Race & Faith (1): A Prayer for Racial Unity and Diversity in our Churches

Over the course of the past twenty years, I have filled the pulpit of several hundred churches in the United States. Those churches belong to more than 20 denominations, though most are Southern Baptist. During this twenty-year stretch, I cannot remember more than, say, 20 churches that were multi-racial. Although I rarely encountered churches that were overtly racist, increasingly I have come to recognize the monochrome racial uniformity of our churches as an obstacle to the gospel. What is true of our churches often is true also of our seminaries.

For the past twelve years, I have been a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also currently serve as Provost. For better and for worse, our seminary reflects the Southern Baptist churches that created and support it (especially the churches in the South), and which populate its classrooms with budding ministers of the gospel. I am profoundly grateful for Southern Baptist churches and recognize the myriad ways in which they represent well God and his gospel. However, my love and appreciation for our network of churches causes me to reflect upon ways in which we do not yet reflect well God and his gospel, and one of those ways is racial unity and diversity.

Each semester when I sit on the platform for convocation and graduation, I notice the overwhelmingly white sea of faces. Similarly, when I preach in our churches, I am reminded that MLK’s famous statement still holds true: the Sunday hour of congregational worship does appear to be in many communities the most segregated hour of the week. This segregation appears as an odd anomaly in the midst of our broader American social and cultural context, where Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans live, work, and play alongside of one another. Each semester I pray that God would bless us by making our seminary a preview of his new creation kingdom in which all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations will worship together.

As the faculty and administration at Southeastern we are working to make our seminary environment hospitable to non-Anglo students. We seek to teach to and for the concerns of non-Anglo students. Thus, I have been doing some reading toward that end. Among various books on race and racism, George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility stands out, providing a very helpful introductory treatment of racial unity from a Christian perspective.[1] Yancey’s book was in fact so helpful that I decided to craft a five-part blog series on race and faith, of which this post is the first installment.

Yancey argues that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have not quite made the progress we might think we have in our battle with racism. Yancey argues that racial issues, not unlike life/death issues, are moral issues (11). However, while many evangelical Christians possess clear categories for conceptualizing and evaluating other moral issues (such as life/death issues; and can clearly articulate, for example, why abortion is immoral), Yancey argues that most Christians have not worked out moral categories or responses for racism. He writes, “My reading of secular and Christian literature on issues of race has not uncovered any unique stance on the part of the Christian church. When Christians write and speak about racial issues, they sound much like their secular counterparts. Instead of initiating our own solutions to the problem of racism, we merely copy the solutions offered by the rest of the world” (11).

Yancey recommends, however, that evangelicals more than most people should understand the doctrine fundamental to understanding racism—human depravity. “To understand how to best eliminate racism, I propose that we start with the Christian doctrine of human depravity. Secular solutions are incomplete because they ignore the reality of human depravity and our sin nature” (13).  For this reason, Yancey devotes the first part of his book to describing and critiquing four secular solutions to racial gridlock. In the second part Yancey provides his own constructive Christian treatment of the issue. Yancey’s categories and arguments are helpful enough that they will form the backbone of the current blog series.



[1] George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Yancey is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, and is an African-American.

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  1. Robert Thornton   •  

    All unrightousness and lawlessness is sin,and indeed it is the nature of fallen humanity to sin. However, I am concerned about the current tendency to prject the sin of racism upon the Southern Baptist Church, as if this sin is geographicaly or denominationly bound. Racism is not confined to the south or any paticular group whether Christian or secular. All genuine born again Christians understand that hate of any kind is wrong. Human depravity has been mentioned, but also of importance are the doctrines of santification and holiness. We all fall short in many things. Let’s stop apologizing for our denomination’s past sins, and follow a God vision, instead of trying, in our own effort, to correct issues which we pick and choose. This exact issue is what has fostered the idea that even the word Baptist is a hinderance to the Gospel. Thus we have shame and embarasement among some in our SBC churches, even to the point of removing Baptist from church names. I am not ashamed to be a Southern Baptist, as long as we continue to stand upon the Word of God. The conservative resurgance, now that was a God vision. Let’s stop the chruch politics and distractions of mann’s visions and follow God.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Robert,

    Hi,and thank you for taking the time to comment. In reading your response, I’m not sure which of your thoughts/critiques are meant to be pointed toward me or my blogpost, and which are pointed elsewhere at other persons. But are a few thoughts, although they are brief.

    1. Agreed that all sin is sin.
    2. Agreed that sin is not geographically or denominationally bound, and that racism is not bound to the South or to any particular group.
    3. I think it is appropriate to recognize where we have
    gone wrong in the past, and where we today might not still be where we need to be on this issue, and at the same time not be ashamed of who we are today.
    4. Agreed that we shouldn’t be ashamed to be Southern Baptist.
    5. I hope that you’ll find this 5 part blog series to grow from the soil of a big “God vision” (as you put it), and not to be church politics or distractions. The big God-vision is encapsulated in Revelation 5.

    Blessings,
    Bruce
    4.

