By Travis and Dena Hurley
Society’s efforts to build racial unity are not succeeding. Only the gospel offers the possibility for easing racial tensions and bringing together those who have long stayed apart with suspicion toward each other. The church can make the difference—if we will.
When the American Crime Story miniseries revisited the O.J. Simpson trial this spring, it reminded us of the “not guilty” verdict in 1995. At the time, the evidence of Simpson’s guilt seemed overwhelming. We were baffled by what appeared to be scenes of celebration among the black community.
Was there no respect for the rule of law? How could they take pleasure in the guilty going unpunished? Context, frame of reference, and capacity to understand the racial dynamics surrounding the verdict eluded us, and no one in our lives could help us grasp the perspective of the black community.
Flash forward nearly 20 years, when a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This time we watched as many in the black community decried the decision as a miscarriage of justice. Once again, we were confused. Although the death of Brown was a tragedy, it seemed the officer’s actions were justified.
Unlike 20 years before, the reactions that confused us—these expressions of outrage—came not from strangers on the news, but from close friends. These were sisters and brothers in Christ who highly respected order, authority, and the rule of law. Any basis for dismissing them that we may have used 20 years ago was now gone. Simplistic explanations rang hollow.
Thankfully, as we sought to understand what we were missing—what we couldn’t see—we now had strong, rooted relationships with many African-American brothers and sisters to whom we could turn. Context, frame of reference, and a better capacity to understand the racial dynamics at play were no longer elusive. We believe the difference came from having developed cross-cultural relationships in an intentional multiethnic church.
A Different Church
From 2003 to 2012, we served in leadership at First Christian Church at Brockhall, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A small congregation located between two predominantly African-American counties (72 percent and 92 percent), FCC had a 50-50 makeup of white people and people of color when we arrived. We knew we’d never seen a congregation like this before. We didn’t know how rare it was.
According to sociologist Michael Emerson, in 2003, “just 7.5 percent of the over 300,000 congregations in the United States (were) racially mixed,” and “(f)or Christian congregations, which form over 90 percent of congregations in the United States, the percentage that are racially mixed drops to 5 and a half.”1 And for multiethnic churches that are comprised of black and white members, the percentage dropped to 2.5.
We had entered a ministry so unusual it was unlike 97.5 percent of the churches in the U.S. Dealing with the significant cultural differences within the congregation helped explain why this was the case. Ministry itself is difficult; adding a multiethnic component makes it even more so.
Thankfully, resources were beginning to come available. One in particular, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church by Mark DeYmaz, presented a theological case—a biblical mandate—for intentional multiethnic ministry, starting with the prayer of Jesus.
As Jesus prays in John 17:20, on the night he is to be betrayed, his focus shifts from himself and his immediate disciples to “those who will believe in me through their word.” Our Savior asks for one thing over and over again: that we “may be one . . . perfectly one” (vv. 21-23).
But why? Why pray we would be one?
Jesus offers two potential results: the world will know God’s love and will believe in Jesus as his Son. These incredible evangelistic truths are predicated on our visible unity. And make no mistake—it must be visible unity. Too often when faced with the sobering facts of continued segregation in the body of Christ, people respond by saying, “Well, we may not worship together, but we have spiritual unity in Christ. We’ll all be together in Heaven someday.”
It is true we have spiritual unity in Christ, and it is true the full expression of the body of Christ will be together one day, but spiritual unity will not convince the world of anything here and now. As Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:142).
If this unity is to convince the world, it must be a unity the world can see. Perhaps this would help account for the tremendous response in Antioch when men from Cyprus (an island in the Mediterranean Sea) and Cyrene (a city in northern Africa) preached to Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 11:20). In Acts 11 and 13, Luke described “large numbers” coming to faith as a multiethnic church and leadership were formed in Antioch. The world took notice, a new moniker was given (“Christian,” Acts 11:26), and Paul and Barnabas were sent out, planting multiethnic congregations of Jews and Gentiles wherever they went.
Paul, in particular, saw firsthand the remarkable transforming reconciliatory power of the gospel. Yes, reconciliation can happen vertically, that is, between God and humankind, but that’s not all. That relationship led to horizontal reconciliation too, between humans who once were separated by their differences. Paul called it the “mystery of the gospel” in his letter to the Ephesians, and we could argue that his proclamation of this mystery got him into more trouble than his proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected (Acts 22:21, 22).
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he prescribes a multiethnic local church as he expounds on this “mystery of the gospel” (see Ephesians 3:1-7; 6:18-20). Notice his praise of their “love toward all the saints” (Ephesians 1:15, 16), his explanation of the breaking down of the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16), and his clear definition of the “mystery of the gospel” as that of Gentile inclusion (Ephesians 3:6). The remainder of the letter offers practical counsel for how the church is to grow together in a locale.
Paul clearly has in mind a visibly unified church in which diverse people are growing in Christ together. It seems the horizontal reconciliatory implications for the gospel are further stressed by Paul calling it “this” gospel in Ephesians 3:7.
