In this episode of As In Heaven, hosts Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson welcome Irwyn Ince to discuss biblical strategies for effecting lasting change on both individual and church levels when it comes to race and justice. Ince offers ways to strive toward gospel-centered unity and diversity, which he argues goes all the way back to the Trinity. Ince shares practical insights for churches who want to grow in their impact on their communities. The three address:
- An introduction to Irwyn Ince (1:45)
- Unity, diversity, reconciliation, and the Trinity (4:36)
- Unity is not conformity (7:33)
- How to help develop unity (10:48)
- A scriptural approach (14:56)
- Coaching those who want to help (19:08)
- How to talk about events capturing the nation’s attention (26:22)
- Navigating language (38:56)
- Taking substantive, long-lasting action (44:00)
- Engaging as a family (49:45)
- Engaging as a church (54:44)
- Roadblocks for the church (1:00:58)
- Engaging in the community (1:06:40)
- Encouragement for churches that want to impact their communities (1:11:16)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of race.
- How does the diverse unity of the Trinity affect our view of the imago Dei? How does this manifest itself in the pursuit of community?
- If there are concerns about the way the church is living out God’s vision for a diverse-unified community, how should a Christian respond? What qualities should define this sort of engagement with church leadership?
- What is the Bible’s vision of justice? How does that play out in a social context? How then can we understand and use a term like “social justice”?
- Do you think your church manifests the diverse unity that Ince talks about? What steps can you take in your church to pursue the Bible’s vision of diverse unity? How does this look at a leadership level? A personal level?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Irwyn Ince: This is not about a club. I used the analogy of a sports team earlier. It’s not about a diverse group of people coming together on a football team, or on a soccer team, or on a baseball team and finding unity in their pursuit of a Superbowl or a World Series, or the like, and then they go their separate ways. It’s about becoming family in Jesus eternally, and presenting a picture to the world of something that is literally impossible apart from him.
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to As In Heaven, a Christian conversation on race and justice. The name of this episode is Okay, I See The Problem, How Do I Help? That’s exactly what today’s guest, Dr. Irwyn Ince, helps us parse out in our conversation. The first thing you’ll notice about Dr. Ince is just his incredibly pastoral heart and groundedness in the scriptures, especially in the conversation about race and justice. He gives us biblical strategies for affecting real lasting change on both an individual level and a church level, and he gives us ways we can strive toward a gospel centered unity and diversity that Dr. Ince argues goes all the way back to the trinity itself.
If you’ve listened this far to the podcast and you’re looking for actionable steps to take, you will not want to miss this episode. Jim Davis is your host. Mike Aitcheson is the cohost. Mike Graham is the executive producer of this show. My name is Matt Kenyon, and I’m the technical producer. Now, please enjoy this episode of As In Heaven with Dr. Irwyn Ince.
Jim Davis: All right, welcome to As In Heaven. I’m Jim Davis. I am joined by my brother, my friend over there, Michael Aitcheson. We have the privilege today of talking with Dr. Irwyn Ince. Irwyn Ince is the pastor of Grace DC Presbyterian Church, PCA. You were elected to be the 46th PCA General Assembly Moderator, and the first African-American ever to hold this position. You’re also the director of Grace DC Institute for Cross Cultural Mission. You also teach at our alma mater, Reformed Theological Seminary. You serve as a council member for the Gospel Coalition. You serve as the city director for an organization Mike and I know very well, Made to Flourish. I’ll throw in you’re a fellow cross fitter with a Murph time in the 40s.
Irwyn Ince: Don’t say that. That’s a typo. That was a typo.
Jim Davis: I don’t know. Hey, thank you so much for joining us.
Irwyn Ince: Great to be with you Jim and Mike. Thanks for the invite.
Mike Aitcheson: Dr. Ince, we are so glad that you’re here with us. I echo all of the sentiments of my brother Jim over there. What people also need to know about Dr. Ince, in addition to all those things behind his name, in front of his name, he is just a down home cool brother to hang out with and to have spiritual conversations and other things. We’re so grateful that you’re here.
Mike Aitcheson: I first met you in Atlanta at a gathering. Man, heard so many things about you. Just blessed to be in your presence. I was at that general assembly when you were elected as our 46th moderator. It was such a proud moment for me in so many ways. In 2013, I was ordained into the PCA. Now I’ve got a question for you. Do you know, by chance, what number you are as far as the ordained African-American teaching elders?
Irwyn Ince: I was 30 something, and I’m trying to … I go back and forth whether it was 32, somewhere between 32 and 35, or something along those lines. I think that was my number.
Mike Aitcheson: Okay. Well my number was 46, and I told my friend about it, he’s a pastor of a nondenominational church, and he said, “400 years later and I still have a dream.” Man, it is just an honor in so many ways to have you on the show with us. Thank you.
Irwyn Ince: Thank you, man. Good to be with y’all. Good to be with y’all for real.
