By Sue Schlesman, Crosswalk.com
Most churches—even churches that have carefully side-stepped racial discussions in the past—are now having to take a position or talk about racial tension in the church and the community.
No doubt, your church is divided over issues like protests, police, monuments, equity, and white privilege. Your pastor is reading emotionally-charged emails from congregants who announce they are leaving the church or threatening to leave if the sermon topics don’t change or if the pastor doesn’t denounce a particular group or position.
Diverse and marginally-diverse churches have found latent polarization among their membership. Whatever response they give, it’s making someone upset. The church again sits on the precipice of either modeling justice or hiding from it.
If your body or your staff are characterized by any of the following actions, there’s a strong possibility that your church’s philosophical and theological perspective supports the status quo and shuns growth on the critical topic of racial reconciliation.
No matter what, God is with His people and gives us grace and room to grow. If you are noticing these signs, then let the growth process start with you. Bring these issues up to leadership or mentors you trust, and be a part of the solution so that God’s justice may be seen on earth.
Here are 10 indicators that your church might not be embracing racial reconciliation:
1. Rage Against People or Categories of People
(...i.e. protestors, black and brown people, immigrants, police, white supremacists, etc.).
Anger is not wrong; it’s an indicator of injustice. But rage is hate-infused anger, which is sin. And you can’t cite Jesus and the money-changers as an excuse for rage. (They’re not the same thing.)
So the question your church must ask is who or what makes it angry? Has your church sided against people, organizations, and political parties? Or has it sided against sin and injustice? There’s a big difference.
Jesus hated sin while loving and forgiving the sinner (John 8:10-12).
2. Refusal to Re-learn or Re-examine the History of Racial Tension and Slavery in the U.S.
We make our decisions based on the knowledge we have acquired over years of education and experience. But what happens to any perspective that’s formed from one particular vantage point? How can we grow if we collect our data from the same sources, over and over?
An unwillingness to re-examine the history of racial tension shows a stubbornness to hold on to tradition and personal perspective over learning truth (Proverbs 18:15).
3. Championing a Political Agenda and Party Politics Instead of Fighting for Justice
Many Christians have made the critical mistake of believing that morality can be legislated and that moral legislation will protect our religious freedom (a concept found in the Constitution, not the Bible).
Our hope should reside in the gospel of Christ, which is decidedly un-political; therefore, fighting moral issues from a political platform will prove dangerous for the cause, confusing to our gospel message, and disruptive to a holy perspective on justice and ethics.
The church that values political agendas over Jesus’ parameters for the kingdom of God will find itself trading integrity and compassion for collective power and prejudice (Matthew 22:15-22).
4. Accusations against the Pastor for Not Preaching the Word
If the people in your church are accusing your pastor of not preaching the Bible because he/she is talking about justice, you have a church that doesn’t understand the gospel of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry was all about justice.
You can’t read through the gospels without seeing justice on nearly every page. Jesus proclaimed his purpose of justice and lived it out; his disciples’ ministry continued the mission.
The Old Testament laws demanded justice and compassion. Whenever a church associates justice with heresy, it reveals the depth of its ignorance and its rejection of the Bible’s holistic message (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
5. People Leaving the Church over Discussions about Racial Reconciliation
Churches in America are undergoing a massive attendance re-arrangement, particularly among older white members who resent the implications that they are or have ever been racist because they dislike the re-introduction of a civil rights movement. Avoiding any particular topic with ethical and moral implications is always an indicator of a hardened heart.
Topics that make us most uncomfortable, that are supported in Scripture, should bring us to our knees in repentance. We should ask the Holy Spirit to reveal in us any wrong thoughts, and we should be willing to change.
(Side note: you can’t find church-hopping in the New Testament. Not once. Instead, you find ministers of the gospel who travel between churches, advocating unity through physical and spiritual support of one another, not competition, like in Philippians 4:14-18).
6. Low Diversity in the Church
Non-diverse churches aren’t bad churches, but they might be churches with a history of self-preservation.
