Michael Reddish has again inspired me to reflect on a topic from his blog. Michael and a few committed friends have started a church in downtown Nashville called Emmaus Church. He is asking the question of whether or not the church has a racial segregation problem, and how to fix it.
The point of this discussion is not to decide whether we should try and reach other cultures with the Gospel, but whether or not local churches should intentionally try to attract people with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. As I reflect on this, I wonder what thoughts Brian Alex would contribute to this conversation, as he and his family are answering God’s call to minister to a specific people group in Estonia? Perhaps he will be led to chime in with a comment (hint, hint).
I’ve never tried starting a church in a downtown area of a big city (or anywhere, for that matter), but I have spent a lot of time in church, including some churches of other cultures and races than mine.
Is it possible on this side of heaven to have a local church body that meets the differing cultural needs of every race? Generally speaking, I don’t think that is realistic. The world is a big place, full of a wide spectrum of languages and customs, so the idea that a church can effectively minister and communicate the gospel to every conceivable people group in their week-to-week gatherings is a little hard for me to swallow.
It’s OK that the Korean church down the street doesn’t meet with us. It’s OK that our church doesn’t try to incorporate every conceivable cultural custom in our worship service. Each culture has distinct ways in which they speak about and celebrate the Gospel. We don’t have to strain ourselves to try and be one of those multicultural churches, just so we can say we did it.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be around Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Indian, Middle-Eastern, or Southern Fried White people. I enjoy meeting and learning from people who see the world through a different hue of glasses. When they want to be a part of our church body I will offer them a huge, loving welcome. When I visit them at their place of worship, I would guess that they will do the same for me.
In my five years on the leadership team of Parkway Baptist Church in Goodlettsville, TN, I saw the difference God can make in the hearts of people who are open to see racial walls come down. We partnered with Christ Temple Christian Center, a non-denominational African-American church in Madison. This was due in part to the initiative taken by people who had a vision for unity. Doug and Ann Hardin were a big part of that, along with the pastor at that time, Jimmy Moore. “Brother Jimmy” was an all white-meat, old-school Tennessee boy just shy of retirement. These were regular folk, who wanted to make a big change with some God-empowered small steps. We didn’t merge our churches into one “multicultural” body, but we did move to loosen the bonds of racial separation and fear.
Based on that experience, here are a few things that I believe can make a difference in any congregation that wants to disrupt cultural racial barriers, without sacrificing the distinctives that make up their unique identity:
First of all, welcome anyone and everyone when they come through the door. Operate in love, not in fear. Then God will send people your way and skin shade won’t mean a thing.
Second, make an effort to meet with local churches who are made up of a different ethnic background. Have the occasional “awkward” worship gathering where you celebrate God using songs and practices from both congregations, knowing that half the group won’t completely relate to half the songs. Have dinner with them, and enjoy one another’s company.
Finally, as you occasionally gather together, listen to the stories of the people. Learn about how they view the world and the gospel. Then when you meet with them, you will discover that you are not with “foriegners,” but with fellow sojourners in Christ, who happen to have different customs.
It didn’t matter that Parkway Baptist Church was mostly made up of blue-collar white folk. We did it anyway, thanks to the vision of people like Brother Jimmy and the Hardins. And even though Parkway didn’t proceed to incorporate a black gospel choir in their weekly worship, something significant was happening to those who opened their hearts: a permanent perspective shift. We were learning to be who God had called us to be, without shutting out from our hearts those who were different.