Jim Davis: Well, I can already tell we’re going to have a lot of fun on this episode. We want to talk about your upcoming book as we get into this, your new book, The Beautiful Community, Unity, Diversity and the Church at its Best.
Jim Davis: Before we get there, I kind of want to set up this episode. We’re at the end of the season here. Our hope is that if our listeners have made it this far with us in the season that on some substantive level their conscience tells them that there’s a problem. We have categories to understand where they come from and how people feel about them. In this episode we want to turn a corner and begin to talk constructively about engaging what we might do about these things, the things that we see and understand now. I want to start by talking about unity in diversity. You’ve written an excellent book, again, The Beautiful Community, and in it you patiently develop a robust theology of unity in diversity. Would you mind unpacking for us some of the outline of the theology that is fleshed out in your book?
Irwyn Ince: Sure. I’ll put it to you this way, a couple of ways. This pursuit of unity in diversity, our pursuit of reconciliation, is Trinitarian in that the God whom we worship is beautiful community, as I describe it. He is eternal existent as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in mutually loving, mutually glorifying, honoring, supporting and yet diverse community. Absolute unity in diversity and diversity in unity. That has the most substantive and significant of implications for what the Lord meant when he said, “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness.”
Irwyn Ince: When God declared his design and commitment to create humanity in his image, according to his likeness, it meant that human destiny was to be in community. Human destiny was to be in the same kind of mutually glorifying, honoring, supporting community, unity in diversity. This was God’s intent for humanity. Our pursuit of it then, our pursuit of beautiful community is pursuing not simply what our destiny is, but declaring to the world that this is who we’re called to be as those who are redeemed in knowledge after the image of our creator, as Paul says in Colossians three. That we were created to image God, to reflect his glory to the world, and in that reflect that glory in our unity in our diversity.
Jim Davis: When my wife and I lived in Pisa, Italy for four years, working with students over there, and I don’t know if this is true, but this is what I heard over there. Originally, way back in the day, it was started in the 1300s. I went to Florida State and we’d boast alumni like Deon Sander and Burt Reynolds, and they have Galileo. My understanding, what I’m told originally there was just one law faculty, but then they started adding faculties like medicine, and architecture, theology, things like that. They were saying, “What do we do here? Is it one school? Is it a few? Are they different schools?” What they said is they went back to the trinity. We have a model for this, unity in diversity, and they called it a university. What I appreciate, if that’s true, I just appreciate what I’m hearing from you is it’s not conformity either. It’s putting these two things together. I just appreciate the way you explained that.
Irwyn Ince: That’s the beauty. The father is not the son. The son is not the spirit. The spirit’s not the father and the son. Yet, they are the one God. We’re image. We’re not God. We’re image, but we’re to reflect this glory to the world. It just runs throughout the scriptures. We’re not talking about … Here’s how I describe it, and I’m influenced here by Dutch Reform theologian, Herman Bavinck, when he talks about in God there being absolute unity and absolute diversity. He points out that among the creatures, us, unity exists only by attraction, he says. It’s a moral unity that fragile and unstable. He says, “Look at the landscape of humanity. Our unity is primarily who am I attracted to?” Who are the people that I want to be with? He says it’s a moral unity that’s fragile and unstable.
In other words, when you look at a sports team that wins a championship, NFL team wins the Superbowl. Your interview, after they say they’re going to Disney World, they talk about how we were all on the same page from the beginning, from training camp. We were unified toward this one goal that we achieved, and we overcame all these obstacles by sticking together. Well that doesn’t carry over into the next season. They’ve got to recreate that unity, it’s unstable, it’s fragile. Not so with God.
We get brought into this, and so because it’s not simply conformity or assimilation, a blurring of our differences and distinctions ethnically and culturally. It’s a coming together in a more beautiful community in that diversity.
Mike Aitcheson: Now Dr. Ince, you know I’ll be borrowing that illustration. I’ll quote you once, like Steve Brown, and you know the rest. Let’s say you are an individual person listening to this podcast, and maybe you’ve listened to all the other episodes before this and are convinced that God is at work tearing down idols, repairing harms done and healing wounds as part of his work of cosmic redemption. Let’s say that you have a burden to help but you feel stuck in not knowing exactly what to do and where to start building that beautiful community and that better city, what would you say to that person listening right now?
Irwyn Ince: I would say a couple of things. Let’s just maybe set the scenario. If I am an individual Christian who has this kind of heart, the question becomes, so I’m going to make the assumption that I’m a part of a local church. Then the question becomes, all right, am I in the minority in my congregation who holds this as a fundamental and foundational aspect of fidelity to the Lord Jesus, this pursuit? Am I in the minority here?
Now, if I am, if I’m the majority perspective or minority, but particularly if I have walk to circumspectly, meaning i have to approach this engagement with a particular humility. Because the likelihood is it’s not a perspective that I’ve held my entire life or my entire time as a Christian. It’s likely that it’s something that I’ve been brought into, been convinced of, over the course of time, maybe through this podcast series. That I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is right and this resonates with the heart of God for his people.
