“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. - Jesus (John 17:20-23, ESV)
From the very beginning of God's Story, God has included all peoples in His vision to create a family that walks with Him as their Heavenly Father: the Church. When God called Abram, whom He later renamed Abraham, He told Abram that the Good News was for every family of the world. As Paul the Apostle said, "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith" (Romans 3:29–30, ESV).
As someone who senses God's call to start a multi-ethnic congregation in Atlanta, I confess that I often wonder if the Father will answer Jesus's prayer for oneness in John 17. There are many moments when I wonder if I should place birthing a multi-ethnic church under the "Things I Can't Change and Should Just Accept" category of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer and simply abandon the whole project. We live in segregated communities and worship in segregated denominations with segregated theologies with segregated cultures. The places we live, the houses we live in, the schools we attend, and many of our professional ways of doing things in the business world have been engineered in such a way to purposefully keep us separated from each other ethnically and socio-economically (if you don't believe this, please take a moment to refer to my last blog post and the resources contained therein on how the American housing market, among other institutions throughout American society, has been purposefully engineered to keep us segregated).
This is especially true for me as a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). We are European American pretty much across the board in our denominational policies, culture, and membership demographics, with some noteworthy exceptions that prove the rule. How could God use someone like me, in a denomination that is so 'White' (a socially constructed label), to start a multi-ethnic local church for all peoples?
But God has never been intimidated by ethnic barriers when it comes to advancing His Kingdom.
Why Multi-Ethnicity is Essential to the Gospel
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3, ESV)
The promise of the Gospel has always been for all peoples. Pork-eating North Carolinians such as myself were thankfully included in God's vision when He chose to reveal Himself to distinctly non-pork-eating Jews halfway around the world, one of whom is my Savior and Lord. Salvation for me came from another people group. God's desire was to reconcile all of humanity to Himself through Jesus, not just a small subsection of the population. To say that any people group cannot hold power and authority in a local congregation is an offense to the very foundations of the Gospel message itself:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16, ESV)
It took nothing less than the blood of the Son of God to destroy the hostility that we held between each other and that existed between us and God due to our sin. God's vision to redeem the world does not allow us to choose sides and say, "This people group is welcome here, but that people group is excluded." Most Christians reading this would probably agree with what I've said up to this point.
Yet here is a point that many Christians may disagree with me vehemently on: the Gospel alone is not enough, because we have not repented of the sin of White Supremacy and its lingering effects.
The Problem: Unrepentant, and Unseen, Racism
The Protestant branch of the Christian Church has suffered from fragmentation and divisions since its inception. If we are not careful, we can be prone to viewing Christians of other ethnicities and denominational colors as theologically suspect and untrustworthy strangers, rather than our brothers and sisters in the New Covenant family of God.
In the United States, this cross-denominational skepticism has been exacerbated by the repercussions of the Civil War, because variant Northern and Southern perspectives on slavery, race, and society have caused virtually all major Protestant denominations to separate into both distinct monoethnic entities and distinct Northern and Southern entities leading up to, during, or after the Civil War. A few examples are the Triennial Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention, the Methodist Episcopal Church (out of which developed the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), and the Methodist Episcopal Church South (out of which formed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (which later became the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or PCUS), the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and the Assemblies of God.
I say all this to simply underline the point that, we have so rigidly segregated ourselves along denominational, ethnic, and cultural lines that it is nearly impossible to imagine how a multi-ethnic movement could be initiated in an existing American denomination, or set of denominations. However, if we are to effectively reach the United States with the Gospel in the coming years, it is my conviction that multi-ethnic local churches will be essential to accomplishing that task especially in relation to youth, who will be living in a distincly more multi-ethnic America than the one we're currently living in.
This intentional segregation of the Body of Christ in the United States has resulted in the entrenchment of divisive cultural differences and institutional racism within the Church itself.
Institutional racism is comprised of the institutionalized forms of oppression that are built into the way that society works, and these oppressive systems tend to remain long after the initial, more bold-faced, forms of personal racism and bigotry fade into the past. One current example of institutional racism would be the fact that houses owned by people labeled as White in our society in neighborhoods that are labeled as White tend to be appraised at much higher values than houses owned by people labeled as non-White in neighborhoods labeled as non-White. When you add to this the fact that school districts get their funding off of property taxes, etc., you have a system of racist oppression functioning at multiple levels throughout society which may not be easy to reverse for a long time. So far, we haven't reversed this particular institutional racism dilemma in the housing market across most of our country - and what makes it so difficult to deal with is that it is so widespread there is no single person or entity to blame.
