Why a More Secular Culture Might Be Good for Racial Reconciliation in the Church
By Aaron Earls
As society rejects long-held values concerning morality and marriage, many evangelical Christians find themselves in a more tenuous, less powerful position. But for many other believers, that’s nothing new.
Minority Christians have been thriving without access to the seats of power for centuries in America.
Many minority Christian leaders have insights into how to operate in a post-Christendom culture. In addition, majority-culture Christians adopting a posture of learning could open the door for true and deep reconciliation in the American church.
All Christians, no matter their ethnicity, will experience what Rich Perez calls “life in the hyphen.”
As a Dominican-American, Perez balances two distinct and sometimes conflicting cultures, which he explores in his book Mi Casa Uptown. Christian-Americans are likely to have some of those same experiences as one set of values collides with another.
“I’m a citizen of America and a citizen of the kingdom of God,” explains Perez, pastor of Christ Crucified Fellowship, a multiethnic church in Washington Heights, New York City. “Every Christian deals with the tension of those two citizenries.”
But there is something unique about being an ethnic minority that offers valuable lessons to others just learning to navigate the conflicts between the citizenships.
“The American church is being pushed and stretched,” Perez says. This is coming from not only outside but also inside our walls, as Christians wrestle with issues of race and privilege.
“In the very least,” Perez says, “there are minority brothers and sisters who are saying, ‘I’m having trouble.’” And the church as a whole should pay attention to those cries, he says.
“If we give up on this conversation and get tired of wanting to experience deep, genuine racial reconciliation in the body of Christ, the trajectory of the American church will yield the fruit of schism and division, and we will not see the church yield the type of fruit we see in the global south and east.”
To avoid that tragic end, Perez advises majority-culture believers to seek humility and partnership, not entitlement and paternalism.
“Don’t simply try to help and give. Discover what you can receive and learn,” he says. “Recognize the interdependence of the church and embrace the beautiful differences various cultures possess.”
This process, according to Perez, is not an abandonment of the gospel.
He notes people can often dismiss discussions of racial reconciliation by saying Christians should focus on the gospel, by which they mean the good news of salvation.
“When I hear people say, ‘We should just talk about the gospel,’ I agree. But let’s include the implications of the gospel,” he says. “A responsibility of the church is to preach the gospel and be faithful to its implications.” Those implications include racial reconciliation, he maintains.
In some ways, this is becoming a practical necessity for churches. “The world is globalizing,” says Perez. “Most studies say America will be a majority-minority culture by 2050. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a coastal city like Los Angeles or New York or in a rural or suburban setting in the middle of the country—you’re probably going to have minorities in your congregation or context, particularly those of Latino descent.”
For church leaders entering that situation for the first time, Perez offers some questions to consider.
- How comfortable am I in this new environment?
- Am I prepared to relate to people who are radically different? Can I learn from them?
- Am I willing to submit myself to a minority voice, possibly by reading books written by someone from a minority context?
- How can I spend time with people from other backgrounds in my church and community and not just as their pastor? How can I listen to them and learn from them?
Learning from other cultures and contexts can provide tangible benefits for white Christians seeking to navigate the post-Christendom world.
“From my experience, many in white evangelical culture think very linearly and systematically,” says Perez. “I think the world we are stepping into is destroying some categories, creating new ones, and often not concerned if there are any categories.”
Terms like “marriage” and “gender” that have had consistent definitions are suddenly up for debate in the post-Christendom culture.
For those who have thought only in a Western, structured way, Perez believes it can be difficult to communicate the truth of the gospel to those who think differently.
In this new context, Perez says majority-culture Christians can learn from the agility of minority-culture Christians and their experience of navigating difficult situations and embracing tension.
“Perhaps, because their lives have often been so filled with hardships, it has equipped them to be agile” and communicate the same gospel truth in new ways.
For example, his New York City church regularly incorporates art into worship services — speaking to the imagination of those in attendance instead of merely communicating through a sermon.
Perez says learning this agility from minority Christians can grant white Christians the ability to analyze their own culture instead of seeing it as an expectation to which others should conform.
Western mission agencies have come to realize that forcing converts in other parts of the world to adopt specific cultural practices inhibits the acceptance of the gospel and growth of the church.
Perez believes this same type of evaluation should be taking place among white Christian leaders in the United States. Are they placing cultural expectations on others that limit the reach of the gospel?
This doesn’t mean white Christians should entirely change the way they do church and think about ministry. Perez advises evaluating your practices by your Christian identity.
“If it lines up with that, celebrate it as an expression,” he says, “but not as a standard.”
But if a practice isn’t tied to Christian identity and can be discarded to make the church more effective in reaching its community, Perez says, “offer it up as a sacrifice to the Lord.”
If churches and leaders embrace reconciliation, the NYC church planter believes we can “step into a new level of unity that has never existed in the American church that will allow us to see a kind of spiritual revival that will produce deep, genuine conversion in our western world.”
- Rooted: How a New York City Church Loves Its Community With the Whole Gospel
- Trip Lee: Churches Must Fight for Racial Reconciliation
- Pastors Say Churches Are Open to Sermons on Racial Reconciliation
- The Joy of Diversity: How One Church Learned to Embrace Multicultural Ministry
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.
To read more on Perez’ life and ministry, check out his memoir Mi Casa Uptown.