When I was a child in an evangelical church, there was a growing sense that the church in America was failing to cross cultural borders in the way the early church did. There was recognition that the first-century church included Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds coming together as equals in the shadow of the cross; and that the evangelical churches at the time could not claim that same unity. This was seen as an important issue, a failure of the church to properly practice and display the love of God to the world regardless of race, background, or culture. One of the things that began to happen in light of this understanding was a push for more diversity in our churches. Racial reconciliation was seen as a necessary part of the church pointing the way forward to a more powerful and effective image of the body of Christ.
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Ever since the case of Rodney King, conversation about the level of violence used by police in dealing with black people has occasionally broken into mainstream conversation in white America, but never really stuck and rarely became anything more than idle conversation. But tensions were rising and black people were having greater access to each others’ stories and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement finally forced the issue into the spotlight and kept it there. And I have talked to and read the words of so many people of color who watched what the evangelical churches that were trying so hard to welcome them did in response to that. And, by and large, white evangelicals dismissed the concerns, argued in defense of the police in case after case, and then voted for a presidential candidate who was being widely criticized by every race but Europeans partly (largely or entirely, in some cases) due to his statements on women and minorities.
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn’t look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I’ve known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
Recently, a group called Founders Ministries released the trailer to a new documentary called By What Standard? which boasted input from a wealth of Southern Baptist leaders and theologians. The description the documentary offers for itself is that it is attempting to reveal and counter views seeping into the church that threaten to water down the gospel. While the documentary has not been released, so no one outside of the production team really know what it will say, the trailer focuses on those who have criticized how the church has handled issues like racial turmoil and sexual assault.
The highlighted segments in the trailer show, as “godless ideologies”, speakers (some of whom are pastors themselves) calling for pastors to listen to the concerns of their black friends and congregants, to reach out to professionals for help in cases of sexual abuse or other areas they are not specifically trained to handle alone, and to take responsibility for making the changes necessary to facilitate varying forms of reconciliation. It also includes egalitarianism, which has been an issue in some circles but will not be discussed in this post. This has been met with a great deal of backlash, including some of the acceptable leaders shown in the video asking for their involvement to be removed because they feel they were misled about the nature and content of the documentary. One of the responses stated that he was asked to speak about Biblical authority and felt it inappropriate that his words were being used to attack leaders who were well within orthodoxy.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn’t work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren’t born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn’t work. It’s also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn’t because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a “godless ideology.” The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they’re leaving, we’re bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.