Now I have to walk with this in humility. I don’t accomplish anything by trying to now bludgeon people with this vision and saying, “Y’all are being unfaithful to Jesus.” What does it look like for me to begin to engage this in my own church context? If I’m not in leadership in the church, if I’m not in the pastoral ministry within the church, it looks like first, Lord willing, the ability to start engaging and having a conversation with leadership to talk about these convictions. To hear from, not as a inquisition, to hear from the pastoral leadership what they think about these issues, because the likelihood is I’m actually not alone. The likelihood is that if the Lord’s working on my heart, he’s working on other folks too. It really is dependent in large part on how I approach my brothers and sisters in a way that seeks to build up and not tear down, in a way that seeks a mutual understanding and not condemnation.
Irwyn Ince: Let me flesh this out a little bit more scripturally.
Jim Davis: Please do.
Irwyn Ince: The Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 15, let’s take this for example. He’s been dealing with controversy within the church, primarily between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. He’s taken 11 chapters to lay out the gospel, the indicative, what we are to know and believe of the gospel. Then he starts to focus on the imperatives starting in chapter 12, what this means for how we are to live and engage with one another.
Jim Davis: This is where our friend Carl Ellis talked about the side A, side B theology. I like where you’re going. Keep going.
Irwyn Ince: Chapter 14 he’s dealing with these controversies. Some want to honor one day over another. Some say you can’t drink wine. Some say you can only eat vegetables and can’t eat meat. All of these things, and Paul is saying things like, “Listen, do not for the sake of food destroy the one for whom Christ died.” There’s a liberty here to dodge yourself from preferences for the sake of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Then in chapter 15 he starts out saying, “We who are strong …” By that he means stronger in the faith, “… have an obligation …” This is ought, “… have an obligation to bear the feelings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” He’s using that word ought, O, rather obligation. Before, in chapter 13 in verse seven, where he says, “Owe no one anything except love.” Now he’s coming back using that same word. Here’s what that love looks like if we are stronger in the faith. Let us build one another up, not please ourselves, he says, because even Christ didn’t please himself. But as it is written, quoting from Psalms 69, “The reproaches of those who have reproached who have fallen on me.” He says, “Look, there’s a cruciform aspect to this love.”
If I’m stronger in the faith on this particular issue, the pursuit of unity in diversity, I have a cross formed responsibility to bear my brothers and sisters who aren’t there, who might be weaker on this point. It’s not, English translations will say bear with, but you’ve got to supply the with there. It’s okay to do so, but he’s not talking about tolerating somebody else who thinks differently. He’s talking about cruciform bearing. As he said earlier in chapter five, Christ did the bearing for us. We were weak. We were the weak ones. He did the bearing of our sins in his body, and so in our relationship with one another, we have that same kind of obligation.
It means if I’m passionate about this, that means I engage with a level of patience, I try to discern, what is the best way for me to approach our leadership about this? What is the best way for me to approach this conversation in the context of our church in a way that doesn’t simply, is not accusatory? Saying, “We just haven’t been faithful.”
Anyway, I’m going on and on, but that’s the kind of a, it’s a, what’s my disposition of heart and mind in this engagement?
Jim Davis: Right.
Mike Aitcheson: I want to follow up with that, and that is very significant because the way you actually approach leadership can make or break this pursuit in large part. One of the questions I get, and the phone continues to ring, is do we just start a study at our church? I try to counsel people, yes, that’s always good, but make sure that this is not perceived as a rogue venture and that you’re trying to create a church within the church. How do you steer people who say, they’re full of zeal, they realize they’ve been awakened to the reality of how unity in diversity is not just incidental to the redemptive narrative, but integral to. How do you coach them and guide them? Do you fan the flame or do you say, “Well, slow down and wait until your leadership is on board.” As far as maybe starting a study or something like that.
Irwyn Ince: I mean, I think that there’s a both and to this, because I describe it in my book, my own pursuit in this, as God giving me a divine dissatisfaction. As something that the spirit of God gives me to see what is off in terms of the world, the church, on a particular issue that’s not in accord with his heart and will. I’ve got a divine dissatisfaction about it, I have to press into it as a matter of calling and passion.
I still want to fan that flame. I still want to continue learning and growing myself, and finding those opportunities to continue studying God’s word, to continue engaging with, whether it be books, podcasts like this one, that help shape and form my heart and mind rightly. At the same time, engaging the leadership of the church. I definitely do not want to just kind of go off on my own and start a Bible study at the church that says, “Hey, we’re going to …” No. Now, especially in a PCA context, where we take membership vows, where we vow ourselves to submit to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace. We’re not going to blow up shop here.
If there’s a heart, and again, if we approach pastoral leadership in a way that is humble, more often than not, in my experience, pastors are open to those kinds of conversations and to say, “Okay, what would it look like for us to engage this topic in a Bible study? What would it look like for us to engage this topic in a healthy way under the leadership and authority of the church?”
