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Can Racially Diverse Churches Exist?

In 2006, I planted Emmaus Church with a small team of people who dreamed of a gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial church. We had a vision that our church would not just have racially integrated worship services but also racially integrated community life because of the reconciling power of the gospel. In the early years of pursuing this vision, we were often told this goal was impossible to reach (especially for a church in Portland, Oregon, the whitest major city in America).

I would like to report to you that we never for a moment believed such voices, and we never failed to believe that God was willing and able to make our vision become reality.

But I can’t.

Despite our full commitment to pursuing a gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial church – and despite our unwillingness to settle for only half of that equation – we often doubted it could happen. And when it did in fact happen, we then doubted it could be sustained. Of course we have not been alone in this sentiment. The vast majority of pastors I know would love for their churches to reflect the racial diversity of their cities. Yet those very same pastors make little to no attempt to actually achieve that desire. This is because in America, in general, and in American Christianity, in particular, there are so many factors working against a truly integrated church family that it most often feels like a fool’s errand.

But is it?

Can American Christians find themselves in gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial churches that are integrated both in and beyond the Sunday gathering? Can this be normal? Based on the Scriptures and my personal experience, I believe the answer is “no and yes.”

No, Racially Diverse Churches Cannot Be Normal

Racially diverse churches cannot be normal because unity is not normal. Human beings have been against each other since Adam and Eve hid their nakedness and blamed each other before God. It is in our sinful nature to be both divided and divisive (Galatians 5:19-21). This is one of the reasons that the Homogenous Unit Principle often works; it appeals to the sinful desires of our hearts to exalt ourselves and separate from those who do not likewise exalt us by affirming who we are and what we like.

This inborn tendency toward division and divisiveness is made even stronger by the social construct of race because it provides us with (false) justification for our sin. If we adopt the man-made category of race we escape condemnation because we are now convinced that our division and divisiveness is not a product of our self-centered hearts but a product of God-ordained biology. This is how American slavery was defended in the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g. “God built white superiority into creation so he intends for society to function this way”), and this is how the segregation of American churches is often defended in the 21st centuries (e.g. “God made us to worship differently, so it makes sense for us to worship separately”).

In light of the fact that we have inherited both a sinful tendency toward division and a social construct that exploits it, a truly racially unified church will never be normal. Never. This is clearly implied in Jesus’ extended prayer on the eve of his death. In John 17, Jesus prays three times for the Father to unite the members of his church with one another just as Jesus is united with the Father. He then twice says that it is through such unity that the world will know that Jesus is who he says he is (John 17:21, 23). In other words, unity of this sort is so rare that the world simply cannot explain it apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in fact the utter abnormality of true unity that makes people stop, notice, and seek an explanation when it sees Jesus’ church united.

Yes, Racially Diverse Churches Can Be Normal 

The fact that unity requires an explanation reveals that unity is not normal, but the fact that Jesus is the explanation for said unity reveals that unity can become normal for those who are in Christ. Thus, while racially diverse churches will never be normal in America, they can become the new normal for American Christians because Jesus has not only done everything necessary to unite us to God, he has done everything necessary to unite us to each other. Consequently, living to see racially integrated churches as the new normal is not just possible, it is preferable for at least three reasons.

First, we should do everything we can to make racially diverse churches the new normal because this is a model Scripture gives us. In Acts 6, the apostles work to integrate and unify a culturally diverse church and, as a result, “the word of God spread” (Acts 6:7). In Acts 11:19-26, we are introduced to the ethnically diverse church of Antioch, and in Acts 13:1-2, we are introduced to their diverse leadership team which consisted of blacks and whites, Africans and Greeks, Gentiles and Jews. I do not think it is a coincidence that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first referred to as “Christians” (pejorative or not), as their multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic unity could only be explained by their connection to Christ.

