me for being rhythmically challenged. In their words, “I clapped like a white boy.” I did my best to master Spanish and failed miserably. One guy from Venezuela called my efforts “Spanglish.” But the love we had for Christ overcame all of our differences and drew us together on common ground. What started off being a little uncomfortable at times, became one of the best things about our church.
We not there at Northside yet. We’re moving in the right direction. We’re located in the right part of our city for it to happen. Attitudes are changing and more importantly, so are hearts. I pray regularly that the Lord will increase our diversity so that we look like the city of Charlotte and more importantly, that we look like the family of God. If that is to happen, all of us will have to open our minds and our hearts and our arms in new ways. But it’s absolutely Biblical.
Whether it’s the passage I read in James that speaks of not having socio-economic “castes” in the church or Paul’s message reminding us that there is neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free in the family of God, I’m constantly reminded of how diverse God’s family is and should be.
I know a lot of Northsiders read this blog and I’m writing to you. Pray that the Lord will allow us to become a church for all nations and ethnicities. Invite your friends, greet our guests, make them feel at home. Don’t insist that you always be comfortable. Repent of latent racism of the heart. Embrace God’s model of unity.
To those who worship elsewhere and read this blog, may I challenge you to get a vision and heart for reaching people who may not look just like you? Developing a multi-cultural church takes time and effort. It isn’t a matter of just being “friendly” to folks who visit even though they look different from us. It’s going out and compelling them to join us. It’s not just greeting them, it’s inviting them over to our homes. It’s not just hand shaking; it’s embracing them as equal parts of the family of God.
Blended churches have challenges, but the blessings far outweigh the burdens. Your vision of missions will change, your heart for others will grow, your love for people will increase. Perhaps it’s time for more of us to lift the blinders from our eyes and ways of thinking and reach out to the diverse cultural and ethnic community that is right at our own doorstep., It’s not just the job of missionaries and evangelists. We live in a period of history where our world grows smaller and smaller every day and the mission field is now coming to us.
Last night, I was reminded of the joy of corporate worship with others who aren’t like me. It’s my dream as a pastor, to make that a weekly occurrence in our church.