By Aaron Earls
Overwhelming. It can be easy to see large societal issues and feel as if there is nothing an individual or a local church can do in response.
Racial reconciliation seems to be an issue many have decided is too difficult. According to Lifeway Research, more than 8 in 10 Americans say we have “so far to go on racial relations.”
Yet a separate Lifeway Research study found almost 67 percent of Protestant churchgoers say their church is “doing enough to be ethnically diverse.”
Meanwhile, in a 2010 study, Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson found that while diversity in churches is increasing, most churches are still 10 times more segregated than their neighborhoods, and 20 times more segregated than nearby public schools.
Nine in 10 pastors say their congregation would welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation, according to Lifeway Research, but only 45 percent have preached on it in the last three months.
Most churchgoers and pastors recognize a need to do more on issues of race, but fewer seem committed to actually doing more than they already are.
So what can local churches do to serve as a unifying force in a fragmented culture?
Recognize reconciliation is a gospel issue.
Reconciliation is at the very heart of the gospel, says author and church planter D.A. Horton. “The reality of the gospel message found in Christ is to bring those who were separated from God near to God,” he says. “That’s reconciliation.”
Reconciliation is then extended to Jesus’ disciples in the Great Commission, “the work boots of the gospel message,” according to Horton. “Christ was very specific,” he says. “We make disciples of all ethnicities. Christ’s death and resurrection expiates the sins of every sinner regardless of ethnicity, gender, or former sinful orientation.”
To divorce Christ’s message from the multiethnic methods of discipleship is to be “poor stewards of the gospel,” according to Horton. “Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. It’s a gospel metric that needs to be tangibly, visibly seen through the means of the local church.”
Call for repentance and extend forgiveness.
Author and speaker Trillia Newbell says churches should avoid turning a blind eye to racism.
“It exists. Racism exists because there remains sin in the world,” she says. “We don’t want to assume that because we are past the Civil Rights era there aren’t churchgoers who continue to battle with the sin and temptation of racism.”
Acknowledging that racism exists should lead the church to call for those in bondage to racism to confess and repent.
“We must encourage those who struggle with any sin to repent and ask the Lord for forgiveness and freedom from it, including racism,” Newbell says.
The Christian must have a heart of forgiveness even in hard moments. “Forgiveness is difficult, but God calls us to forgive,” she says. “Christ died for the ungodly, guilty men and women.”
Make reconciliation an intentional focus.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to stumble into diversity and accidentally find yourself in a thriving multiethnic church.
Hip-hop artist and church planter Trip Lee says, “If racial reconciliation is going to happen, if we are going to get this kind of unity, then it has to be something we actually fight for.”
It can be easy, Lee says, to “get in our comfort zones and drift to where we are comfortable.”
The church that can address the difficult issues of race will stand out, he says.
“We want the church to be distinct from the rest of culture in that there are all kinds of different people united around Jesus who have found a way to have deep unity and deep family in the midst of a world where there is such division and hatred.”
Form multiethnic relationships.
Horton recommends that pastors and leaders form relationships with nearby pastors of other ethnicities.
“Build a friendship with the pastor of the church,” he says. “Then extend that to the other leadership and eventually the entire church. Dedicate a recurring presence of partnership. Be seen with the pastor and with the church.”
It shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, Horton says, or even an annual event. “It’s to the point that each church knows the prayer requests of the others.”
He suggests events like joint worship services or pastors swapping pulpits.
Take practical steps.
For church leaders ready to begin moving toward racial reconciliation, Horton gives some practical advice for leaders.
Examine your heart. “Dialogue internally to see where your heart is,” says Horton.
“When you begin to talk through this, you’ll surface sedimentary issues that are being stirred up. There needs to be a time of confession and repentance perhaps.”
Evaluate your community. Does your church reflect all its neighbors?
Horton recommends pastors study not only current but also projected demographics of the area around the church.
“Your church may be predominantly Anglo right now, but what about in 10 or 15 years?” he asks. “Is it still going to look like that? The answer is probably not.”
Elevate in your leadership. If you want your church to better reflect its neighborhood, one way is to make sure your leadership better reflects the neighborhood.
Horton says churches should ask, “What does our leadership look like in relation to the demographics of our community? Our leadership should complement our immediate neighborhood.”
“As our communities diversify, our leadership is diversified and our congregation is diversified,” he says. “We’re preaching the gospel and making disciples.”
This is simply living out the implications of what Jesus has commanded, says Horton. “It is just being obedient to God.”
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.