  3. Meg I.   •  

    What this article does not take into account as it should, is that in many cases. people of other races do not want to leave the culture of their ethnicity to be a part of another church. Try as much as you like but if you had many friends from other ethnic groups who are Christians, most prefer to worship on Sunday, the way they always have and in the culture they have been raised in. I have been in Asian churches for the past 30 years in both the US and Asia. Even in the US, the Anglo churches are not where the Asians want to be – they want to be within their own culture. Do not put this guilt trip on Anglo Americans until you know all sides. My black friends do not want to attend mostly white churches as they say the worship and preaching style is not what they enjoy. No one is at fault here. We get enough to this false guilt from the liberal media and no matter how much you try to break down walls, they will still find ways to pour on guilt that is not justified.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Meg,

    Hi, and thank you for reading and commenting. You are right that persons of other ethnicity sometimes want to worship in a homogeneous unit. Just like Anglos do. And that’s intuitive, and not immoral or bad. However, in many settings, Anglo, African-Americans, and others work and live life alongside of each other. In those instances (which are numerous), churches find it incumbent upon themselves to embrace the whole spectrum of potential worshipers. This allows the church to be a preview of the Kingdom, a kingdom where all tribes, tongues, and nations, will worship together. It allows us to show that the gospel overcomes certain barriers, etc.

    As for guilt trips, I’m against them also.

    BA

  5. Trey   •  

    Reading these comments grieves me deeply. As an African American who attends a Southern Baptist church, it is this type of attitude that keeps people from my race (and other races) away from our churches. It is clear that multi-ethnicity is not important for many in the SBC. Even in the church I attend, most people are okay with other races being there because it’s on their (the majority’s) own terms. African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, etc. must be willing to assimilate into OUR culture, but we will make little to no effort to accommodate or even acknowledge theirs. It sad that SBC culture is considered so important to some that it trumps any real effort to become a multi-ethnic denomination.

    Also, the presence of other races (myself included) does not make an SBC church or the denomination multi-ethnic. Having Fred Luter serve as SBC president has not solved the problem. And the fact that there are churches that are truly multi-ethnic and Gospel-centered (I used to attend one) shows that it can be done. It’s not just about worship and preaching styles.

    Mr. Ashford, thank you for being willing to address this topic, particularly since it’s not one that some want to deal with. I often see articles/blog posts written from a white person’s perspective on this issue. Are you aware of any bloggers or others in the SBC who are not white who are writing about this?

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Trey,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your contribution and agree with you that a truly multi-ethnic church is not just a church that has non-white attenders, and that the election of Fred Luter does not in itself solve the problem. Let’s pray for, and work toward, the formation of local churches which genuinely transcend racial barriers, and do so intentionally as a preview of God’s coming Kingdom which will be marked by such unity-in-diversity. Let’s also pray for, and work toward, the election of multiple non-white SBC presidents, and hopefully also the appointment of non-white entity heads in the future. As for your question about non-white SBC writers, I’m not aware of many. Walter Strickland (African-American prof of theology at SEBTS) is currently writing a PhD dissertation on black theology. Norman Peart (African-American prof of sociology at SEBTS) has written an excellent book on multi-cultural churches. George Yancey (African-American sociologist at UNT, but I’m not sure of his denominational affiliation) wrote a book on mutual responsibility which serves as the backbone of this blog series.

    Blessings,
    Bruce

  7. Nicholas Muteti   •  

    Brother Ashford,
    This issue has paralyzed most of our Southern Baptist Churches. People seem to lean on interacting with each other only based on their ethnicity. As Bible believing people, we should not be afraid to bring diversity in our Churches.Brother Trey spoke from his heart truthfully because there are people who make hurtful comments. I truly believe that, as Christians, we should be color blind. I spoke with you before and can tell you are really determined to see our SBC Churches and Denomination as a whole become diversified .But, I wonder how this will work when we still have some of our fellow SBC Members who are not genuine in their fellowship with those who don’t look like them. This kind of behavior is what grieves God everyday. I always say that, the weakness is on the Pulpit. Why? Because, unless the Pastor preaches about the importance of diversity in the local Church, how will the people know the importance of it?.
    For the last nearly 20 years, I have been reaching out cross-culturally trying to bring diversity in our local Churches and SBC Denomination. It’s not hard to do it! Prayer will help to soften the hearts of those who still have racial problems. But the question is, are they going to create their own Heaven if they will make it? Is racism really not sin? Heaven is diversified eternal home for all born again Christians. Whether black, white, latina, African, native American, Asian one will be in Heaven. So, those who have a problem with people of other race will have to accept them. I know we all can work together to bring diversity in our denomination and All SBC Seminaries. Our Church have been welcoming many people of All cultures and each day, the diversity continues to grow. Jesus died for all people. Heaven is the greatest Cross-Cultural home ever prepared! God bless you.
    Nicholas

  8. Trey   •  

    I did want to clarify that I was very excited about Fred Luter’s election and that I believe it is a big step towards racial harmony and multi-ethnicity in the SBC. Praise God! And having minorities in SBC churches is also an important step. But we cannot allow ourselves to believe that these steps indicate that this is no longer an issue.

    I also want to say that it will take effort on all sides, from the majority and minorities, in order to truly have multi-ethnic SBC churches. It won’t be easy, and grace will need to be extended to all and by all. But I believe that it’s worth it! This is one of the reasons why I have chosen to attend an SBC-affiliated church that may not fit many of my cultural preferences. Perhaps I can in some small way affect change in this area in my church.

    Finally, when we say things like “they don’t like our worship or preaching” it can be seen as a subtle way of blaming minorities for the fact that they are not coming to our churches. You might be surprised how many minorities might start coming to our churches if we had active and intentional outreach into these communities, even if we don’t change one thing about the style of the worship service. People will come when they believe they are truly wanted, welcomed, and loved.

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