A few weeks ago, Phil Johnson, a pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and former blogger at Pyromaniacs, posted a blog post criticizing Thabiti Anyabwile, an African American pastor in Washington D.C., for drifting from a gospel-centered approach to ministry because he advocated for social justice and #BlackLivesMatter. A back-and-forth ensued, and the conversation continues. Andrew offered his own thoughts on the issue, and I don’t have much to add except to point out one thing that distresses me about the two sides of the debate.
Oftentimes, white evangelicals voice the opinion that they want to have minorities with them at the same table (or elder board), but they want this to happen on their own terms. They want minorities to make their churches more “diverse,” but they’re not willing to actually listen to and learn from minorities. The Thabiti issue is a case in point; so many white evangelicals are quick to read Thabiti’s piece with a suspicious eye, ready to critique and rebut instead of asking, “What can I learn from this African American brother in Christ who might, just MIGHT, be more informed about the struggles of the African American community than I am?”
The Gospel Coalition also posted a video a few weeks ago featuring a discussion between John Piper, Stephen Um, and Trip Lee on whether and how every church should strive to be multi-ethnic. Piper notes that when he was pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, he intentionally sought to diversify his staff and leadership by preferring diverse candidates (all else being equal).
Most Christians, even those who disagree with Thabiti, would agree that a multi-ethnic church that reflects the diversity of Rev 7:9 is a worthy goal.
However, these recent debates between African American and white evangelicals show that the church has a long way to go before real racial reconciliation is possible.
Making your church more diverse is about more than just adding another shade to your elder board. It often means having a willingness to learn and be challenged by opposing viewpoints. Diversity is more than just skin color after all. Diversity entails a diversity of opinions informed by real-life experience. A genuine desire for diversity must be coupled with the humility to admit that minorities might understand the minority experience more deeply and intimately than their white peers.
When we consider the opinions of those who come from different backgrounds, we don’t often pause to consider how those backgrounds themselves may have influenced their opinions. This is an important point that is often missed. As Andrew shared in another post, it’s impossible to do theology without understanding the influence of contextualization, and the same goes for everyday dialogue and debate.
Missionaries understand the need for contextualization when spreading the gospel in new areas, and churches seeking to diversify in America would do well to learn from their experiences. Missionaries, once they establish a self-sustaining church in an unreached area, soon realize that the relationship between the mission and the local indigenous church has changed. The missionaries must now partner with the local church and seek to learn from them how they can best serve the church.
Likewise, if white evangelicals want to see their churches or denominations diversify, they need to seek to learn from minorities on minority issues. Otherwise, minority voices will continue to be snuffed out and minorities will leave white churches to form their own mono-ethnic enclaves, a far cry from the vision of Rev 7:9. The responsibility is on us both.
Minorities must also be willing to listen to their white peers on these issues. While they may not share our personal experiences, our white peers can offer an outside perspective that is needed to avoid the negative effects of an echo chamber. It’s possible that in our anger or frustration, we might have a knee-jerk reaction that immediately discounts the views of those standing on the outside looking in. Thankfully, Thabiti offered much nuance in his responses and provided an example of what such a dialogue might look like.
The Thabiti-Johnson debate was only one example of many more debates to come. The question for all of us, though perhaps especially for white evangelicals is – are you willing to listen?