A happy fundamentalist friend, a beloved brother in the Lord, just sent me a copy of Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. I’ve only read a couple of chapters, but they’re really well written, fluid, and I’d say that they’re so far a useful and accurate summation of what it feels like to be an African American in a predominantly white church. He’s capturing all the angst, uncertainty, frustration, sense of call, and the like. Two chapters in… I’d heartily recommend it for all who want a friendly, accessible peek into what many (most?) self-described “evangelical” African Americans feel and think inside predominantly white churches.
In summary, Piper’s open letter states several benefits of pursuing diversity in the staffing (and I assume membership) of the local church. They are:
- It illustrates more clearly the truth that God created people of all races and ethnicities in his on image (Genesis 1:27).
- It displays more visibly the truth that Jesus is not a tribal deity but is the Lord of all races, nations, and ethnicities.
- It demonstrates more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church to be “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
- It exhibits more compellingly the aim and power of the cross of Christ to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
- It expresses more forcefully the work of the Spirit to unite us in Christ. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
These benefits amount to pursuit in the mind of staff and elders at Bethlehem:
Therefore, it seems to us that the admiration we feel for this diversity in the New Testament should carry over into the desires we have for the visible church today. It seems to us that the local church should want these things to be true today at the local level where this diversity and harmony would have the greatest visible and relational impact. For us, this has implied pursuit. If we admire it and desire it, then it seems to us we should pursue it.
I think that’s well said. But it was interesting to me that the letter went on to offer an apologetic for this decision, a reaction against what some folks might consider the horrors of affirmative action.
As an African American inside white evangelicalism, a committed evangelical, it’s curious to me that a defense is even needed. After all, is not Jesus for affirmative action?
Okay, I know that last question raised a few brows. Let me explain by asking another question. What is the gospel message? It’s a message of affirmative action. God the Father positively deciding to pursue a people for himself… and oh by the way, a people from every nation. The Father positively sends out the Son to “seek and save” the lost by giving Himself as a sacrifice for them. The Holy Spirit seals all those who repent and believe, sanctifying them until the Day of the Lord’s return. If salvation is all of God… then salvation and the gospel are the largest affirmative action program in the world–with this tremendous difference, none of the applications were anywhere near qualified for the position of sons and daughters of the Father. None were worthy of an office in the Father’s mansion. All were utterly unqualified–and actually, not even interested in the position. The Gospel is a more affirmative action on behalf of the oppressed, disenfranchised and misdirected than anything we’ve ever seen in hiring policy. The church is the ultimate affirmative action agency, and the diversity that’s in her is by design.
Even Warfield understood that Jesus was for affirmative action. Well, not really, but this quote demonstrates the decisive, positive, affirmative action of God in the cross:
The marvel which the text (John 3:16) brings before us is just that marvel above all other marvels in this marvelous world of ours: the marvel of God’s love for sinners. And this is the measure by which we are invited to measure the greatness of the love of God. It is not that it is so great that it is able to extend over the whole of a big world: it is so great that it is able to prevail over the Holy God’s hatred and abhorrence of sin. For herein is love, that God could love the world–the world that lies in the evil one: that God who is all-holy and just and good, could so love this world that He gave His only begotten Son for it,–that He might not judge it, but that it might be saved. (B.B. Warfield, “God’s Immeasurable Love,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1952), pp. 515-516; cited in C. Samuel Storms, Chosen for Life, pp. 199-200).
If we admire what Jesus is doing in the world through the redemption of the nations, we should aspire and act in ways that reflect that admiration. We should act affirmatively to bring our practice in line with our Savior’s practice. And this applies whether you’re in a predominantly white, African American, Asian or Latino church. The fact that so few churches strive for an increasing diversity that looks like the diversity we’re headed towards (Rev. 5:9-10) may just mean that on this matter our lips praise Him but our hearts are far from Him.
Now, about this point in the post, someone is usually dying to ask, “What if you live in an area with little diversity to speak of?” Honestly, while I think that question is often asked by sincere folks puzzled about what to do, it’s also asked often by people looking for a way out of any responsibility in this area. But for the sincere, here are a few things to do even when you’re not in an area with great amounts of diversity:
- Pray for John Piper and other pastors who are… that their churches would look like Rev. 5:9-10… a blood-bought people united in praise for the One Savior of all the world.
- Pray that your area would become more diverse. What’s wrong with asking for the nations to be brought close to home?
- Pray that you and your people would be ready (free of racial predjudice or indifference, delighted for the gospel opportunity) when and should the Lord change the demographics of your area.
- Pray against any desire to leave the neighborhood if/when the neighborhood changes.
- In your preaching, apply the gospel to the nations… those around you in the next town and those across the globe. Try to cultivate in your people a large mindedness when it comes to thinking about the world and gospel. Expose them by way of illustrations and introductions to the difference that exists in the world, differences that are meant to be overcome by Jesus Christ in the gospel.
- Read Reconciliation Blues. Also, you might consider an older book, Dwight Perry’s Breaking Down Barriers: A Black Evangelical Explains the Black Church. Similar Latino and Asian titles should be read as well. Commit yourself to being informed intellectually, even if being informed experientially isn’t quite feasible.
- If the nations aren’t in your town, go to their town. Emphasize missions and strategically direct your mission efforts to nations not like you. And direct some energies to cities or towns whose racial composition is different from your own.
- Diversify your staff anyway. Visit the local seminary or your Bible college alma mater and recruit minority students to come to your church as interns or staffpersons. Leave the glorious comfort of your hometown to seek and invest in the stranger. You’ll be surprised what they add to your people and what your people will contribute to them.
- Move. Don’t be afraid to pick up and settle in a land the Lord will show you… a land filled with people not like you who need the gospel preached, modeled, and lived even down to residential decisions.
I’m sure there are other things to do. Perhaps folks will leave suggestions in the comments section. But the point is this: whether you’re in urban centers with international residents or in a mono-ethnic small town, none of us are on the sideline when it comes to warring for the redemption of the nations and none of us really have the luxury of allowing the church to be less than what the Lord intends for it to be. That means diversity is our business as the church, because the church by definition and the design of God is diverse.
It’s time for us to really conquer these reconciliation blues… so that our racial sackcloth and ashes are finally and victoriously turned to joy and the oil of gladness.
Bro. Piper, I would send you some names… the only problem is that all the other forward and strategic thinking pastors I know already have these guys on their lists! Keep digging brother. Keep working to build the church that Jesus is building!