Irwyn Ince: Now, what if that is answered in the negative?
Mike Aitcheson: What recourse is available then?
Irwyn Ince: What recourse is available to me? The first recourse that’s available to me is prayer and waiting on the Lord. Now this is not the popular recourse necessarily, because my inclination might be to say, “You know what? Nah, they’re not going to get it here. I’m out. I’ve got to look for another church that has this, understands this as something that is integral to God’s story of redemption, the reunification of the human race in Jesus Christ.”
Now, there might actually become a point where for your own wellbeing spiritually and the wellbeing of the church, you might get there, but that’s not the way I would counsel people to start. Because, and I can’t say, “Oh well, wait this period of time.” I think that something is off if I just come to this conclusion myself, I’ve just come to this conviction myself, and I’m trying to engage it and I’m meeting resistance, and I immediately respond to that resistance with an exit. That’s really very often an indication of my own lacking in spiritual maturity and health, and waiting on the Lord to change hearts.
There’s something that’s deep within our making a membership vow, a covenantal commitment to walk with brothers and sisters as a part of this body. I don’t say when my wife and I can’t get on the same page, “All right, it’s time for me to check out of this.” There’s a covenantal commitment here. No, it’s not necessarily the same as my marriage vows, but I’m just making a metaphor that we have to take that vow seriously before we would exit. That might be a hard word for people to hear because there is a time when it might be best for me to exit and join another congregation, but it’s not an immediate thing. Prayer, patience, and discernment. Depending on the Lord to really answer those prayers. Looking with expectation when I pray. Looking with expectation to see how he’s going to answer those prayers.
Jim Davis: I really appreciate how you said the goal is not to blow up shop. As somebody who really does not want to blow up shop, I’m going to ask a question that really is personal to me, and I think would be helpful to other people. One of the things that we see when we see conscientious people wrestling with this, trying to find their voice, and so this presents a whole variety of questions that perhaps you can help us to process. When there is something that is capturing the national attention, and we’ve had a number of these recently, how do you determine what to say, when to say it, and through what communication channels?
Irwyn Ince: Yes. I think, so what to say first. I was actually this morning reading in the book of James in chapter three, where James says, “The tongue is a small member, but it’s got some power.” It’s a restless evil. Then he says, “With it we bless with the same tongue, we bless our Lord and we curse people made in his image and likeness.” He says, “These things ought not be.” In other words, what do I say? What is my manner of discourse on these issues? Particularly in the public arena and public square. On social media.
What to say. To take care that I’m not issuing “words of cursing” against image bearers. That I’m not … We understand, as again PCA pastors who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, we understand that when the commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness.” The duty required in that commandment is to maintain the good name of my neighbor, to even promote the good name of my neighbor. Am I demeaning my neighbor? Am I taking away from his or her good name? That’s sinful. They might be taking away from their good name all by themselves in the way they engage, but in terms of what do I say. Am I looking to build up? Am I looking to engage, and know who am I speaking to?
I’ll use this as an example. I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t enter into a conversation on these kinds of issues, race, justice issues, I don’t enter into the conversation, typically those engagements for me are in majority white evangelical spaces. They’re not always, but typically. I don’t engage in those conversations starting with terms like white privilege and white cultural normativity. These kind of things that are not necessarily untrue. They put bricks on the wall that’s already there.
I try to enter in from a robust biblical framework that says, “Here’s why this matters.” Here’s why the engagement on justice matters, because righteousness and justice are the foundation of the Lord’s throne, so the psalmist says is Psalm 89:14. That our God is a God of justice, and that our fractures and fragmentations, our ghetto-ization, as I talk about in the book from Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel, result in dehumanization and injustice and oppression from one group to another. I engage from this biblical framework in terms of what to say, to say, “This matters to the Lord because of what he says in his word.” We are, as kingdom people …
All right. Here’s what I love, that we don’t have to go digging for terminology that comes out of non-biblical frameworks. Hear me. I’m not saying there’s no validity to that terminology because of common grace, that there aren’t things that are truthful in those frameworks, as diagnoses, but can never provide solutions. We don’t have to go digging for those frameworks in terms of figuring out what to say, particularly to other Christians.
Geerhardus Vos, another Dutch Reformed theologian, in describing what the Kingdom of God was in terms of his understanding of how Jesus understood the Kingdom of God, when he studied the gospels, says that, “For Jesus the kingdom exists not merely where God is supreme, because that’s always and everywhere true, but it exists where God carries through that supremacy against the forces that oppose it and brings people to the willing recognition of it. Where God’s supernaturally carries through his supremacy against the forces that oppose his kingship, and brings people to the willing recognition of it.”
