From Slavery to Reconstruction, from Jim Crow to Donald Trump the black church has trained her members to live biblically and hope-fully in a foreign land. Her preaching has been faithfully biblical. The miseducation of the neo-evangelical black student fails to learn names like Charles Adams, James Perkins, E. K. Bailey, A. Louis Patterson, E. V. Hill and C. L. Franklin. Some in the academy make black preachers to be mere entertainers, jesters of the cultural court. This is both dishonest and irresponsible.
There is this implicit abhorrence for social application of the gospel in the critique of the black church. The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel. My generation will have to give an account for our strange silence in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is the first time that the black pulpit has not been at the forefront of the moral conversation of systemic injustice against black people in America. The witness of Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, M. K. Curry, Jr., Dr. Martin King, Jr. and countless others is that they edified the church through the exposition of biblical propositions. They taught America to live according to our ‘professed’ Christian ideals.
-My friend, Pastor Charlie Dates, wrote this wonderfully direct and, apparently, necessary apologetic for the Black Church on his church’s blog. While I’m deeply committed to the multi-ethnic church, I am also a happy defender of the African American churches in this country for theological and historical reasons. In fact, without the witness and theological articulation of the churches, our multi-ethnic church would very quickly default to the whiteness of our majority culture.
On the way to the Orange County airport this morning the van driver, a member of the church that hosted the conference, asked what stood out to me about the Mosaix Multi-Ethnic Church Conference. I’m working on a short article recapping the conference for Leadership Journal so I’ll save most of my reflections but there was one theme that I found especially refreshing. I don’t go to many Christian or church leadership conferences but I’ve been to enough over the years to notice at least one commonality. These conferences tend to elevate certain models and systems that have worked (at least by someone’s definition of success) and offer them up as templates that others can apply to their ministry settings. This kind of thing drives me nuts as it almost completely ignores the many, many contextual factors that ought to be considered when deciding how to go about ministry.
The many speakers, preachers, and presenters at Mosaix 2013 mostly avoided this sort of one-size-fits-all approach to the ministries of our churches. Instead we heard good theology which underpins the multi-ethnic movement and good sociology and social science that illuminated some of the challenges facing those of us within multi-ethnic churches. I can’t tell you how refreshing this was! It’s as if most of us shared the assumption that our churches and ministries need to look different from each other- that cultures, neighborhoods, and history all matter. The franchising of American Christianity was hard to spot at Mosaix and it made me exceedingly hopeful.
This week I’ll be at the Mosaix 2013 conference in California. As the pastor of a multi church, there aren’t a lot of conferences where I can show up and assume that folks share my commitment to multi ethnic (racial, cultural) ministry. Mosaix 2013 will be that kind of a conference. I’ll be wearing a few different hats while at the conference. Primarily I’ll be there as a learner, looking for good theology and methodology that will benefit New Community Covenant Church. I will also be there in my role as Director of Church Planting for the Central Conference of my denomination. I’ll be paying attention to church planting trends and noticing the different ways church planters talk and think about diverse community. (We don’t all think the same way!) Finally, I get to spend some time representing my friends at Leadership Journal. I’ll write an article about the conference for them and connect with some of the speakers on their behalf.
There will be a lot of folks at the conference who have been long-distance teachers and mentors to me: Paul Louis Metzger, Christena Cleveland (whose blog you should follow and whose new book is quite good- I’ll post a review soon), Soong-Chan Rah, and many others. I’m glad for the chance to continuing learning from these women and men.
On Sunday afternoon I met with a leader from our church over coffee and our conversation turned to an upcoming sermon about worship. This African American woman and I discussed the many different levels of complexity when it comes to worship in a multi-ethnic church. She pointed out some of the generalizations that are often made about the worship preferences of different cultures and ethnicities; I wondered about the potential for spiritual formation when we submit to forms of worship that are not initially comfortable. As we left the coffeeshop I mentioned how grateful I am to belong to a church community that expects these kinds of discussions, questions, and sermons.
In fact, I’ve come to take these conversations for granted though they are probably rare for most pastors and churches. Despite the many challenges of a young, diverse church, such conversations – and their applications – are surely one of our greatest gifts. Pastors and church leaders who serve in less diverse circumstances must look elsewhere for the theological agitation that is necessary for forming churches that faithfully reflect Gospel reconciliation.
Thankfully, the upcoming Mosaix Multi-ethnic Church Conference will provide one such forum. With sessions on theology, church planting, sociological trends, best practices, and more and with seasoned and competent leaders like John Perkins, Choco DeJesus, Michael Emerson, and conference organizer Mark DeYmaz, the conference will be full of thoughtful information. But as I look at the list of speakers and consider who else will be attending I know that it will be the conversations, like the one this past Sunday, that will make those days in Long Beach so fruitful.
The conference is November 5-6 so you’ve got plenty of time to register.
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.