However, in the church context institutional racism takes on different forms. If you're evaluating a ministerial candidate's credentials and you ask "Have you attained a Master of Divinity degree from an accredited school?", that question has a very different set of cultural values, emphases, and socio-economic expectations behind it than the question, "Do you speak in tongues?" The question "Have you attained a Master of Divinity degree at an accredited school?" lays the expectation on the candidate that he or she has attained not only a college degree but also a $15,000 (or more) per year graduate level degree, almost certainly from a private institution rather than a public university due to the way that our society has attempted to grossly amputate religious thought from public life. "Do you speak in tongues?" lays no such financial or intellectual burden on the candidate, but places much more value on having a pious and intimate relationship with God. There are pros and cons to both extremes. Ideally, you want to get people into ministerial leadership who are educated and have a heart for God, rather than only one or the other.
On the surface, such a question does not appear to be an example of institutional racism, but when a denomination does not offer scholarship programs or financial aid to students who have need, and when the schools recommended by the denomination do not have such scholarships or financial aid in place, this is an unreasonable demand to ask of potential ministry candidates. This is especially true for ministry candidates who come from backgrounds labeled as non-White by our society in which their relatives may not have $150,000 of home equity lying around to help fund an aspiring family member's education. The result is that only financially privileged individuals are able to enter ministerial leadership in that denomination. Most of those people will be people who are labeled as White by our society, rather than people who are labeled as non-White. Thus, while on the surface this issue initially appears to only be a situation involving differences in values regarding educational standards, in reality this issue segregates who gets into church leadership, and specifically who holds power and authority in that denomination.
All denominations in the United States that have been around for more than a few years are dealing with these issues in one way or another. If God's Church is going to be effective in reaching the multi-ethnic U.S. population that is coming, we need to start working together as a team and stop operating in ethnic silos.
Segregated denominations worked in a society that was segregated and nationalistic. They will not work very well in a society that is ethnically integrated and globalized.
In many ways, the future of evangelism and the overall health of Protestant churches in the United States may depend on how we collectively answer the question: "Will you work together in ministry with someone who is ethnically and denominationally different from you?"
Surely someone will say to me here, "Will, you're focusing too much on social issues. We need to just focus on the Gospel, and then God will sort out all these divisions on their own."
So let's talk about what the Gospel really is.
What the Gospel Is
The Gospel is the proclamation that God has reconciled all peoples in the world to Himself and to each other through the death of Jesus on the cross and His subsequent resurrection, and that He offers salvation and eternal life to all as a free gift by grace through faith in Jesus. It is a once-for-all completed act that God has finished in Jesus.
What the Gospel Is Not
The Gospel is not repentance, or to put it another way, the after-effects of the Gospel. While the Gospel is a completed act, repentance is the life-long practice of turning from worshipping ourselves to worshipping God that flows out of a person's grateful heart -- a person who realizes what God has done for them in Jesus. Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from repentance when He proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom of God at the outset of His ministry:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)
Becoming a follower of Jesus involves not only believing the Gospel but also turning from your former lifestyle to live in a way that glorifies God. This process of turning from worshipping and serving ourselves to worshipping and serving Jesus as our Lord has a starting point at conversion, but it continues throughout our lives on this earth.
We too often leave people at the foot of the cross with justification alone - we give them no map to guide them in their journey of sanctification. The true Gospel demands a response of total surrender from those who hear it and believe, because you cannot truly place your trust in Jesus and continue to live as though He does not exist. The true Gospel demands that we love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and speak out against systems that make some powerful while making others second-class citizens, because in God's Family there are no second-class citizens. The true Gospel demands that Christians labeled as White repent of White Supremacy and its effects in our churches and in the ways that we live. This is a hard and unnatural thing to do.
Multi-Ethnic Intentionality as Repentance
We live in a society that was engineered from the ground-up to segregate and limit the power of certain people groups, a society which simultaneously and contradictorily stated up front, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Certainly, we believed this to be true for some European American men (for those with Irish heritage, you understand why I qualified that statement), but not for other people groups. When we understand that our society was engineered over time to segregate us and keep certain people groups apart from each other and out of positions of power, we can begin to understand how the Gospel of Jesus calls us to repentance in the American Church.
Multi-ethnicity does not happen naturally, because it goes against our natural inclinations as sinful human beings and (until recently) against the norms of the institutions in our culture. However, we can take heart in realizing that holiness works the same way: we are not naturally inclined to it, and we are often encouraged to live unholy lives rather than holy ones by the institutions of our culture.
