Racial Integration In Our Churches – Part 1

The following is the first of multi-part series on racial integration in the church. This is modified from a recent panel discussion that I participated in at Southeastern called One Body, Many Colors.

1. Why should we pursue racial integration in our churches?

One major reason is that one of the primary plotlines of the Bible is bringing glory to God by bringing back together various races in one common salvation. From Genesis 12 to Revelation 7, God is bringing back together what sin has driven apart. The Pentecost event of Acts 2 is intentionally multicultural; Mark recounts Jesus’ vision of the church as distinctly multicultural: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:18). Paul calls the racial integration of the church evidence of the “manifest wisdom of God”  (Eph 3:10).

In our day, racial unity speaks in a way that few other things can. Gathering large, like-minded audiences around engaging speakers and great music is not a manifestation of God’s wisdom–political conventions and sports do that all time. But when you have a group of people who have little in common but a love for Jesus and an experience of grace—that speaks to the world, that “manifests” God’s wisdom and power to the world.

Bill Hybels once told me that if he had it do over again he would make racial integration a Willow Creek value from the beginning. I asked him if he would do it knowing that he would never be able to grow Willow as large as he had. Without blinking, he said, “Absolutely.” I asked, “You would be willing to reach less people just so your church could be a picture of diversity?” Hybels replied, “The corporate witness of racially diverse churches in America would be more powerful than a number surge in any one congregation.”

Racial integration gives us a foretaste of heaven, a “sign” of the coming Kingdom. Rodney Stark in his Rise of Christianity lists it as one of the things that made the early church distinct from other religious groups and led to its rapid growth. Local churches were the one place in the Roman empire where races got along with social hierarchies. Their racial harmony gave them a chance to explain that Jesus was not only a Jew, but the Lord of all humanity, the Savior of all races.

Humanity has a common problem, sin, and a common Savior, Jesus. Racial integration in a church, where our common humanity and common salvation are put on display, glorifies the firstborn of all creation.

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  1. John Metz   •  

    As an older white guy I want to testify positively that I have for the last 40 years happily been involved with multi-racial, multi-etnic, and multi-language congregations. This was not brought about by a program but by honoring Christ as the Savior of all kinds of people and by receiving believers according to Romans 14, that is, receiving those God receives. You are right to say this is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem and a testimony to a divided world and, sadly, a divided Christendom.

  2. Jackson Wu   •  

    In my own dissertation research, I found ethnicity to be a key place where honor/shame/face concerns manifest. Identity, after all, emerges around how our sense of values are similar and differ from others. It seems the more collectivistic a culture (and thus its church), the more people splinter at this ethnicity issue. However, individualists can overlook the subtle power of group identification (e.g. ethnicity), perhaps even try to cast race-related issues aside as if denying ethnicity were best for the unity of all parties. Naturally, this is hardly the perspective to have if you are going to appreciate differences and yet face the hard realities that cause division.

    One more aside, it would seem that since so much that makes for socially disintegrated churches is economics, since money generally determines where people live and thus join churches. It seems that churches need a theology of “picking your neighborhood” and to five more attention to economics. Of course that would mean some pastors would have to urge their people to actually leave the neighborhood and church in order to live well under their means.

    The contextual factors I mention create a difficult dilemma that only the gospel can solve. Particularly in Paul, ethnicity is a central issue to the gospel, not a mere application. The gospel proclaims Christ as king over all nations (Rom 1:1-5; 1 Cor 15:20-28) and that in him all nations, not just Jews, will be blessed (Gal 3:8). The traditional emphasis in the West is laid on individual salvation.

    As important as that is, do you think part of the Church’s difficulty in reaching racial integration is that so little connection is made between ethnicity and the gospel itself? It seems to me that racial unity is treated as just one subject among many possible applications (contra Eph 2-3 for example). How do you think the two are connected—-the way we communicate the gospel and racial integration?

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