From Jesus’ prayer to Luke’s description to Paul’s prescription, we believe intentional multiethnic churches shouldn’t be seen as optional. At least insofar as the community your church serves is diverse, so too should your congregation be.
And this is more than just crossing ethnic lines to worship and serve together. It’s also a crossing of generational, political, and socioeconomic lines. Conventional wisdom says some social barriers are necessary to separate people and keep peace. But the church must intentionally cross these lines, too, for two reasons: (1) in order to more effectively reach our whole communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ and (2) to provide a unified voice for biblical justice in the public square.
A Seldom-Seen Church
So why are such congregations so hard to find? Why does the Sunday worship hour continue to be “the most segregated hour in America”? Perhaps it’s because most in the majority culture lack the kind of cross-cultural personal relationships that expose our bent toward personal preference, bias, or apathy. That was certainly the case for us until our Maryland ministry. Perhaps it’s because many in the minority do not trust the majority culture to integrate their cultural values into the life of the church. There are enough cases of “whitewashing” assimilation to justify mistrust.
There is certainly a level of discomfort and personal sacrifice members of a multiethnic congregation must learn to accept, at least in its early days. But isn’t that part of being a follower of Jesus? Some people say, “What’s wrong with wanting comfort on Sunday morning? To be with people I’m used to? Worship the way I’m used to? ‘Do church’ the way I like to do it? What’s wrong with that?”
What’s wrong is that we haven’t been called to comfort. We’ve been called to take up a cross daily, and there isn’t a lot of comfort in that. What’s wrong is that we have been called to die to ourselves, not to “fit in” somewhere. So who will die to themselves first? Who will forego the conventional church growth wisdom of targeting a homogeneous group and instead cast a wider net to all nations among us?
It would seem the popular church planting and growth model predicated on targeting a homogeneous group (called the homogenous unit principle, or HUP) has rendered unforeseen negative consequences. Dr. David Olson, author of The American Church in Crisis, charts how the church has been growing in the suburbs, but in low-income areas—areas typically with high concentrations of impoverished minorities—the church is in decline (see chart).
If the trend continues, the Evangelical church in America will become increasingly homogeneous, white, and wealthy—and, we might add, increasingly perceived as irrelevant and out of touch.
Thankfully, more and more church leaders are returning to Paul’s approach. The statistics from a 2012 Duke University survey suggest the number of multiethnic churches has increased from 7.5 percent to 13 percent. This is progress, to be sure, but there is a long way to go—and new challenges to face along the way.
For every article telling us more churches are becoming less segregated3, another notes how fears of assimilation are coming true.4 How does a multiethnic church navigate worship preferences? How does a church that also crosses socioeconomic lines adjust to lower offerings? How does a church diversify its leadership, integrate the various cultures represented, adjust expectations for attendance and membership, and stay true to the Word of God at every turn? These questions and more are surfacing as intentional multiethnic ministry grows, because overcoming centuries of broken relationships and injustice is not easy.
A Thriving Church
But that’s just it. Visible unity is hard. Yet as DeYmaz once said, “Since when do we get a pass on the degree of difficulty?” The perfect unity Jesus prayed for? That would take a miracle. Why else would it be so convincing of his identity as Savior of the world? If visible expressions of kingdom unity will take a miracle, we should be grateful we worship a miracle-working God!
One can look at the demographic changes in our society and pragmatically conclude that an emphasis on multiethnic ministry is essential to a church’s survival in the 21st century (see graphic). Sometimes white people will pursue multiethnic ministry out of a misguided, paternalistic desire to help “those people.” But neither of these motivations can be sustained in the face of the unique challenges intentional multiethnic ministry entails. Without a firm, biblical conviction and model, intentional multiethnic ministries don’t last. They only serve to transition a church from one dominant group to another.
The testimony of the church is at stake. The racial divide in our country is greater than ever, and the power of the gospel is the only solution. Those who don’t heed the call to return to the biblical model of growing and planting churches will be increasingly marginalized as racial tensions persist and as the demographic shift continues.
But don’t let that be your motivation to rediscover the implications of reconciliation with each other. Instead, let the biblical model inspire you.
In John’s revelation, he saw a glimpse of heavenly worship with “a great multitude . . . from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, . . . crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9, 10).
Let us pursue ministry now with that end in view. Then we can pray in good conscience, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
1Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2.
2Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
3Laura Meckler, “How Churches Are Slowly Becoming Less Segregated,” The Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014, accessed at wsj.com/articles/a-church-of-many-colors-the-most-segregated-hour-in-america-gets-less-so-1413253801.
4Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Surprise Change in How Multiethnic Churches Affect Race Views,” Christianity Today, December 2, 2015, accessed at christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/december-web-only/surprise-shift-in-how-multiethnic-churches-affect-race-view.html?paging=off.
Travis Hurley serves as vice president of development and diversity with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and as director for Dream of Destiny.
Dena Hurley serves as online enrollment services coordinator with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.