That has implications for how we talk about justice. The kingdom that is coming, where righteousness and justice will reign, has broken into the here and now. Kingdom people talk about the pursuit of justice and righteousness that God carries through his lordship against the forces that oppose it, the injustice that is resident in our communities and in our cities. We talk about it and frame it in these terms, because I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but I want the disagreement to be, “I don’t understand the scriptures rightly. I don’t understand what we’re confessing or committing to rightly.” We can have that conversation.
What to say. Framing my conversation in a way that it’s not looking to condemn, not looking to tear down the good name of my neighbor. Looking in a way that frames this robust understanding of the gospel. Your second pod took 15 minutes to say what to say.
When to say it depends on who I’m talking to. It could be just casual conversation between me and other brothers and sisters that I’m in my small group with, and we’re talking about these matters. When to say it, I’ll say when not to say it. When not to say it is to go to the pastor after he’s preached his sermon and say, “I think we need to talk about race and justice issues here.” That’s a when not to say it. Even a platform to say it, if possible, if I’m dealing with people I’m in community with, if possible to do it in person, in terms of the medium, and less via long emails. If I use email as a media for this communication, over the top in extending grace and projecting a humility, and not an accusatory tone. Over the top in that, because I want to be heard and understood.
Likewise, if I’m choosing a media, say I have a platform, I write a blog, or I’m tweeting, or I’m posting on Instagram, Facebook Live, whatever the case may be. Again, over the top in my communicating in a way that exudes grace. Writing in a way that presumes good intentions of my neighbor, unless the neighbor has made it explicitly clear that they have bad intentions. That presumes good intentions. That has as its goal reunion and unity. That’s motivated by love. With love as a goal too. That I’m after unification.
It doesn’t mean I don’t say difficult and hard things. It doesn’t mean that people won’t be offended by what I say, but I want the offense to be less about me and more about has the implications of God’s word pierced my heart or your heart? I’ve got to just be careful on, because I’m not saying don’t use social media, don’t use Twitter, or don’t write articles or blog posts. No. That’s not going back in the bottle. That genie is out. Now the question becomes, how do I utilize these platforms? What am i aiming for in these platforms? Man, personally, I do not get into a back and forth debate on these issues on social media. I have very rarely seen anything good come of it. As you say, people show their neck. We get further entrenched into our silo or our echo chamber, and we don’t hear one another.
Mike Aitcheson: You have wisely said, before I move to the next question I just had a quick follow up, that terms are important. That is a wise word. Not even conversely, but is there a place where it would be unwise to give up certain terms? For example, one of the fronts that I think, I don’t want to say we’re fighting, but one of the fronts where there seems to be contention is about the phrase social justice itself. With it comes quite a few connotations. I’m saying, would it be unwise to just give up that particular term, because I don’t know how as Christians we can not be socially just. Is there a better term? Is there a better way? Give us some guidance on that.
Irwyn Ince: Thanks for that question. I think that you’re right in the sense that there isn’t, in my estimation, a way for the people of God to not pursue justice in the public square, in the social arena. To be vocal about it. People will say, “Oh, well let’s discard social justice. Let’s talk about biblical justice instead. Let’s frame it that way.” Okay, if you want to use that term biblical justice, but I don’t see it as really beneficial to just discard the term social justice.
Now, we might be able at some point to get to the point to just talk about justice, the word, because justice itself implies social realities. You’re almost just duplicating, when you’re talking about social justice, the adjective is not necessarily necessary. Justice as a concept is, has a horizontal aspect, both individually and corporately. We are justified now because of Jesus Christ’s work on our behalf, our faith in him. We are now justified before the Father, before the Lord. As an aspect of loving our neighbor, we pursue what’s good, and just, and right. Justice matters.
I mean, I don’t think it’s useful or beneficial to just say, “Let’s just discard social justice.” Because often people want to make the accusation that using the term social justice means you’ve gone on an un-biblical slope into faithlessness, into another gospel. You’ve gone off the rails. Of course, the reality is it has been, in the history of the Unites States at least, those who have been a part of the majority culture church that have been less concerned about justice in the public square for historically marginalized people in this country. The majority minority church has taken that baton and run with it. Unless you’re talking about issues like abortion or euthanasia, something along those lines, you can be accused of having a different kind of gospel talking about social justice for others.
I want to say, no, if I’m really pro life, I care about justice in the public square, from the womb to the tomb. I care about it all. It doesn’t do much good to just say, “Let’s just change the terminology so that I’m more comfortable with the concept.” I don’t find it to be that helpful.
Mike Aitcheson: Along those lines, what does it look like to move beyond more performative actions to something that is more substantively, into substantively building something more helpful and long lasting?
Irwyn Ince: Yeah. Excellent question I think, because we’re not talking about just responding to a hot take moment in the culture. Even though, yes, now these things are being recorded for us. We get access to, and there’s even a voyeuristic toxicity here, watching black death, watching these kinds of things played out for us.
