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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3 Critical Truths About Our Money

Zacchaeus is a household name for most Christians, thanks to the annoyingly catchy Sunday School jingle. Sadly, most of us don’t know much about Zacchaeus except that he was a wee, little man—or, in the modern vernacular, “vertically challenged”—who knew how to climb trees.

But Zacchaeus’ story is an incredible picture of gospel-motivated generosity. In Zacchaeus, we see a stingy, fiscally corrupt man become one of the most generous people in the entire Bible. Zacchaeus teaches us three critical truths about our money:

1. Money problems usually come from money idolatry.

Idolatry describes the posture of our heart when it craves, depends on, and demands something other than God. “Without this,” idolatry says, “I could never be happy.”

Zacchaeus worshipped money as the greatest thing life had to offer, so he was willing to steal, lie, and hurt his own people because he loved money more than anything. No one sells out his own people naturally: for Zacchaeus to have become the corrupt “chief tax collector” that he was, money must have had a tenacious grip on his heart.

We may not idolize wealth as flagrantly as Zacchaeus did, but the love of money still leads us to all kinds of evil. For many people, that means cheating on their taxes, or hedging on their time cards. It means overspending, and going into massive debt to acquire a standard of living they have just got to have. It means being eaten up with jealousy when they see other people with something they cannot afford themselves. It means refusing to be generous, telling God that his dominion doesn’t extend over our wallets.

As Chip Ingram notes, a biblical vision concerning money is to be smart, wise, and generousSmart—spend carefully. Wise—save regularly. Generous—give extravagantly.[1] Or, as one of our staff members says, “Steward the temporal with gratitude. Invest in the eternal with abandon.”

But a heart worshipping money will never see things this way. That leads to number two:

2. Only an experience with the gospel changes our heart’s attitude toward money.

Zacchaeus didn’t become generous because Jesus commanded him to. (Go ahead, read through Luke 19:1–10. The only command in there is, “Come down from that tree!”) No, he became generous because he wanted to. Zacchaeus didn’t sit through a sermon on generosity; he soaked in the grace of Jesus, and that did more than 10,000 sermons on generosity ever could.

Zacchaeus deserved to be rejected, yet Jesus invited him into the warmth of fellowship, sharing a meal with him. Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he was despised. But Jesus would die, hanging up on a tree, cursed and despised for all mankind. Jesus traded places with Zacchaeus—so Zacchaeus got the joy, while Jesus got the pain.

We should all see our story in Zacchaeus’ story. We deserve to be rejected by God for our sin, but God invites us into fellowship with him. Jesus offers to take our place on the tree, offering his joy in exchange for our pain.

Just a glimpse of that turned Zacchaeus into the most generous man in the New Testament. How much more should we, who know the full extent of Jesus’ grace toward us, change in light of that grace? Zacchaeus got the crumbs, but we get the whole feast!

The only way our stingy, wee, little, fearful hearts will change is by looking at the cross. And when that happens, we will begin to be generous—without a single command.

3. People who ask, “How much do I have to give?” don’t get it.

I am often asked how much Christians should give. Some who ask this are looking for wisdom, but many are looking for an out. They want to know how much is enough to get God off their backs, to fulfill their duty. And that attitude is miles away from the gospel.

Gospel giving is about love, not law. It’s not about percentages, but about a person. Zacchaeus throws out some numbers, but not because Jesus gives him the benchmark first. He does it out of sheer joy, as a love offering to God.

A lot of people who ask, “How much do I have to give?” labor under the delusion that God needs their money. In their minds, God is like the government, endlessly low on funds and constantly seeking more funding. But God doesn’t need our cash.

That’s why 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that God loves a cheerful giver. If God had needs, he wouldn’t care why you gave; he would only care that you gave. I’ve never gotten a letter from the IRS saying, “Yes, you paid the legal amount, but we sense that it wasn’t joyful giving. We’re concerned about your motives.” No, the IRS needs money, so that’s their bottom line.

