I have been thinking a lot lately about what we are hoping God will do in our midst at Living Hope.
One of the things we want to see is God build a church that reflects the eternal future where people from every tribe and nation will be worshiping God in a community of perfect love. And I have been reminded how vital this is primarily by how rare this seems to be in churches that are theologically deep. From both sides. It’s hard for me to fathom someone starting a church that is intentionally targeting one segment of the population. But it’s happening. With a straight face. “In Christ there is neither Afrikaans or Coloured or American, but in our church there is.” What? Are you serious? I have even heard it made more specific than this. We are targeting middle class Zulus or we are planting a church that focuses on urban, upper class, Afrikaaners. I think some people may have thought this is what we were doing in our church and it’s a misconception that I try to correct as often as I can. Specifically, they thought we were planting a church that was primarily focused on refugees, which in their mind often went with a wrong stereotype they had of poor refugees. No. How many times have I had to say, that’s not it?
Instead from the beginning what we wanted to do was plant a church filled with people who are serious about considering others interest above their own and that if God wills would end up somewhat reflecting the Pretoria in which we live in terms of ethnic make up. Don’t misunderstand. This is not diversity for the sake of diversity, but instead it is an intentional pursuit of people who are different than we are because a failure to do says something.
If I am living in a very diverse culture and there is no diversity in my church, it’s hard for me to see how that doesn’t indicate at some level, I am not pursuing people outside of my ethnic group for the cause of Christ! I think that’s where the problem lies. If I am living in a place where there are only Malawians, then I don’t need to feel like my church is inadequate because only Malawians come to my church. But if I am living in a place that is diverse, surely something strange is happening if only one segment of that population is part of the church. Now of course, if our culture is diverse and we are willing to put our interests to the side for the sake of others and their relationship with Christ, and still there’s not much diversity, well then that’s not quite as much of a concern but at the same time I think we are so used to pursuing our own interests that it we might not even realize we are doing so when we are. Selfishness is so hard to see and so easy to defend.
Now I know some think, we’ll just let diversity happen. If it happens, it happens and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. To a certain extent, I understand that when a church is preaching God’s Word and discipling people, those people should be changed and hopefully will reach out to people regardless. And yet, it’s hard for me given how deep these hostilities run in all of our hearts to think that we can move ahead in this area without paying specific attention to how we apply the gospel to the way we think about this area.
It feels a little like going into a congregation completely filled with people who weigh five hundred pounds and whose parents weighed five hundred pounds and who live among people who weigh five hundred pounds and thinking they are going to change without me ever addressing the issue and then also giving specific dietary kind of help. Maybe, but I doubt it. Did you ever try to lose weight? It’s really difficult. And so is reaching out and loving people who are different than you. Does anyone really, seriously imagine we will actually change in this area if we don’t intentionally plan to change in this area?
This is ultimately about living out implications of what the gospel has accomplished in us. We are one in Christ. And this is not merely a slogan we throw around. It is one of the great accomplishments of Christ on the cross. I like how John Stott stresses the importance of this – when he says,
“It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a single humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship…”
Now, one of great barriers to a single humanity of love is being able to consider someone else’s interests enough to imagine what it is like to be them and to see life from their perspective.
In fact, recently I was reading an email exchange between a biblical preacher named Thabiti Abanywile and Jonathan Leeman (with Mark Dever’s ministry, Nine Marks) which I illustrates this difficulty very well. Jonathan who is white asks Thabiti why he says it is CRAZY to be a black man. (Because we don’t generally think, its CRAZY to be a white man.)
For now, listen to what Thabiti writes,
“Why is it CRAZY to be a black man?Well… for starters there is the great fear and distrust associated not just with blackness, but with black maleness. Have you every thought about how many people fear you because of the skin you’re in? Sometimes it seems the fear is universal. And consider what people do when fear grips them. It’s “fight or flight.” Can you imagine constantly provoking those extremes in nearly everyone you meet? Can you imagine how tenuous every interaction becomes? And can you imagine how difficult it is to always maintain a balanced, patient accommodation of every body else’s
ignorance? So, many black men check out. They’d rather renounce society than negotiate it. It’s like trying to cross a land mine with snow shoes. You need to be able to monitor your steps, move with precision and gentleness, yet what you’re dealt are a pair of clumsy, huge bomb seekers for feet! Then others capitulate and wear a mask that makes it easier on some level, but dangerous psychologically. It’s crazy.
And, brother, the mistrust shown black men isn’t limited to folks outside the black community. Black folks are suspicious of black folks, too. So, the mistrust remains high… in male-female relationships… in walks through the neighborhood… etc. There seems to be no respite from being a black man. That’s crazy.
Never mind the other stereotypes. Phenomenal athlete… great dancer… sexual predator… intellectually inferior… and on and on. It’s crazy. And nearly all of these things crash upon you from the start, from outside of you, before you can even say “hello.” It’s crazy.
You asked: What would it mean for me to overcome my ignorance? In other words, how would I go about thinking of myself as “white” in a way that’s societally health-giving and, more importantly, Christ imaging?
Oooh. I don’t completely know. My hunch is we have to do the customary things for overcoming ignorance. Question our presuppositions, listen to others, read, pray, etc. But again, I think that’s slow, patient work. Perhaps simply starting to think of yourself as white would be helpful. That suggests, at least, that your experience is not normative and universal. It’s more local than that, and it, therefore, needs to be inspected and put in dialogue with other perspectives without assuming either its normalcy or its superiority.”
Now why am I bringing all this up? Partly because I found it interesting. And also because I think this is something we need to be willing to do in our context with everyone really, regardless of color. We all need to love people enough to slow down and care about them and listen to them and develop a real relationship with them!
As John Stott writes,
“I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the honour of Christ and for the spread of the gospel, than that the church should be, and should be seen to be, what by God’s purpose and Christ’s achievement it already is – a single new humanity, a model of human community, a family of reconciled brothers and sisters who love their Father and love each other, the evident dwelling place of God by His Spirit. Only then will the world believe in Christ as peacemaker. Only then will God receive the glory due His name.”