For the first couple of years of our church’s short existence we’ve meet at an elementary school on the northern edge of Bronzeville. It’s been a great place for us in so many ways, including a partnership with the community at the school. The only downside was the massive rent that we paid each month, an amount set not by the school but by the larger bureaucracy. For about a year we’ve kept our eyes open for a new location that would allow less of our church budget to be spent on the facility. Earlier this summer we located an excellent space in a park district facility – on the southern edge of the neighborhood – and this morning we made the move.
The move went exceptionally well and in some ways symbolized something important about our church: we’re in it together. There were a few time this morning when I couldn’t find something to do; everyone pitched in and in less than three hours we were done.
Tomorrow we begin weekly worship at Kennicott Park. It will take a few weeks to get used to our new home but, if you’re local, I hope you’ll visit us one of these Sundays.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about what I’ve learned about multi-ethnic church planting as New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville enters its second year. You may be interested in parts one , two, three and four. I’ve added a photo or painting from Bronzeville in each of these posts.
There is a phrase I’ve noticed in the few years I’ve been immersed in the church planting world, a label used to describe the need for new churches. Gospel-centered churches – or some variation – is language meant to describe a need, as in, “There are no gospel-centered churches in that neighborhood.” I’ve been to enough church-planting related events to notice how often this language is used as a rallying cry to start new congregations.
By identifying a church plant as gospel-centered, the church planter (denomination, church-planting network) is differentiating between this new church and the churches that already exist in the targeted neighborhood, suburb, or – for the truly ambitious – city. Inherent to this phrase is the belief that many or all of the churches in the targeted area are not gospel-centered.
I’m learning just how reckless this claim really is.
Planting a gospel-centered church means caring deeply about the Gospel. No problem so far. The confusion comes in defining the Gospel and in understanding how other, existing churches are faithful to the Gospel. In my multi-ethnic, urban context the possibilities for misunderstanding are endless. Those church planters, like myself, who are white, male and often not from the area where they are planting are subject to certain blind spots that hinder the ability to discern whether theirs will truly be the only gospel-centered church in town.
Theological difference is the most obvious possibility for missing existing gospel-centered churches in a given neighborhood. Those church planters who are wedded to an understanding of the Gospel that comes from a specific church tradition (usually a historically European or white American denomination) will often struggle when interacting with those who don’t share their theological history or jargon.
Less apparent to many of us is the massive impact of culture on how Christians talk about the essentials of our faith. Those of us from the majority culture tend to view our culture and our theology as neutral. The way we talk, think and articulate our beliefs aren’t culturally bound (so we think or, at least, behave). When it comes to those from other cultures we also downplay the significance of culture. I’ve watched this play out more than once with white, male church planters who desire to start gospel-centered churches. Their sincere conviction is that they have the culturally neutral, theologically correct version of the Gospel that should be embraced by those with different theologies. Unnoticed is how they (and I) have translated theology through cultural lenses.
A final reason misunderstanding takes place is the nature of the questions being asked by different churches. For example, historically the questions asked of the Bible and answered with theology by White and Black American Christians have often been different. It’s not hard to imagine why this is the case. African-Americans with a history of experienced oppression and broken promises have a view of the cross and empty tomb that will elude most of us with a privileged existence. Claiming the need for more gospel-centered churches is a claim about having the right theological answers to the right theological questions.
There are certainly churches that have little or no interest in proclaiming and embodying the Gospel of Jesus. I have no doubt about this. However, when we make claims as church planters about the need for our gospel-centered church we are surely saying much more than we mean.
Does acknowledging that there are more gospel-centered churches than we first imagined arrest church planting urgency? I don’t think so. We plant churches not because God needs us to (because of a lack of gospel-centered churches or any other reason), but because God calls us to. And when we answer this call with the expectation that the Gospel of Jesus is already at work, whether we can initially see it or not, we are best positioned to move forward with the humility befitting our task.
Do you ever pay attention to the highway median when you’re on a long road trip? The space between a divided road and the few feet of no-man’s-land just beyond the blacktop have intrigued me since reading A Sand County Almanacin college. I’ve lost my copy but, if memory serves, Aldo Leopold sees in these forgotten strips of dirt the remnants of the way things used to be. These useless pieces of land contain glimpses of the great prairies that originally covered much of the Midwest, land that was long ago plowed under for wheat, soybeans, and Walmarts. By examining the highway’s margins we discover the land as it was before we remade it for our purposes.
Leopold’s observations about the marginal prairie have come to mind as I prepare to preach about Sabbath-keeping. Sabbath is that ancient practice of stopping weekly to rest after the pattern of a God who rested and was refreshed on creation’s seventh day. I wonder if a weekly rest is similar to the prairie grasses, flowers and bugs that cling to the sides of highways. A Sabbath rest allows the margin to remember the way life was meant to be lived. How it was in the beginning.
Six days shall you travel the highway, making progress and watching the scenery pass, but on the seventh day stop and notice the prairie. Remember what was true and is still true.
A couple miles north of our home, along Lake Shore Drive, the city has planted a native prairie. The tall grasses and subtle flowers stand out from carefully cut lawns and park benches. Prairie is being reintroduced, integrated into the modern landscape. I wonder if the analogy holds together. Does a weekly Sabbath spread from it’s once-a-week practice to a posture that carries throughout the week?