At the same time, if we have come to a conviction as a church that we have not been as faithful as we ought to have been in loving our neighbors across lines of difference, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic difference, and we want to begin to move in a more faithful direction, we have to have this kind of commitment that says we are about a trajectory. We’re not about just kind of changing things instantly, do a one sermon series on race and justice and reconciliation, and then put it on the shelf. Do a small group Bible study, Sunday school series. All those things are great. We’re talking about moving in a particular direction as a body for the foreseeable future.
What that means, I describe it in this way. If we’ve devoted to the doctrine of unity in diversity, now we start to do some probative work, some self-examination work that says, “Why do we do the things that we do the way that we do them?” The way we do the Christian life is formed and informed by cultural realities. They often are cultural commitments and preferences. This is not to say that they are necessarily sinful of themselves, but there’s no non-cultural way of doing life, including a Christian life.
We begin to do some probing and saying, well what is it like for people who are not a part of the majority to find, what do they experience among us? What are the things that may be hindering people who are not like the majority from finding a real sense of belonging among this congregation in their embodied ethnic identity? How are we asking them, either implicitly or explicitly, the way to belong here is to become like the majority culture. Beginning to ask those kinds of questions in an honest and humble way. Beginning to seek the Lord in that.
Beginning to see, as the Lord answers our prayers, we have to be willing to confess to him the ways in which we have been hindering neighbors from finding a real sense of the love of Christ and welcome among us. To confess that, to lament it, to repent of it, to ask him to continue changing our hearts. Going before him never presuming we’ve got it all together. Then saying, okay, what are the things that the Lord might have us hold a little more loosely and be willing to change for the sake of loving our neighbors.
Now, practically speaking this is the work that we do in the Institute for Cross Cultural Mission, this is the animating question that we’re trying to help churches answer. Equipping churches, we describe it, with the competence and confidence to welcome others the way Christ welcomes us. That’s particularly across lines of difference. We say this is, again, about a long term commitment. We’ve designed actually a three year curriculum, a cohort experience for churches to say, the answers to these kind of question, there’s not a four step process of cookie cutter response. The kinds of questions are, who are we? Where are we? Who are our neighbors that Christ has called us to love? What I’m saying is these answers are contextual. We have to discern for ourselves, as a church in a place, called to be on mission for Jesus, to declare the glory of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Jim Davis: I want to drill down, because that’s where we want to drill down on these things and get very practical. I’m loving everything you’re saying. In Tim Keller’s book, Ministries of Mercy, he unpacks these three spheres of mercy ministry. You’ve already started, but I want to clearly drill down on these three. The first is family. My wife and I have had our own journeys on this topic. My wife would actually give Mike Aitcheson a lot of credit for her journey. We were at the beach together one day. We were at the beach when George Floyd happened, and that was a big moment for my wife and talking with Mike about it. Now we have household questions. What does it look like as a household to care about these particular issues and make these kinds of investments?
Irwyn Ince: Right. We ask the question in our church, who’s at your table? Who are you eating with? You can’t have this, in a sense, for me to have this vision for our church, and it’s nowhere reflected in my life, that’s a disconnect. How are we as a family, how am I, if I’m single, how am I pressing into this in my own spheres, in my own neighborhood, in my own workplace? How am I living into cross cultural love? How are we as a household living into cross cultural love together? We’re continually engaging on that level. We’re continually. That’s what I mean when I talk about a humility of heart. Saying I desire something for the church, but I have to also be desiring to see it in my own life, or in our own life, in our family’s life. How are we asking the hard questions of ourselves? What are the ways we have been shaped and formed?
We utilize a tool, we call it a common grace tool in the Institute, we call it the Intercultural Development Inventory. We find it to be actually a good first step for churches and even individuals. Again, it’s the common grace tool, so it’s not grounded in scripture, per se. It assesses your individual or group’s level of intercultural competence. That is, our ability to appropriately and authentically shift behavior, perceptions, when I’m in cross cultural situations.
Jim Davis: This is funny. I’m familiar with this test because we have RTS students in our church, RTS Orlando, and they’ve taken this test. They’re people I know and I would consider them competent people in this area, and they came back just broken like, “Man, there’s whole categories that I didn’t even …” I’d like to take that test someday.
Irwyn Ince: Let me offer a slight corrective word. It’s an assessment, not a test.
Jim Davis: Assessment. An RTS … That’s right. At RTS everything’s a test, but you’re right. It’s an assessment.
Irwyn Ince: It’s not passing you or failing you, or your humanity. Anything like that. It’s assessing what happens to me, what happens to us when we are in the midst of differences that make a difference? How am I making sense of those differences?
Mike Aitcheson: That’s great.
Irwyn Ince: This tool, utilizing it, what it helps us do is set a framework or a foundation for a healthy conversation. It’s not giving us the answer either, but very few of us, we have an aspiration, but we don’t really have a way of grasping where we’re starting from. I want to see this, but where are we now? Okay, we don’t have a lot of diversity here at our church, or I don’t have a lot of diversity in my life. I can just say that generally speaking, but what does that mean? Where are we in terms of our level of intercultural competence, our ability to bridge these differences in authentic and appropriate ways. Utilizing a tool like this is helpful.
