Recently, I’ve been having a dialogue with a friend and confidant whom I respect and with whom I enjoy intellectual sparring on a wide variety of topics. Our topic du jour has been the issue of racism, how to identify it and how to address it in a ministry context. It is an interesting (and might I add…on-going) exchange and it is forcing me to examine my own attitudes and responses to something that indeed stains many “southern” and “conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist” churches.
I pastor a larger church that, in all honesty, has taken unbiblical positions in its history on issues of race, integration and prejudice toward people of color. It is a stain on the fabric of our church’s reputation and it has limited our ministry and diminished our effectiveness if the truth be told. I know of very few out-and-out prejudiced or racist individuals (in or out of our church) but that doesn’t mean that we have a Biblical attitude toward how we should treat others who don’t look “just like us.”
One of the challenges of my own leadership is that I need to discern it, confront it and deal with it — not from a cultural perspective, not from a pragmatic perspective, but from a BIBLICAL perspective. And it would also be nice if I could do it in such a way that it creates healing and repentance and unity, not controvery, disharmony and re-opened wounds. Quite frankly, I’m still searching for answers.
But a larger issue still looms as I experience the microcosm of the problem in my own ministry. What do we do about the transending problem of addressing unBiblical attitudes toward racial harmony in the Body of Christ as a whole and in local churches individually?
Recent surveys have revealed that one of the most segregated places in America is the church on Sunday mornings. Many of us send our kids to Christian school that were, at their inception, little more than white flight academies. It takes missionaries going to African continents far longer to raise their support from our local congregations than it does for missionaries going to European or even South American countries.
Why is this? Could it be that there is still the shadow of latent racism casting its ugly shadow over conservative evangelical congregations?
Some would argue that many evangelical churches have outreaches to the homeless, inner-city neighborhoods and even run buses and vans into minority communities offering free rides for the kids to Sunday school. I think these are wonderful and important facets of ministry. But I would also ask, if this is a part of our mission for reaching people of color, why arent our adult worship services more integrated then? Could it be that we dont mind taking ministry to minorities, even busing their kids to Sunday school, but somehow the welcome mat isnt put out when it comes to making them part of the internal life of the church? If that is the case, and I suspect it is far too frequently, then we are sinning against God and violating His word and we ought not ignore that.
Where are majority white congregations with a black or latin Senior Pastor? Where are the black or brown associate pastors on our staffs and deacons or elders on our boards? What have we done to welcome and develop and prioritize racial minority representation and participation in our local churches? Shouldn’t the church be at the forefront of this and not a johnny-come-lately?
Im afraid that some of us in churches today would protest vehemently if someone accused us of being racist, yet, under the right circumstances, in safe places, among our own kind, we are just as likely to utter some insensitive or racially derogatory remark and not even realize it unless someone had the courage to call our attention to it. How can we expect to be the kind of lighthouse for the grace and love of Christ to all people if we fail so frequently and miserably in demonstrating that grace and love in our own lives?
Sure there are cultural differences that may impact where we feel more comfortable during worship. Ive preached at black churches in the past wherein I was the person present with the least amount of rhythm. I mean, I cant even clap to the beat. Ive also worshipped with Hispanic congregations where the openness and emotion were far freer than I am used to from a more staid tradition. But quite honestly, these small impediments shouldnt keep us from being warm and welcoming to those who may not look like us on the outside when in the eyes of God, we are all just sinners saved by grace.
Its time some of us took a look at our inner heart and ask the Lord to reveal any hint of residual racism that may lurk therein. Whether it is something so overt as telling a racist joke or simply insensitivity based on stereotypes and cultural traditions, we ought not make excuses for attitudes, actions and words that cause pain, demean character and build walls. We need to confront this problem honestly and deal with it Biblically.
Christians should be leading the way by confessing the sin of racism and building bridges that will move us beyond the dark days of our past. Only when we deal with this thoroughly can we expect to remove the shadows of latent racism that limit our effectiveness in presenting the gospel to all peoples today.
Dan Burrell is on hiatus for a few weeks. He will return in mid-July. Until then he is reposting a few early blog posts and articles from his syndicated commentary. This post was originally published in February 2005.