Living holy lives for Jesus is awkward and uncomfortable. Such a lifestyle without exception goes against the grain of society in some fashion or other. As American Christians, in our case this call to holy living also calls us to reject racist beliefs and the systems that were created by racist beliefs to keep specific people groups in power over other people groups in our society.
Many people reject the idea that we should be intentional about multi-ethnicity because it's awkward to live it out. They will say that we should simply let things play out however God sees fit over time and that we shouldn't "try to force it" to happen. However, this negates our own calling and responsibility to be salt and light in a culture that needs the love of God. It also fails to recognize the fact that living into multi-ethnicity is unnatural and awkward, just like any other aspect of holy living.
I want to be clear that mono-ethnic ministries are really important too, especially for people groups labeled as non-White by our society. Mono-ethnic denominations and churches have served a critical role in the United States, and we wouldn't have very many Christians in the U.S. population if mono-ethnic churches did not exist. However, there is a problem when we only have mono-ethnic churches in a society that has become extremely interconnected, multi-ethnic, and globalized. For many of us, knowing where to invite friends of other ethnicities to attend church and explore who Jesus is can be a hard question to answer when we know that the culture shock our friends will experience will be rather severe from the moment they walk in the door.
So what do we do when so many things seem set against our coming together as one in Jesus? It is easy to get bogged down in the details of attempting to untangle denominational policies, institutional structures, and clashing cultures. In those moments when I feel overwhelmed by all the divisions that exist, I find it helpful to remind myself that God has never been intimidated by these barriers when it comes to advancing His Kingdom and reconciling us to each other.
Relationship: A Way Forward
I do not believe the solution to all of this will be found in political strategy, or some new breathtaking form of organizational restructuring in our churches and denominations, or some amazing new program that we engineer to help bring people together across ethnic and socio-economic lines. Instead, I think the solution will come from true Gospel fellowship and relationship in the Body of Christ.
Focusing on our denominational, theological, and cultural differences will only cause us to get bogged down in technical details that, in the end, confuse and obfuscate the pursuit of our common goal: unity in the Body of Christ so that the world may know Jesus Christ. The reason that we can't start with attempting to fix these broken systems without building relationships across ethnic lines is that we don't know what to fix in these broken systems until we sit down and talk to each other.
The beauty of the Protestant Reformation was that anyone with access to a Bible in their language could pick it up, read it, and encounter the Living God. They could read for themselves the promise of God's unconditional love shown to them in Jesus. They could read Romans 4:6 where it says, "God counts righteousness apart from works" (ESV). They could read 2 Corinthians 5:17 where Paul said, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (ESV). They could read the Gospels themselves and learn about the life of Jesus from eyewitness accounts, rather than having to seek out a priest or a scholar. They could put their faith in Jesus without having to go through any other intermediary.
It is this radical access to the Good News of Jesus that ignited the Protestant Reformation and that caused it to sweep throughout the known world. Even when people do not have radical access to it, the Gospel has spread and refused to be snuffed out by oppresive regimes and the most sinister attempts to stamp it out. However, when radical access is given, the possibilities are limitless.
What will American churches look like if we choose to make radical access to the Gospel and radical access to participation in the life of local churches for all people groups in the United States a top priority? If we choose to actually build relationships with each other across ethnic lines as fellow followers of Jesus, to repent of the sins that we have committed against God and each other, and if we refuse to allow the structures of our denominations and our society to keep us separated, this will cause our denominational structures and social structures to change. God will shape His Church and His people as they come together as one and seek Him. God will uproot structures, policies, even denominations that divide His people and will establish new ones in their place. He did this in the Early Church (see Acts 10 and the story of Peter the Jew and Cornelius the Roman Centurion). He will do it again in ours.
God has not abandoned His Church, nor has God abandoned His vision to create a holy, beautiful, multi-ethnic family in Jesus throughout the world. As its chief Architect, perhaps only God knows for sure how to solve the problems our divisions have caused in the United States. Our role is not to create a perfect solution to the problems we see, but to continue to seek God's will, to listen to each other, and to gradually discover how He is going to bring that oneness about among His people.
It is knowing that the Father will answer Jesus's prayer, and knowing that God is the Builder of His Church, not me, that gives me hope that multi-ethnicity is possible in our churches.
Photo Credit: Atlanta Skyline From Buckhead By Chuck Koehler from Cartersville, GA, USA - Atlanta_Skyline_from_Buckhead, CC BY 2.0,