Jim Davis: I mean, I really like that. I love assessing where you are, but I love that term, who’s at your table? Because it can go both ways. Who’s always at my table that I’m responsible for, but then does everybody who comes to this table look like us? There are different ways that you can go with that. That’s good. All right, the second sphere that Keller lays out is the church. You have a large body of experience helping to coach organizations and leaders how to have a more robust theology of unity in diversity. You’re actually coaching the church I grew up in this weekend, so I’m excited about that. Talking about how that relates to God’s plan of cosmic redemption. What are some of the most important principles that you could point us to with respect to developing cultural competency across lines of difference?
Irwyn Ince: I will jump off from that intercultural development inventory assessment again. I’m doing that with that church this weekend, that you mentioned. As a tool, now what we’re going to do is say, why do you believe this is your level of intercultural competence? It’s going to say, here’s where you perceive yourself to be in terms of your level of intercultural competence, here’s where you actually are, and here’s the gap. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about what’s going on here that is an indicator that this is really where you are.
Irwyn Ince: That’s a necessary conversation because it helps bring to the surface things that are hidden and typically unspoken, and sets a table, if you will, for a healthy conversation about it. It’s not just accusatory. It’s not just I got this problem here, I got this problem here. Saying, okay, what are the realities here, in this church, in this context, that are indicators that this is our level of intercultural competence?
Once we begin to identify those things, when we work with churches I say, okay, let’s talk about some goals. What are we wanting to aspire to as a body? What does it look like for us to grow in cross cultural life and love in this community? It’s not me coming and saying, “Here’s what it has to look like for you.” We’ve got to tease this out. You are the ones who are on the ground, that God has placed you in this community as a kingdom outpost, so what does it look like for you?
Now we begin to have those kinds of conversations. For us within our curriculum, our cohort curriculum, it’s a three year commitment. We take, this is a process of us engaging the churches and the Christian organizations we work with to continue growing in their grasp of the theology of unity in diversity, to continue engaging the topic of intercultural competence, and to engage leadership development and discipleship in their context.
For example, just as an example, two things I’ll say. In one of our cohorts we’re in the midpoint, matter of fact, when this airs they’ll be in this phase where we’re in the middle of a demographic study. We’re at the midpoint in the curriculum, but we’ve engaged Dr. Mark Mulder, who’s at Calvin College in their seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who specializes in this kind of demographic work for churches. We’re helping them say, “Okay, let’s assess our place. We’ve started to do all this work. We’re growing in our understanding of theology unity in diversity. Now let’s assess our place. Who are our neighbors?” Start to do deeper dives into saying, what are the practical ways that we need to begin expressing and engaging our neighbors in love? Understanding who they are.
I first heard this term from Dr. Carl Ellis, who you’ve already had on, and I don’t know if he said it already when you interviewed him, but I first heard him say this when I first met him in 2001. He was saying, “If you’re going to engage people well, you have to understand and grasp their core cultural concerns.” What are the core cultural concerns, and how does the gospel come in and engage that in a loving way?
Irwyn Ince: This kind of work that we’re doing with our cohort is not just, well who are the people around us, but a grasping of, engaging, what are the animating core cultural concerns that are existing in our community that we need to begin starting to … Because we can’t necessarily address them all, but begin to engage them well. Those are some of the things. We have to do this as a church. That our leadership has to be 100% on board with this as a movement. I’ll stop there.
Jim Davis: No. I love anybody who quotes Carl Ellis. I especially love it when Mike Aitcheson does it as Carl Ellis.
Mike Aitcheson: Doc, help us understand what are some of the common roadblocks that you see out there in pursuing unity in the church when it comes to these racial issues?
Irwyn Ince: Common roadblocks are, the most common is not believing that this pursuit is a fundamental aspect of faithful gospel kingdom ministry. That this is a nice to have, if we can get it, but it’s not necessary for us to have it at the heart of our grasp of kingdom mission.
Now, that exists in shapes and forms within majority culture churches and minority culture churches. On the one hand, in the majority culture church context, a church dominated where whites are the majority, at least in this country, it’s because in many respects there’s been the privilege, I’ll use that word, there’s been the privilege of being able to only think about the Christian life from an individual vantage point. About my individual salvation, your individual salvation, our individual walk, my individual piety and holiness. Less of an ability to understand people’s collective experiences as communities of color. It’s been more about, let’s just get an individual.
When engaging with minority culture churches, the primary roadblock to this pursuit of unity in diversity has been a history of wounds. That you didn’t, essentially you didn’t really become a minority church in a vacuum. There’s a history of systemic and structural issues in the country that has necessitated the formation of minority churches, because they understood the realities of the imago dei, and that has to be affirmed somewhere.
