Racial Reconciliation and Cultural Diversity in the SBC
In theory, very few people in the American church are opposed to the idea of racial and cultural diversity. But experience would suggest that on this issue good intentions do not equal forward progress.
A number of recent articles portend even more difficult days. A recent article, for instance, in the New York Times describes “a quiet exodus” of African Americans from predominantly white evangelical churches. Once hopeful about the prospects of racial reconciliation, many believers of color—those who were bold enough to enter “white church” settings as pioneers—have grown disheartened and weary by the lack of progress. Some have silently slipped out to re-join congregations that more closely reflect their culture.
The challenges we face regarding diversity and reconciliation are not new, but for many people—like me—in the majority culture, they possess a new urgency. Sadly, we have been late to the game, insensitive to concerns that don’t affect our families as directly or as acutely as they have affected brothers and sisters of color. For that alone, we have reason to repent. I thank God for the progress he has made in my own heart regarding this and for the progress I am seeing in a number of friends—both in our church and in churches like ours across the nation. Far too many of us white Christians assumed that racial disparity was an issue only past generations needed to deal with. Recent turmoil has made it obvious to all of us that we still live in a very racialized society. That’s tough to accept, but it’s necessary if we’re going to move forward.
Fortunately for Christians, I don’t think the situation is quite as bleak as many make it out to be. God has declared that diversity is his intention for the church, and he has given his Spirit with the promise that he will make it happen (Ephesians 3:1-13; 4:4-5). Racial reconciliation is a reality that God has declared over us in Christ. Inter-racial harmony was one of the distinguishing marks of gospel proclamation in the ancient world, and the unifying power of the gospel hasn’t faded.
Declare the Diversity of the Kingdom
Our efforts at The Summit Church along this line are guided by the plumb line, “The church should reflect the diversity of its community and declare the diversity of the kingdom.” Unity across race and ethnicity is one of the hallmarks of the gospel, a sign to the world that the gospel has real power (Ephesians 2). Our congregations should bespeak a unity that goes beyond a shared cultural and religious heritage. It should point to a divine unity, established by our common problem, sin; our common hope, salvation; and our common life, the Spirit. Furthermore, our unity is to be a sign, preview, and firstfruits of the coming kingdom, in which every tribe, tongue, language, and nation will gather around Christ’s throne in all their resplendent cultural distinctives (Revelation 5).
Our journey toward this goal hasn’t been easy—true diversification never is. But we’ve learned that pursuing racial reconciliation isn’t a niche “project” for a select few; rather, it is an essential part of discipleship and the responsibility of every follower of Jesus.
For those of us in the majority culture, this process has begun with a posture of listening, not talking. The definition of a blind spot, after all, is a weakness that we don’t know that we have. Historically, the most insidious blind spots result from positions of privilege and power. If we are serious about discovering these blind spots, it means committing ourselves to uncomfortable conversations where we seek more to understand that we do to be understood.
Racial reconciliation isn’t a niche “project” for a select few. It is an essential part of discipleship and the responsibility of every believer.
Not only will we find the experience of listening uncomfortable, we will also likely find that some of the changes necessary to reflect the diversity of the body of Christ are uncomfortable, too. If we want the SBC to be a homogenous, conservative, white Anglo-Saxon movement, then cultural hegemony is fine. But if we want to reach the diverse communities throughout the U.S., then we better get ready to change our cultural and leadership structures.
None of this implies that we need to change any of our doctrine or our core commitments. It simply means that a commitment to reconciliation has to go beyond mere words. We have to be willing to press through some of the discomfort that diversity brings. My friend Vance Pitman leads a Southern Baptist church that models this well. He says,
The way to know you are part of a multi-cultural movement is that you at times feel uncomfortable. If you always feel comfortable in your church, then it’s probably not multi-cultural, but multi-colored—a group of white Southerners who expect those of differing backgrounds to reflect white, Southern culture. Most Southern Baptists seem to want to a multi-colored denomination, not a multi-cultural one.
Our African-American brothers and sisters have, for years, been pressing through the discomfort of cultural variances; it is time we in the majority culture join them in that effort. We are constantly urging our people to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
I recognize that the Summit has opportunities here that many other churches do not. We have the benefit of being in the heart of a large, ethnically diverse city. Many churches throughout the U.S. are in more ethnically monochromatic areas, and they shouldn’t be judged too harshly for that. They too must reflect the diversity of their communities, and if their communities are more mono-cultural, then their churches likely will be also.
That’s why we no longer say (as we once did) that the local church should “reflect the diversity of heaven.” Local churches this side of heaven can only be a pale reflection of the multi-ethnic unity we will one day experience in heaven, a sign of the coming kingdom. And, even at our very best, our reflection will be partial, like looking through a glass darkly.
