Saturday, February 16, 2008

Christian Unity and Racial Reconciliation

I believe that denominationalism (not denominations in and of themselves) is one significant way in which the Body of Christ is unbiblically divided, and I have written about it quite extensively here at Love Each Stone. However, if we look at all of the reasons the Body of Christ is unbiblically divided, especially in the United States, there is at least one other motive staring us squarely in the face that may be even more significant: racial differences.

Walking into the congregational meeting of any one of a great majority of local churches in the United States, it is immediately obvious to the perceptive observer that the make-up of the group, when compared to that of the surrounding community, is pretty well defined along racial lines. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently cited the well-known quote originally attributed to Billy Graham: "Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." You have to wonder, in light of passages like Ephesians 2:11-18, if this is really what Jesus desires for his church. From a missionary perspective, I am convinced, as well, that racially based divisions in the American church have contributed to the raising of some pretty significant stumbling blocks for world evangelization.

Yet, the solution to this problem is not quite so simple. History has created different cultures that, in many cases, are closely linked to racial and/or ethnic classifications. These cultures, in turn, tend to produce certain patterns of taste and preference among the individual members of the groups identified with them. As a result of this, when people are given a choice, they tend to gravitate towards regular association with groups that share their own cultural tastes and preferences. This is an aspect of human nature that no amount of wishful thinking or good intentions is likely to wipe away anytime soon. Renowned missiologist Donald McGavran referred to it as the "homogeneous unit principle."

Personally, whenever we can blend cultures and races within a local congregation, I think that, in and of itself, it is a good idea. However, the reality is that the "worship style" of any one congregation will almost inevitably tend to attract certain types of people and alienate others. Even if a church opts to dress its activities in a culture-neutral or culturally blended style, some people, who prefer more culture-specific styles, will feel their tastes are not sufficiently valued and taken into consideration.

Although actual racial and cultural discrimination should never be tolerated in the life of the local church, it is probably best to come to grips with the reality of the "homogeneous unit principle," at least at some level, and learn to live with it. It is actually a factor that, properly understood, can help us to "become all things to all men so that by all possible means [we] might save some." That should never be an excuse, however, for total segregation in the Body of Christ. As brothers and sisters in Christ from different races and cultures, I believe, as we grow in Christian maturity, we should naturally give diligent effort to know, understand, and fellowship with each other.

In a recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama, I was made aware of a wonderful effort on the part of Christians there to bridge racial barriers, and present a united testimony for Christ on a city-wide level. Under the banner of the ONE Movement, various churches of different racial make-up have taken on the goal of "building bridges of racial reconciliation that will facilitate a great spiritual awakening" in Montgomery.

In a Jan. 16, 2006 article in Baptist Press, Pastor Jay Wolf, of First Baptist Church, Montgomery, made the following insightful observation on his congregation’s involvement in the ONE Movement: "Eating together, praying together and praising the Lord together dissolves misconceptions and provides a powerful bonding cement to build bridges of relationships."

In the country of Spain, where I have served as a missionary for the past 18 years, it is evident that, in recent years, God is up to something special there as well. About 10 years ago, many evangelical churches were half-empty, and the make-up of most was quite racially and ethnically homogeneous. In recent years, though, largely through a massive influx of immigration from Latin America, many of these same churches are "busting at the seams." It is not uncommon for some of these congregations to be comprised of 50% or even 75% immigrants, most frequently from a variety of different countries and cultural backgrounds.

As one might imagine, in many cases, this transition has not come without its share of tension and misunderstandings. However, in my opinion, the blessings have far outweighed the problems. On the one hand, I believe that God has sent many of the immigrants as a response to the prayers of his people to "send out workers into his harvest field." On the other hand, I believe God is at work, breaking down walls of separation, reconciling us all, in one body, through the cross, to Him, "until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."


Guy Muse said...

Your experience in Spain with all the immigrants is fast becoming the norm as our world grows smaller and smaller.

Few of us are left with the alternative to NOT mix with those different from ourselves. On just our street one finds Colombians, Chinese, Peruvians, Lebanese, Americans, and Italian peoples and businesses (who knows how many others we aren't even aware of.)

If we are going to be the Church, this reality will have to be reflected in our churches as well as it is in society. One question for those of us who are missionaries: do our strategies include reaching the Japanese, Chinese, Lebanese, Peruvians, etc. amongst us?

Alan Cross said...

Great post, David. Our church has people from China, Peru, Brazil, the Philippines, Nigeria, Canada, and all over the United States. We are beginning to slowly reach into the African American community, although there are still many walls in our city. It is hard for people to believe that a Southern Baptist church does not have those barriers within them.

While we consistently try to reach people of all races, I have found that we do not need to wait until we are successful in that. We can build relationships with pastors of different races right away. If our churches are struggling with integrating racially, what if we found ways to partner with churches of other cultures? What if we worshipped together or did some type of ministry together? Any time that we move in this direction, we give glory to God and we reflect the truth of the Gospel.

Bryan Riley said...

Great post, David. May you keep sounding the call to unity in and through the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ.

One of thing things I've enjoyed about my time at The King's Lodge is the community that exists, with brothers and sisters from more than a dozen cultures, denominations and backgrounds.