Pastor, I have a question for you. Why is it that the church in America is so segregated? Recent metrics have shown that 13 percent of churches are considered multiethnic in our ever-growing multicolored country. Unfortunately, the insight of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr still rings true. Sunday morning at eleven o’clock remains to be the most segregated hour in our nation.
As ministry leaders, the gospel of the Lord Jesus compels and demands that we live as a reconciled people partnering with him in the Spirit’s strength to help usher in God’s vision for humanity. However, there are barriers that keep us from living out this gospel reality and flourishing as the people God has called us to be in Christ — here are three to consider.
Racism and Ethnocentrism Create Barriers
I’ve had people tell me that the church where I pastor, Transformation Church, is too ethnically diverse for them. In response I say, “Well, you aren’t going to like the new heaven and the new earth at all because it will be way more beautiful and more diverse than Transformation Church.”
In the multiethnic church at Antioch, Paul confronted the apostle Peter and rebuked him for his ethnocentrism (see Galatians 2:11–21). Paul said, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (2:11) Condemned is a strong word! God condemns ethnocentrism and racism!
Before the Jews who were a part of the homogeneous church in Jerusalem arrived on an inspection tour in Antioch, Peter ate with Gentiles. After the Jerusalem Christians arrived, Peter “drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Acts 2:12). As the leader, Peter’s sin caused the other Jews to dissociate from the Gentiles also. In essence, Paul said that ethnocentrism and racism were crucified on the cross! The racist I used to be is dead because the Messiah, the one who loved and gave himself for me, lives in me now (2:20). Therefore, Jews and Gentiles are of the same body and are equal because both have been justified (declared as righteous) by faith, not works of the law or Jewish ethnicity. God declares Jews and Gentiles righteous by grace because they have been incorporated into Christ.
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:15–16, 21).
The gospel makes us color-blessed, not color-blind. The cross births a new multiethnic people who define themselves by the color of Jesus’ blood, not the color of their skin. The cross births a new people who view themselves as equals because they are reconciled to Christ and to one another. The bloody cross of Christ is now the driving force that influences us more than our culture. And once again Paul noted we are Abraham’s offspring because God in Jesus is faithful to complete his promise to Abraham of creating a big, beautiful, multicolored family of unity and reconciliation. This gospel reality ought to grip the heart of ministry leaders.
The Homogeneous Unit Principle Creates Barriers
The American church has gotten into bed with the homogeneous unit principle (HUP), and the offspring of this unholy union is ethnically, socioeconomically segregated congregations. In 1955, Donald McGavran’s book The Bridges of God launched what we know today as the church growth movement. The HUP taught that “homogeneous churches grow faster because people prefer to attend church with those from similar racial, socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In an attempt to draw individuals into church, barriers needed to be removed, and that meant that dealing with racial differences which would detract from the real work of the Church would not be considered.”
As a result of adherence to this principle, local church staffs are homogeneous. This lack of diversity is a huge barrier. Many of my white pastor friends ask me, “How come Black people won’t come to our church, and if they do come, they don’t stay?” My first response is, “Is your staff all white?” When they say they are, I explain, “That’s a barrier.” Having a homogeneous staff says only people like us can lead. And the same is true for my Black pastor friends.
Preaching A Small, Individualistic, Underdeveloped Gospel Creates Barriers
America is enslaved to individualism. Professor Soong-Chan Rah observed, “From the earliest stages of American history, individualism has been the defining attribute of our nation’s ethos.” As a result, American Christians have been breast-fed and brought up on what I call the Gospel of Me. Instead of an individual existing for Jesus, Jesus exists to help an individual realize their potential and fulfill their dreams. Jesus is little more than a life coach. As a result of pastors being under the spell of individualism, the American church often preaches a small, individualistic gospel that focuses on getting people to heaven when they die instead of one that creates a redeemed, regenerated community that embodies the kingdom of God as God promised Abraham. Jesus, the King himself, blood-bought a Spirit-inhabited multiethnic church so it could be a foretaste of God’s eternal church in the new heaven and the new earth here on earth (see Revelation 5:9–12).
Pastor, church-planter, ministry leader, we must have a vision for our ministries that runs deeper than sociological paradigms and mere inclusivity for the sake of decorating our stages and ministry teams. Rather, God compels us through the completed and climatic work of Jesus to pursue a multiethnic life and ministry. Will you join him in his mission?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Derwin L. Gray, a former NFL player, is the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church (TC). Transformation Church is a multiethnic, multigeneration, mission-shaped community in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. Derwin and Vicki have been married for twenty-eight years and have two adult children. Derwin is the author of Building a Multiethnic Church: A Gospel Vision of Love, Grace, and Reconciliation in a Divided World and host of Marinate on That Podcast.