Diversification, even in the most diverse areas, will always have some limits—if for no other reason, we don’t all speak the same language! Language is the most basic element of a culture, and church services, for the most part, can only be conducted in one language. Furthermore, can any church on earth say it truly “looks like heaven”? I know several multi-cultural churches that have achieved remarkable diversity, but no one church has them all. I personally don’t know any churches that feature, for instance, both Arabic and Finnish music in their services, even though both of those groups will be worshipping side by side around the throne one day. Maybe one exists. But you get the point: Churches are a reflection of the coming unity, not its complete fulfillment. We seek to reflect the diversity of our community, all the while declaring the diversity of the kingdom.
In our community, we have large populations of African-Americans, whites, Asians, and Latinos. Thus, we believe our church (and church leadership) should reflect that. We believe God is more glorified through a multiplicity of cultures in worship, and we believe that picture gives a glimpse to our community of the unity found only in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11). We don’t have a Middle Eastern pastor on staff (at least not yet), and this shouldn’t cause us dismay. Yes, there will be lots of Middle Easterners around the throne in heaven. But they’re not as heavily represented in our community yet.
God has, by his grace, given us real progress in this area. Nearly 20 percent of our church attenders are non-white (up from less than 5 percent less than a decade ago). At least a third of our campus pastors and worship leaders are non-white. Our church still has a long way to go, but we are proof that moving toward racial reconciliation is possible. And while the specifics will look different depending on your demographic situation, positive changes are possible in your church, too.
Awareness Isn’t Enough
One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the past few years is that awareness of a racialized society—while absolutely vital—isn’t enough to make diversity and reconciliation a reality. To illustrate this, one of our African American pastors, Chris Green, has summarized the process of a church becoming racially diverse in a helpful spectrum:
IGNORANCE – AWARENESS – INTERACTION – GOSPEL COMMUNITY
We all start with ignorance. Most of us grow up around people like us, we work with people like us, and we socialize with people like us. We aren’t willfully hateful, but we simply don’t know much about people from different backgrounds. So we—especially those of us in the majority culture—fill in the gaps with presuppositions and stereotypes. We assume that “black people” or “Hispanic people” all think, act, or feel a certain way.
Admitting our ignorance leads us to the next step along the spectrum: awareness. Perhaps we watch something on the news or make a new friend or have some personal experience that forces us to recognize cultural differences. We begin to see that many of these differences, historically, have led to inequities and injustices. Awareness is unsettling, because it challenges a lot of what we assumed was simply “normal.”
This is where we declare success too quickly. Acknowledging it, making a statement about it, and then preaching a couple of sermons is not enough. It’s the jump from awareness to interaction that really begins to change the game. It is only when we develop personal relationships with people from other ethnicities and backgrounds, seek to understand them, learn to respect them, and learn from them that we move closer to the last stage: gospel community. At The Summit Church, we say, “We don’t want simply to host multi-cultural events; we want to live multi-cultural lives.” That’s easy to say, but it’s uncomfortable and difficult work. And it requires dedicated intentionality. To have people from diverse backgrounds in our lives. To ask questions and to listen. To humble ourselves and ask forgiveness. But it’s worth it—for Jesus’ sake, for his church’s sake, and for our own. This is not something we do merely as an act of grace for others. We need it for our own souls, as well.
This interpersonal connection is more important than finding a worship style that white, black, and Latino will all like. (Good luck with that.) God did not call us to put on a multi-cultural display on the weekend but to live out a multi-cultural wonder throughout the week. When we begin to live multi-cultural lives, our events will very naturally take on a multi-cultural flavor. As believers who have been united in Christ, we aren’t pursuing sameness but a covenant community of oneness.
The power to pursue this kind of unity is found only in the gospel. This is where we as Christians can offer something our society can only yearn for. Our society wants us to be aware. At key moments of national tragedy, they want us to interact. But they can’t offer a way for us to love each other like family. But we in the church know that we are a family—black, white, Latino, Asian, Arab, and every other ethnic group that God has lovingly created. As the old saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Practically, for those of us in church leadership, pursuing gospel community means we structure our services differently than if our entire church were white. It means we prioritize diversity in the leaders we’re developing. It means we host forums where we can have a safe space to talk about our ethnic differences. It means we engage in and deepen multi-ethnic friendships in our small groups.
This kind of unity turned heads when Christianity first burst onto the scene in the first century. And if we pursue multi-cultural lives, it’s going to turn heads today, too.
Is 11:00 Still the Most Segregated Hour in the SBC?
As I consider diversity and racial reconciliation in the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, I see many of the same obstacles and many of the same opportunities we have dealt with on the local church level. I suspect that the path to diversity and reconciliation in the SBC will look similar to the one we’re taking on the congregational level. We have to be intentional about inviting other brothers and sisters into conversation and leadership. We need to recognize the leadership gifts of brothers and sisters of color that God has placed in our midst and embrace their wisdom and influence. Truthfully, we’ve always needed them, but we need them especially now in these difficult days. We need to recognize that they are God’s gifts to us.