Second, we should do everything we can to make racially diverse churches the new normal because racially diverse churches reflect the coming kingdom. When the Apostle John received the revelation, he was given a vision of the redeemed which he described as “a great multitude…of every nation, tribe, people and language” worshiping God in unison (Revelation 7:9). This is what Jesus’ coming kingdom will look like. The church is tasked with bringing a foretaste of this coming kingdom into this present world. Thus, as much as the American church works to bring God’s kingdom into this world through helping the poor, forgiving offenders, and healing the sick, we should also work to bring God’s kingdom into this world through integrating our worshiping communities.

Third, we should do everything we can to make racially diverse churches the new normal because Jesus is the only reasonable explanation for racially integrated churches. True unity between human beings is so rare that Jesus says it requires an explanation for which only his person and work will suffice. If this is true of unity in general, it is much more true of unity across racial lines for two reasons. First, racial categories are more immediately visible to Americans than any other. Second, racial tensions are more palpable and potentially explosive to Americans than any other. Therefore, racial unity is both more obvious than unity across other categories (so our non-Christian neighbors immediately recognize it) and more unlikely than unity across other categories (so our non-Christian neighbors cannot explain it). This opens the door for us to offer Jesus and his gospel as the answer to a question they are actually asking.

American Christians want to experience racially diverse churches for the reasons above. American Christians can experience racially diverse churches because Jesus has done everything necessary to unite us to God and to each other. But American Christians will experience racially diverse churches, if, and only if, we are intentional about seeking them.

Racially Diverse Churches Will Only Become Normal Through Intentionality

Racially integrated churches do not “just happen” any more than conversion “just happens.” Though the Holy Spirit is the only one who can convert people who are spiritually dead, he chooses to do so through human beings who commit themselves to declaring and displaying the gospel to their neighbors. In the same way, though Jesus is the only one who can build racially integrated churches, he does so through human beings who commit themselves to building racially integrated churches.

Are you willing to make that commitment?

If so, there is no formula for success apart from a wholehearted commitment to what seems impossible and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to get there. This means that what is right for another church may not be right for yours. For example, I know of a gospel-centered, multi-racial church that became racially integrated largely because of its exceptional worship team, which was intentionally multi-cultural in its song choice and performance. This worked for them. Yet because of the limited pool of human and financial resources we had when we planted, this would not have worked for Emmaus. Instead, we made a conscious decision to avoid having any music in our worship services for the first year and a half of our existence. We knew that the moment we chose one musical style over another we would be unintentionally choosing one culture over another.  Therefore, we waited for our church to become multi-racial so diverse music could come from our diverse congregation rather than the other way around.

While there is no formula for success, there are several things through which everyone who wants to experience a racially diverse church will have to think. As I share a few of these topics below, I do so with white church leaders and members (like me) in mind. I am convinced that pastors of color are much more equipped to plant and lead multi-racial churches because American culture forces them to be aware of race and to live in a multi-racial environment every day of their lives. For those like myself who need additional guidance, here are four key areas you will have to intentionally think through.

1. Church Leadership

It is very easy to say you want a racially diverse church. But few people will believe you or follow you if you are not willing to also have racially diverse leadership. If you are white, you must consider the fact that people of color are asked to submit to white leadership every day in virtually every sphere of their lives. If they are to believe your church is offering something different from the world, they will have to see you not only empowering minority leaders but also willfully sharing your authority with them and submitting your authority to them. Are you willing to do this with people who see the world and ministry through a different lens than you? This is ultimately what you’re asking your congregation to do, and they will only do it if you model it for them.

Invariably, when I talk about this particular issue with other pastors the same question comes up: Where will I find them? This very sincere question reveals two very sincere problems. The first problem is that white evangelicals live such segregated lives that they can’t think of any people of color who could be potential church leaders. The second problem is that white evangelicals define “potential church leaders” not only in biblical terms but in culturally shaped, non-biblical terms that automatically eliminate a large number of Christians of color. Are you willing to work with leaders who do not come from the overwhelmingly white Bible colleges and seminaries of your particular theological ilk? Are you willing to work with leaders who do not have leadership experience in the overwhelmingly white para-church ministries you are most familiar with? Are you willing to work with Jesus loving, gospel-centered believers who do not share your affinity for a euro-centric view of church history and theology?