Grant, O heavenly Father, that the spiritual refreshment I have this day enjoyed may not be left behind and forgotten as tomorrow I return to the cycle of common tasks. Here is a fountain of inward strength. Here is a purifying wind that must blow through all my business and all my pleasures. Here is light to enlighten my road.
A light to enlighten my road and strips of prairie to renew my trust in the God who was, who is, and who is to come.
This year I’m participating in a multi-ethnic church coaching cohort with the incomparable Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil. During a recent conference call we discussed different models of multi-ethnic church ministry. The mosaic model (my label) assumes a blank surface on which the diversity of God’s kingdom can be expressed. Cultural diversity is necessary in order for the church to most fully express and experience what God intends. A justice model church views its purpose as representing and advocating for those most marginalized within society. Justice is the goal, diversity is the means, and participation in this church’s mission requires a deep commitment to Christ’s love for the oppressed.
It is generally assumed that these are disparate models which, while sharing similar values, will take churches in noticeably different directions. From my limited experience I think this is true. However, there is more overlap between the mosaic and justice models than has been realized. Finding these points of overlap is important as multi-ethnic churches become more widely available and sought after.
To see how these models coalesce, I begin with why multi-ethnic churches are necessary. Simply put, these churches are a reflection of the Gospel. Writing about the first century church, the authors of United by Faith put it this way:
…their theology informed them that God had already reconciled them across the line dividing Jews and Gentiles. All they had to do was live according to what Christ had already done on their behalf. When we gather together in multiracial congregations we are implementing what has already been realized through Christ’s death on a cross.
In other words, multi-ethnic churches aren’t so much strategies to accomplish reconciliation as as they are reflections of a reality that has already been accomplished through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Of course there must be strategy and ministry that points the way to Christ’s victory, but we begin with what has already been done in order to know what is already true.
With the Gospel providing the starting point, we can now live into a reality where formerly divided people now worship together in reconciled community. The mosaic model is helpful in this regard, illustrating the necessity of churches experiencing more of God’s design and intention through the diversity of their members. But here we reach a serious problem that is sometimes overlooked by proponents of the mosaic model: there is no blank surface on which to build a diverse church. In other words, the privilege and marginalization that exists within culture also exist within our churches. It is impossible to naturally create a mosaic that benefits from God-intentioned cultural diversity without addressing societal injustices.
This is where the justice model comes in. This model acknowledges the lack of a neutral starting point within any multi-ethnic church. In The Elusive Dream sociologist Korie Edwards shows that most multi-ethnic churches are actually culturally white. While the congregation may appear diverse, the white privilege of American culture is carried into church and influences its structures and values. Attempting to create a mosaic church without first addressing the histories and cultural realities that shape American Christianity will result in a church whose reconciled community is only skin deep.
Combining the justice and mosaic models is the best opportunity for a church to experience and benefit from ethnic, racial and cultural diversity. By repudiating the idea of a neutral starting point a church can consciously structure itself such that the marginalized are empowered and given a voice within the congregation. This will be an uncomfortable shift for majority culutre people who are used to their (our) culture being the neutral and normal starting point. However, by beginning with the Gospel we are freed to see and acknowledge where injustice and privilege hinders genuine reconciliation. Acting on this knowledge, a church is best positioned to experience a genuine mosaic community.
What am I missing? I’m especially interested to hear from those of you with experience within multi-ethnic churches. Do you see these two models as completely distinct approaches to ministry, or is there overlap as I believe?
This is the third in a series of posts about what I’ve learned about multi-ethnic church planting as we near the one-year anniversary of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. You may be interested in parts one and two. I’ve added a photo or painting from Bronzeville in each of these posts.
I’m not sure I would have used the word “vulnerability” to describe the process of multi-ethnic church planting until last week. That’s when, in conversation with my friend Professor Paul Metzger of Multnomah University, I first heard the word used in context of my vocation. It’s been a helpful way to think about my experience and I’m grateful to him for it.
Like any new endeavor, starting a church carries a certain amount of risk. I’m incredibly grateful for the strong, gifted, and experienced leaders who are collaborating to lead New Community into existence. However,even with these leaders the process of pastoring a new church has often felt rather emotionally vulnerable. I think this vulnerability has been especially poignant given the dynamics of a multi-ethnic church.
On more than one occasion I’ve pointed out this experience to the church by contrasting the predominately African American neighborhood where our church resides and the very white skin in which my own body resides. This is new, unfamiliar territory to me. Of course, anyone who participates in a multi-ethnic church – especially one that regularly acknowledges and addresses injustices related to race, ethnicity and culture – is bound to experience vulnerability. This is the result of addressing those things that are often unacknowledged by both church and culture.
However, as a white man I am unused to deliberately and repeatedly choosing to experience vulnerability. As I shared with my spiritual director a number of months ago, I’m used to leading with confidence and intuition; feeling vulnerable or exposed would mean I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. But pastoring a multi-ethnic church in an African American neighborhood has removed much of my self-confidence and I’m slower to trust my intuition. Instead, I ask a lot of questions. And more questions. And follow-up questions. I ask our leaders how my ideas sound to them. I ask them for their ideas.
And yet, I’ve still been called to pastor, to lead. And so: vulnerable leadership. Thankfully the cross of Christ provides the model of complete vulnerability. The future of our young church lies here, at the cross, where God became weak so that we might have life.