But (thankfully) God isn’t like the IRS. God loves cheerful giving because gospel giving is primarily about worship and joy, not meeting needs. I have heard it said that God measures our generosity not by the size of our gifts, but by the size of our sacrifice, because sacrifice expresses the affections of our heart to God.

And if we find ourselves growing stingy and fearful once again, the answer is not to try harder. The answer is to look back at the cross, where God was lavishly generous with us. Because those people who truly experience the gospel become like the gospel—overflowing with grace.

  

For more, see chapter 4 (“Changed without a Command”) of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.


[1] Chip Ingram, The Genius of Generosity, 15.

WHY CHURCH LEADERS NEED TO CONTINUE THEIR EDUCATION

I admit my bias here. I am a seminary dean and professor, and I believe in education. Students help to pay my salary. They have become my friends, my mentees, my children in the faith. Graduates make me proud.

My reason for writing this blog, though, goes beyond these thoughts. If we are doing the work of God, we must give our absolute best. I desire to be part of a team that trains and sends out the strongest leaders in the world – leaders who make a difference in the kingdom of darkness. Those leaders never stop learning.

With those thoughts in mind, here are ten reasons why leaders should continue their education:

1. The Christian life is about growth. We are babies in Christ at new birth, yet called to continual growth and maturity (Heb. 5:12-14). Always, we are to be in the process of God’s conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). If we reach the point of assuming we’ve “arrived” and need no further training, we are instead neglecting our Christian responsibility.

2. A willingness to learn is a sign of humility. Education is seldom easy. An openness to become a student again, to be held accountable for assignments, and to be evaluated by others is a sign of the kind of humility all leaders should exhibit. We need no more arrogant leaders, and the education process can sift out our pride.

3. We always face theological issues. The authority of the Word of God, especially when evaluated against sacred documents of other world faiths, continues to be an issue. We must increasingly defend the truth that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to God. The doctrine of the Trinity is at times an issue when evangelizing around the world. Continued education can help us be better prepared to respond to these types of significant issues.

4. We continue to confront new ethical and moral issues. When I started in ministry over thirty years ago, I did not imagine ministering in a culture that affirms same-sex marriage. Internet pornography was not even an option. Never did I envision ministering to Sally, who actually began life as Sam. Issues like these are not, of course, separated from our theology, and further education equips us to minister in this changing culture.

5. The people we lead are frequently still learning. At least in North America, we often minister to educated parishioners. They are teachers, engineers, physicians, and accountants. Many of our congregations include professionals for whom continued education is assumed, if not required. Thus, they recognize the value that continued training offers for their spiritual leaders.

6. Distance learning options allow us to continue education without leaving our ministry. Gone are the days when education required students to move to a campus. Today, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for continued training without evacuating significant ministries. Southeastern Seminary now offers masters and doctoral degrees – including the PhD – that do not require full-time residence in North Carolina. The relocation obstacle to continued education simply doesn’t exist anymore.

7. Learning within a group of peers is important. Many opportunities for advanced training include small group, peer-to-peer learning that focuses on particular aspects of leadership. Few educational options are as valuable as these. Each student brings his/her own knowledge to the classroom, helping to build a community of scholars. Peers become not only classmates, but also prayer partners. Education thus becomes not only content-based, but also life-on-life.

8. We often learn better after leadership experience. Learning apart from practical experience is not insignificant, but it risks becoming only theory rather than life application. Frankly, it’s easy to decide how to be a leader until you actually have to be one. The best students I know are those who leadership experience gives them a grid through which to evaluate concepts and programs. These students are those who choose to continue their education throughout their ministry.

9. The discipline of learning is important. Let’s be honest: even leaders sometimes get lazy. We rely solely on yesterday’s learning to face today’s issues. We talk more about what we have read than about what we are reading. Personal preparation for daily ministry becomes more surface review than intense study. Continued education, on the other hand, challenges us to return to rigor and discipline.

10. Continued education stretches our faith.  The obstacles to further training are real. Too little time. Too few dollars. Too many years out of school. Too many other responsibilities. Too much risk of failure. Here’s the bottom line, though: sometimes we just have to trust God to help us do what He expects us to do.

Contact us at Southeastern if you’re interested in further studies!