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Racialization and the Unity of the Church

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For some, racialization might be a strange term. You’re thinking I should say “racism” and you’re wondering if I’m dodging that term and should just call it what it is. But here’s why I’m not using the term racism.

The problem is that when a lot of people—including a lot of white people—hear the word “racist,” we think of the extreme. We think of a white supremacist marching in Charlottesville or a Klan member marching on the streets of Alabama in 1960. We think, “Well, I’m not a white supremacist. I’m not a racist.”

In fact, many people—many white people especially—think that very few people are racists. We can even start to believe that racism is not much of a problem today. It’s just in those who are extreme. Individually, we don’t think we have any prejudice against someone because of their ethnicity. We think and even say that we’re color blind, that it doesn’t matter to us if someone is black or white, when the reality is it does matter in our culture today whether someone is black or white.

Think about two individuals, one on each side. A white follower of Christ is on the left side and a black follower of Christ on the right—they think about racialization on totally different terms. It affects so much of how they view the world. Economically, socially, and politically they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. But now picture those same two people in the same church, listening to each other, learning from one another, and loving one another in authentic Christian community. That makes no sense to the world—and that is what we want our churches to be like. We want to be the kind of church that causes people in our culture to say, “How are those two worshiping together?”

We’re people who, when we’re in a political discussion, would be on different sides. But when we gather together as the church and throughout the week, we’re sitting next to each other with our Bibles open. This is what unites us—the Word of God. Jesus, the Word made flesh, unites us. Our political views don’t, but our King does. This means we must lay aside our preferences for one another.

People Just Like Me
Racialization doesn’t just happen for historical reasons. There are also contemporary reasons for why churches are divided on racial and ethnic lines. Part of it is because we like being around people who are like us—people who sing songs we like, who do things the way we like to do them. This has been the name of the game in church growth for decades. The way to draw a crowd in a church is to appeal to people’s preferences. It’s almost like we’ve created a reality TV model for church, where people walk away thinking, “Ah, I give that music a six today. The sermon? A four. It just didn’t do it for me.”

Thinking like this about the church has contributed to division by race in the church to the point where proponents of church growth have actually advocated what’s called the “homogenous unity principle.” This principle basically says that a church can grow the fastest if it focuses on one cultural group. If you want to reach as many people as possible—because people like being around those most like them—then focus on reaching one type of person in this church, and another type of person in another church. The way to grow the church is to appeal to people’s preferences.

You never find Paul saying to the Jewish people, “You guys just stick together. You can grow your churches a lot faster by keeping the Gentiles out. And you Gentiles, start your own churches. That’s the best way to go.” No, they’re working hard to come together. They’re sacrificing personal preferences, because the church is not about their preferences. It’s about the display of Christ’s supremacy. His glory shines most clearly when different groups of people come together and He’s the only explanation for why they’re together.

But that’s not easy, particularly for my minority brothers and sisters. It’s not surprising, but there’s growing research that shows how most multi-ethnic churches in our country are still dominated by white cultural norms—the music style, the authors referenced by the pastors, and so on. Even in a multi-ethnic church there can still be a sense of disparity. There’s a lot more sacrifice on the part of non-white people.

Sacrificing Preferences
From my position, I want to sacrifice more of my preferences. As a white pastor, I need to grow in laying aside my preferences for members of my church, because I want Christ to be exalted through increasing diversity in our leadership and in our membership. On a related note, I do not want to speak from the Bible on issues that are popular among white followers of Christ while staying silent from the Bible on issues that are important to non-white followers of Christ. That’s not faithful pastoring.

Studies have shown that white church leaders are less likely to speak and act prophetically on race issues, because white church leaders have more to lose when they do. Basically, if you want to draw a crowd in general, stay away from racial issues. If you want to draw a crowd of white people or black people or this type of person or that type of person, then stay away from saying that any one of those types of people is part of the problem on racial issues.

The reality is people mainly want to be comforted when they come to church. We’re naturally drawn to that which brings the most benefit with the least cost. So if you give people a choice between the church of comfort and the church of discomfort—where you need to make sacrifices to change your life—people will choose the church of comfort almost every time. Which is why we’ve designed so much of the church culture the way we have today, and it’s why we’re so prone not to talk about issues that are uncomfortable to us.

But the Bible doesn’t give us that option.

We cannot truly worship God while we stay silent on injustice in all kinds of areas. And I know, as a white pastor, I have blind spots. So I am part of the problem. I need friends and fellow pastors around me from different ethnicities to help me see those blind spots. I’m committed to listening, learning, loving, and laying aside what contemporary church growth methodologies say is the best way to grow a church, i.e., ignore the controversial issues. I want us to do the exact opposite. I want us to hear God’s Word clearly on these issues, and then we can trust Him with the growth of this church.

A Torrent of Justice
According to Amos 5, if we’re going to worship God truly, then we must leverage our influence for justice in the present. Amos 5:24 states, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” What a great picture. It speaks of gushing torrents of water that overflow and never run dry. That’s what pleases God—when justice isn’t trickling from God’s people, but instead it’s tumbling through dry valleys of injustice all around them.

My encouragement for each of us is to look at our lives, look at our families and jobs and positions, to see the opportunities and resources we have, asking, “How can I leverage my influence for justice around me?”

I trust we know the history—speaking broadly—that in every area of American racism, white Christians have often been found to be complacent, if not contributing. Think specifically of slavery and civil rights. There’s no question that white churches as a whole—and I would include many of the pastors and theologians I quote from—actively commended, promoted, and defended slavery. Slavery is a stain upon that era of church history. Some might call it a scar that’s still healing.

But in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham on Good Friday. While he sat in jail, eight white Birmingham pastors criticized him for his methods and called for him to be more patient in promoting civil rights. That’s when he wrote that famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he said,

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

Lack of action is a stain and a horror upon that era of church history. So here we sit, fifty or so years later, and I just think we need to ask the question: Will history see a stain in us? King’s letter ended with these words:

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Brothers and sisters, may this not be said of us in our day. May we leverage our influence for justice in the present. And may we long for the day when justice will be perfect.

There is Coming a Day
There is coming a day when Amos 5:24 will be a reality. Look at the picture of heaven as described in Revelation 22:1-5:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream of states sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression transformed into oases of justice and freedom. He had a dream of a day when rough places would be made plain, crooked places would be made straight, racism would be forever gone and freedom would forever reign. I think it’s clear from all we’ve seen that that dream is not yet fully realized. There’s still work to do—in Washington, in our country, and all over the world.

But there is coming a day when every nation, every tribe, and every tongue in the human race, including every color of person who’s trusted in Christ, will gather around God’s throne, forgiven of all their sins, and they will be free to worship Him in a place of perfect justice and pure righteousness. So let’s live for that day. Let’s work and pray for that day, and let’s long for the day when the glory of God will fully and finally be revealed in the unity of His church.

— This article was adapted from a sermon titled “Praying and Working for Justice: Racialization.”

David Platt serves as pastor at McLean Bible Church in Washington, D.C. He is the founder and president of Radical. He is the author of several books, including Radical, Radical Together, Follow Me, and Counter Culture.
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