The issue becomes one of trust. The perspective, and I’m just telling you about the conversations that I have, and this is particularly with African-American pastors of historic majority African-American churches, will say, “Yeah, I see it in scripture, but our experience is that when my white brothers and sisters come in, they expect to get their way, they expect to kind of take over.” This institution has been so foundational to the understanding of the dignity of a community of people, that then they’re wary of giving that up. It’s a similar roadblock, but I think for different reasons.
Now, that doesn’t get me off the hook, but it is a reality that has to be addressed forthrightly. Because we’re not after superficiality, we’re after depth, intimacy, communion, as a testimony to the world of the reconciling power of Jesus Christ and his spirit. That’s what we’re after. We’re after something that can only happen supernaturally. This is not about a club. I used the analogy of a sports team earlier. It’s not about a diverse group of people coming together on a football team, or on a soccer team, or on a baseball team and finding unity in their pursuit of a Superbowl, or a World Series, or the like. Then they go their separate ways. It’s about becoming family in Jesus eternally, and presenting a picture to the world of something that is literally impossible apart from him.
Jim Davis: That was outstanding. I feel like I’ve been to church. Let’s move from church. You talked about communities. The third sphere is community. Who do you observe out there who’s doing a great and effective work at the community level? What are they doing that makes it good?
Irwyn Ince: I’ll speak first from my experience here in the Grace DC network. I’m hesitant to use the word great because I don’t want to imply perfect. A commitment to a faithful pursuit of unity in diversity across lines of difference. Let me just start with the congregation that I’m a part of, Grace Mosaic, where Russ Whitfield is the lead pastor and Joel Littlepage is the pastor of worship and formation. What I’m observing and participating in here is an intentional pursuit and curating of unity in diversity and reconciliation from every facet of the church life.
From the worship experience, so what’s the content? It’s not a different liturgy. It’s the same liturgy, but how do we fill that liturgy? How do we fill that liturgy with music that engages across lines of cultural difference? Really and authentically, not like … That means, what’s the budget? What’s the church budget for the worship and formation ministry of the church? We’re committed to this because we understand that embodied experience of worship and song is important, and it can communicate belonging or lack of belonging across lines of cultural difference. Putting the money where our mouth is in that sphere.
How do we engage our life together in terms of our devotional life? We’ve created, I say we, I didn’t have any part in it but I’m claiming it. Joel is really the one who spearheaded the daily prayer project, which is our daily morning and evening worship. It is, according to the liturgical calendar. It uses … They won’t see it, but here’s one from Pentecost. You see artwork across lines of cultural differences, music, and it says morning and evening there’s prayers from the church universal, in other parts of the world, different languages. There’s a thoughtfulness here that says we’re shaping and forming our hearts to be ready to welcome and embrace across lines of difference even if our body isn’t necessarily reflecting it as much as we’d like to. We’re preparing ourselves for that. That understanding of formation.
We’re certainly not the only ones doing it here in this network. You may be familiar with the New City Fellowship churches within the PCA that have this heart from the beginning, and say, “This is in the DNA of the church.” I’ve seen other examples of when a good friend and brother, Pastor George Robertson, when he was at First Pres. Augusta, setting that church on a particular course. It takes different shapes and forms depending where we are and who we are. That’s how I.
Jim Davis: Well, I’m preaching Pentecost on Sunday, so I might want to get a copy of that, what you just held up.
Irwyn Ince: Okay. Yeah.
Jim Davis: Last question. What would you say to a church who wants to grow, genuinely wants to grow in their ability to impact their community?
Irwyn Ince: I would say that you’re not going to drift into it. That having the aspiration is the start, and it’s, amen, praise the Lord, but it’s not going to happen just by you desiring it to happen. That has to be followed up with a commitment to be prayerful before the Lord, to be open to how he will change you. There is no staying the same and desiring to be different as a body. There’s going to have to be a willingness to enter in, again, with humility, to go through a process of discernment. You’re going to have to be patient with the church, especially if you haven’t been pursuing this all along.
Don’t be surprised, people are going to leave. People are going to leave. That’s why you have to be devoted to this as integral to God’s redemption story for you. Because you’re not going to drift into it, I would also say it’s wise to seek outside help. Again, that’s why we formed the Institute for Cross Cultural Mission. We’re not the only game in town, but there is benefit to having someone come alongside you and not simply just try to figure it out.
Jim Davis: I love that. I love how you said you’re not going to just drift in. My wife and I do a lot of marriage conferences, and we always say, if you’re not paddling, you’re not just staying in the same place, the river is pushing you where you don’t want to go. That’s true with the church too. I really do just thank you for your time. I want to commend to our audience not only book, but your ministry to churches. You and I have talked a fair bit offline about what that looks like in the church, and so I just really appreciate it. I commend. I’m holding this up for whoever can see it. There it is, The Beautiful Community. We’re really thankful for your time and for your ministry. We’re praying for you, and I look forward to when the three of us can hang out in person sometime soon.
Irwyn Ince: Yes, and amen. Thank you gentlemen. Thank you brothers.