The good news is that the SBC is actually very well poised to make these moves. God is raising up new leaders. Of course, I am painfully aware that our history presents significant difficulties. The SBC was forged on the wrong side of the racial question and at far too many key points in our history, our leaders have been either (at best) slow to adopt or (at worst) resistant to needed cultural changes. Some of our leaders even presented “biblical” defenses of slavery and segregation. Thankfully, the SBC has made statements clearly condemning these racist attitudes in our past. I think of the 1995 resolution, “On Racial Reconciliation,” in which the leaders of the SBC publicly repented and apologized for slavery’s role in the formation of the Convention. More recently, in 2014, Alan Cross made a motion for the Executive Committee to form a task force to assess how far we’ve come regarding diversity. Those recent statements don’t erase the stain of racism from our past, but they do presage, I pray, a more united way forward. Justice begins with repentance.
More important than official statements by a Convention that gathers once a year, however, is the reality of what takes place on a week-to-week level in our actual churches. More than 21 percent of Southern Baptists are non-white. Let that sink in, and praise God for it. The numbers, in fact, align rather closely to the national census statistics. The U.S. population is 12 percent African-American, 16 percent Latino, and 4.7 percent Asian. The number of Southern Baptists in these demographics is similar: 7.4 percent African American, 6.7 percent Latino, and 3.9 percent Asian. Now, much of this diversity reflects congregations that are mostly homogeneous, and we have a lot of room to grow in individual churches pursuing reconciliation at the church level. But Convention-wide, we are reflective of the demographics of our national “community,” which is an encouraging start. (And we’re much closer than the mainline denominations, which are nearly all white.)
We are, contrary to many expectations, a rather diverse Convention. The real work for us going forward is to bring our leadership into alignment with where our people are. Nearly a fifth of our churchgoers are black, Latino, or Asian, but our leadership still falls far short of that mark. The leaders are there, and we all stand to benefit from the treasures they bring the Convention. But we’ve got to give them the platform to do it.
We are a rather diverse Convention. The real work for us going forward is to bring our leadership into alignment with where our people are.
By God’s grace, I know we can get there. What we’re seeing happen at The Summit Church—though we have much, much further to go—proves to me that we can. The Father God wants it; the Son of God promised it; the Spirit of God will accomplish it.
A Mountaintop Moment
Our nation desperately wants to see racial unity. But events of the last few years have revealed that the divide between whites and blacks in the U.S. is deep and painful. Our society yearns for change but lacks the power to achieve it.
I believe the SBC is in a kairos moment regarding race. Kairos is a Greek word for time that implies a specially appointed moment in history. I believe that God has appointed this moment in the world for the church to rise up and demonstrate a unity in Christ that the world yearns for but has been unable to accomplish.
Dr. King saw his own time as a kairos moment of sorts, too. The language he used was of a mountaintop, harkening back to Moses ascending the mountain to look over the Jordan to the Promised Land. Dr. King said, just a few days before his death, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
Our country has always had high aspirations of equality, but we’ve never been able to achieve them. Not during the century of our birth, when Africans were enslaved and imported as subhuman property. Not after the Civil War, when Jim Crow laws kept newly liberated African-Americans from the full rights of citizenship. Not today, when there are still disparities between the black experience of America and the white experience.
Sometimes I get discouraged with our lack of progress. But when I listen to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t hear the voice of one defeated or discouraged. I hear the voice of someone who has seen something—something, in God’s power, possible; something God wants to give.
The mountaintop is where we see the world as God meant it to be, the world that Jesus died to recreate. Multi-racial harmony is a preview of God’s eternal kingdom, and God wants to display it first through his church. What our society has been unable to produce through its laws, God creates through the gospel.
The gospel teaches us that all men are created equal because they are each alike made in the image of God. All races suffer from a common problem, sin, and look toward a common hope, Jesus. That gospel creates a new humanity, a redeemed race made up of all colors, in Christ’s image. God created the races to display his glory like a multi-splendored diamond, and we ought to see that glory first reflected in the church.
Multi-racial harmony is a preview of God’s eternal kingdom, and God wants to display it first through his church.
Fifty years ago, Dr. King looked ahead and boldly declared that God’s desire for racial harmony was possible. As we look to the future of our Convention, would you join me in asking God to give us the courage to speak—and live—a similar word of counter-cultural, racially diverse, bold, and unified faith?
I believe that God has appointed this moment in the world for the church to rise up and demonstrate that unity the world searches for in vain. From that mountaintop we continue to dream; toward that promised land we continue to strive.