2. Worship Service

When most of us think of the ideal worship service, we unintentionally think of a worship service that most appeals to our particular racial, ethnic, or cultural experience. This means that we are vulnerable to defining the elements, order, and style of a good worship service in ways that exclude or otherwise alienate those from other racial, ethnic, and cultural experiences. For instance, to the average white hipster in Portland, a good musical worship set is moody and dark, while to the average black adult in Portland, a good musical worship set is celebratory and upbeat. Similar distinctions can be observed in preferences about the length of the music set and sermon, the oratory style and chosen illustrations of the preacher, the frequency and method of receiving communion, and even the best way to welcome visitors. Are you willing to re-evaluate every detail of your worship experience in your pursuit of a fully integrated multi-racial church? If so, what is the process?

 3. Congregational Education

If an American congregation is to be racially diverse it will most likely include its share of white people. We white Americans have inherited many privileges on the sole basis of our skin tone. One such privilege is not having to think about race at all and especially not having to think of ourselves in racial categories. As such, the white members of our congregations are likely to have difficulty understanding why our church is talking about race so much and making so many intentional decisions with race in mind. It is not uncommon for white Christians in these circumstances to unintentionally and unconsciously speak and behave in ways that actually work against racial unity in the congregation. It is not that they are racist. It is that they do not know how to live in a truly racially integrated environment. Are you willing to make the white members of your congregation aware of their whiteness and all the privileges it affords them? Are you willing to call the white members of your congregation to voluntarily lay down their privileges in service to the black, Latino, Native American, and Asian members of your church and your community? If so, how will you do that?

 4. Humble Listening

If you are going to pastor an integrated church, you are going to have a church full of people whose experiences and viewpoints are different from yours. Likewise, you are going to be aiming to reach a city full of people whose experiences and viewpoints are different from yours. Formal training in Bible college or seminary can prepare you for many things in ministry, but it cannot train you to see through someone else’s eyes. Reading books and blogs from white people who do multi-racial ministry (like me) can help you ask the right questions, but it cannot help you answer them. Your own observation of another’s racial experience and cultural distinctions can be helpful, but it cannot be complete nor wholly accurate. The only way to know what the various people of color in your church or city are thinking, feeling, and desiring is to ask them and listen without any agenda other than learning from them.  Are you willing to profess your own ignorance and to have those conversations?

Racially diverse churches will never be normal. And that’s the point.

In conclusion, let me be clear that I am not an expert on multi-racial churches. Though God has graciously honored our prayers and made Emmaus a gospel-centered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial church, we are only an average-sized church, and we still have a very long way to go. For example, our city is 9% Latino, but our church is less than 2% Latino. We are dissatisfied with this and are intentionally trying to minimize that gap in order to accurately reflect the diversity of our neighborhood, bring the gospel to one of the fastest growing people groups in our city, and learn more about the God we worship through the rich contributions of Latino culture. To do this, our church is in the process of translating its bulletins, website, song slides, and other printed materials into Spanish while I, as lead pastor, am reading books on Latino culture and history, listening to my Latino neighbors, and spending more than 10 hours a week trying to learn the Spanish language. I confess that this is difficult work, and I have no idea if any of it will bear fruit. But I can guarantee we will never see fruit if we’re not intentional in our pursuit of our goal. And that goal is worth every bit of the work.

I hope that you determine the same for your church.

Integrated, racially diverse churches will never be normal. And that’s the point. It is precisely because they are abnormal that they are worth every sacrifice you have to make in pursuit of them. Their utter abnormality causes people to search for an explanation for every one of them that exists. And that explanation is solely found in who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. May you and I work together to see racially integrated churches become the new normal so that all of our churches require such an explanation.

Cole Brown is founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-racial congregation in Portland, OR. He is the author of Lies My Pastor Told Me & Lies Hip Hop Told Me and blogs on race, culture, theology and related topics at colebrownpdx.com. He lives in Portland with his wife and two children and loves Jesus, Hip Hop, and comedy. Twitter: @colebrownpdx

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