One of our objectives as pastors is to strive for unity as we form church communities grounded in the gospel message of reconciliation. We are also keenly aware of particular subject matters that could lead to division amongst God’s people and we seek to discern how to best lead our people in what often feels like an increasingly contentious climate.
There may be no more divisive issue in the evangelical world right now than race. Because of the increased chance of communal disunity, I know some church leaders prefer to not engage in this conversation, at least in public settings. They’ve witnessed some of the ugly fallout on social media as professing Christians have sullied their witness of Christ with their ugly means of discourse. It’s not surprising, then, that church leaders will do their best to keep that from touching the church.
Others may intentionally choose not to bring these areas to light because they believe these are secondary matters distracting the church from her primary mission of disciple-making. Or some may withdraw simply because they don’t believe race is something that’s relevant for their people in their particular context.
Whatever your current posture, my hope is to encourage you to consider the importance of addressing race in your church, even with the very real possibility of some of the challenges described above:
Don’t assume what people believe about race.
We often hear that the answer to racism will be found as more people receive genuine Christian faith. As more people experience personal revival, this will naturally lead to a transformed society that will combat issues such as racism.
Though the sentiment is noble on its face and even serves to rally some evangelical efforts for revival and church multiplication, research demonstrates this doesn’t happen. In Divided by Faith, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith describe what is known as the Miracle Motif: Because many White evangelicals tend to view race issues as individual rather than corporate sins, the appropriate solution to the ills of racism is therefore found in more people becoming Christian.
Current events are revealing that faith in Christ itself does not automatically equate to a grasp of the sin of racism. This is particularly true for those who didn’t have to navigate life and the accompanying racism as many people of color have. Unless there is either a cultural background or intentional training in issues of racism, most people need to be educated in understanding systemic levels of racism beyond over-the-top expressions like a Neo-Nazi rally. If that’s what racism is reduced to, no wonder not too many would consider themselves guilty of racism.
As the counsel of scripture naturally leads and as current events bring issues to our awareness, I address racism just as I would other topics like sex or money. I don’t assume that attendance in a worship service or membership in our church means anything about what someone in my church believes about these matters. Don’t assume that silence means understanding.
The church requires better training in a Christian worldview.
Conversations about reconciliation in the church bring accusations of kowtowing to a politically incorrect culture. Some observe little noticeable difference between how the world and the church thinks through such issues. This is a valid concern. I notice that some Christians with a genuine desire to combat racism can lack biblical authority to match the zeal of their convictions.
However, don’t let this concern lead you to the opposite mistake of ignoring these things and assuming that your people will know how to exegete current events in a biblically informed manner. Just because someone can lead a bible study doesn’t mean she can grasp the historical legacy of redlining and its impact in many of our cities’ populations.
Don’t be naïve about the voices influencing the people in your church. We live in a wonderful age of information and learning. But not all information is beneficial. Some in your congregation may use terms like “cultural Marxism” to combat advocates of reconciliation simply because they’ve heard that rhetoric used in their favorite podcast which may have little to no biblical grounding. A huge following doesn’t always equate to truth. Be mindful that your voice is among the many leading your people’s thoughts and behaviors.
As a pastor, it is my responsibility to teach my church how to process real issues from a Christian worldview. My intent is to train others how to study the bible and have that knowledge inform all of life under God’s rule. As we learn God’s Word, I want to demonstrate how the message of reconciliation is essential to grasping the Christian gospel as it is revealed all through the Scriptures.
The death of racism is not a concept created in political thinktanks. It is God’s very own design for a new reconciled humanity created in and through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. Even if we may come to varying conclusions of what a biblically faithful view of race means, actively teach your people how to consider race and the Christian faith in the culture of your church.
People have been wounded by racism, even by and in the church.
Even thoughtful churches whose majority congregation is white may not be fully aware of the wounds that many of their minority members carry associated with racism and white supremacy, particularly our black and brown brethren. Whether direct or in more subtle ways, many people of color have been the recipients of discrimination and hate because of the color of their skin. Some think that our current societal climate is the cause of these problems. Many minorities in America would suggest those problems have always been there and current events are just bringing them to light for the larger majority population to recognize.
My theology leads me to believe we will always have the evil of racism while we’re a part of this world and that we learn to respond in justice and love. Yet, it is more heartbreaking when the effects of racism are seen in the church and even caused by her people, intentionally or not. What is even sadder is when someone of the minority culture in the church finds the courage to bring up real offense and wounds only to be dismissed, whether loudly or in silence.
I don’t address racism to convince minorities in our church that it is a real sin. They already know that. I openly talk about it so that they can hear they are not alone. I believe the pulpit is particularly important in this work. Preaching sets the tone for a church’s culture including what topics are safe and open for engagement. In our church, I want that to include an honest approach to race and those who care about it.
Racism is a sin requiring repentance.
In the end, I’m a minister of the gospel. A significant aspect of ministry is a prophetic call for sinners to repentance.
Addressing racism is more than just awareness of a social justice issue. It is shining the revealing light of Christ onto sin. There are people both in and outside of the church whose sin is racism and who may not be aware of it. Some are sinning with the commission of blatant racist acts and thoughts. Some racism is subtler in its nature. Regardless of the expression of the offense, if there are people who have this sin and I as a pastor never address it, I am allowing them to continue in unrepentance. As a pastor entrusted to this flock, I need to stand before God with that.
Freedom is found when people turn to Christ in their sin to experience forgiveness. Ultimately, we don’t address race as a form of virtue signaling or because we hate certain people in our church. It is because we love our church that we desire our people to walk in the truth of the gospel in every part of their lives. It is an invitation for pastoral courage to bring to light matters that may seem divisive but are in truth an invitation to gospel fidelity in our churches.