Churches of color often choose non-diversity because it provides them with the only place for their cultural heritage to flourish; it is the one place where they are no longer a minority. In contrast, white churches often remain non-diverse because they reflect their all-white neighborhoods (also an indicator of white dominance) or they lack the knowledge and experience to make people of color feel welcome.
Whatever the underlying reasons are, non-diverse churches should consider why they lack diversity and discuss the Biblical implications of remaining mono-cultural. The New Testament clearly advocates for the inclusion of all people into the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
7. Defense of Slavery and Discrimination by Using Bible Verses
You can prove almost anything you want to prove by taking Bible verses out of context. This is the technique employed by multiple religions, politicians, and cults.
Even Thomas Jefferson, a founding father often lifted up as a Christian (he wasn’t), created his own Bible by leaving out passages that referred to sin, punishment, and Jesus’ deity. He kept the encouraging verses he liked.
You cannot prove racism in the entirety of Scripture; you can only disprove it (2 Timothy 2:15).
8. Rants on Social Media about Racial Reconciliation or Race Conversations
Christians advocating, supporting, and engaging in angry tirades, accusations, and demeaning insults on social media or any other platform are disobeying Scriptural teaching. Conflicts between believers should be handled respectfully and individually.
Proclamation of truth comes with specific Scriptural guidelines as well, including severe censure from God for any teachers who misrepresent his heart or his message. Furthermore, any believer or Christian organization excusing their cruelty as being similar to Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees not only doesn’t understand the heart and words of Jesus, but they also have a dangerous God-complex that will surely be punished.
They are Pharisaical—and that’s not a good characteristic (Colossians 4:6).
9. Avoidance of Diversity on Staff and in Positions of Leadership
This is a difficult topic and an agenda that takes years to reverse in a traditionally non-diverse organization. Some churches, no matter what the dominant race is, will never be able to make this leap.
However, if a church’s pastors, elders, deacons, or other leaders show intentionality to welcome diversity of race and gender on their boards, it’s insensitive and uninformed to criticize them for not diversifying fast enough. Diversity and inclusion in leadership can be a slow endeavor.
A few considerations should be noted:
1) Lagging staff diversity isn’t fixed by adding a woman or a black pastor to an all-white team, for instance. Diversity in staff requires a wider circle of influence, a varied platform of references and associations, and years of relationship with minority leaders.
2) A minority leader might fear association with a dominant church’s leadership team because he/she fears rejection from his/her cultural relationships.
3) Churches might avoid diversifying staff because of the labor that it will take to diversify or from the fear of alienating or firing present staff, who are likely institutional to the organization. All of these perspectives reveal a history of prejudice in the church (intentional or unintentional) that is not easily overturned (James 2:8-10).
10. Defensiveness around Topics of White Privilege, White Guilt, White Responsibility, or Reparations
Whenever anyone responds to a topic with justification of themselves and their position, they must consider that sin exists, imbedded somewhere within the individual heart. Defensiveness reveals pride and self-preservation.
These are natural human reactions to fear, but they should prompt each of us to seek God’s face, to inquire, repent, and adjust according to his will. If congregants respond to civic and spiritual challenges with defensiveness, blame-shifting, or red-herrings (changing the subject), the environment requires humility and openness, or the church will miss the call and blessing of God. But we must note that change is personal before it can become corporate (James 1:22-24).
Reversing racial tension and racial divides doesn’t only happen because people protest or write a blog. Reversing racism demands systemic change, which requires individuals personally committed to justice and mercy, which is accrued through personal sacrifice.
It takes time to reverse history. If we’re compassionate and respectful, we can make the progress necessary to design a church that is inclusionary, a community who loves one another and serves together, rather than a collection of church members who simply work and serve in proximity to one another and divide on the issues most important to them.
We need personal revival first and church revival second.
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Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/YuraDobro
Sue Schlesman is a Christian author, speaker, blogger, English teacher, and pastor’s wife. She has a BA in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Theology & Culture. Her second book Soulspeak: Praying change into unexpected places is a Selah Award finalist. Sue’s material appears in a variety of print, online, radio, and podcast mediums. She has a passion for missions, social justice, traveling, reading, and the local church. You can find her writing about life, education, justice, and Jesus at sueschlesman.com.