In recent years I’ve heard some notable Christian leaders say things like this regarding the current political landscape in the United States-
“The conservatives have lost their hearts and the liberals have lost their minds.”
“One political side represents Socialism and the other, Empire.”
Regardless of if these quotes are true of the current political state in the U.S. of not, I have great concerns that political ideology has many Christians held captive. I’ve talked to Christians who religiously listen to political commentators who aren’t even Christians themselves. If someone critiques one of these commentators or disagrees with them, it’s as if they disagreed with Paul in the Scriptures or maybe even Jesus. I’m saddened by Christians that are set on fire by political shock jocks getting wealthy on the extreme edges of conservatism and liberalism. These same Christians don’t seem to be set on fire in the same manner by the Savior who proclaims that, “the Kingdom of God is now at hand.”
Now, I know that these Christians would passionately disagree with me, but that is because they see political conservatism and evangelical theological conservatism as the same thing. Others believe that biblical kingdom justice and political progressive ideology are the same thing.
We cannot allow fallen political ideologies and structures to limit the possibilities of true Kingdom advancement in the United States and beyond. The Kingdom of God as proclaimed in Scripture is supreme over and against any earthly government, including the one I like best. This means that though I believe democracy as worked out historically and currently in the United States is a better government model than others around the world, it doesn’t compare on any level to the truth, justice, compassion, transformation, reconciliation, and unity that comes forth from the Kingdom of God. And even though I believe what I do about democracy, I also believe that our government structure in the United States is currently broken, because every man-made structure in our world is fallen. Since all humans have fallen short, so are the ideologies and structures that we’ve created.
The Christian church is the vehicle which God has chosen to express the values, power, and outcomes of God’s Kingdom. The values of this Kingdom where communicated by our Savior Jesus Christ within Scripture. The church from this foundation ought to be presenting a Kingdom alternative and transforming solutions to the challenges we face today within the family, education, economics, community, health, and even tougher issues such as immigration.
But, because the church in many cases is being held hostage by extreme political ideologies from the edges, many outside the church don’t know the difference between God’s Kingdom and empire or God’s Kingdom and socialism. Now here is the challenging truth though; there are parts of the value system of God’s Kingdom that sound socialist on first listen and there are parts on first listen that sound like empire. But, when you look at all that is the Kingdom of God now and into eternity it is so much more than any earthly government could ever accomplish. Within the Kingdom of God value system there is the individual responsibility found within the necessity of new birth and the communal call to care for the poor. One must take ownership of their own spiritual development and be willing to share the first fruits of their resources to help the hurting thru the mission strategy of a local church.
No matter if you believe in big or small government, you can’t deny a big God who desires to love the lost, heal the broken, and bring justice to the oppressed thru the church.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statues which I am commanding you today for your good?”
“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 and 18-19 (NASB)
These words written by Moses connect something very important for God’s chosen people. Throughout this book, God called the people to remember Him as their one and only God. This remembrance is rooted in the deliverance out of oppression and slavery in Egypt. From here, they are to know God, love God, and follow his commandments. One important element of these commandments is the execution of justice.
What God seems to be saying here thru Moses is, “I saw you when you were the marginalized and the oppressed. I delivered you out of this condition. Now out of remembrance, worship, and love, live for Me by caring for the marginalized and oppressed around you now. If you are not sure who those people are, let me be very clear; the orphan, the widow, and the alien.” In other places in Scripture the poor are also mentioned. In Matthew 25, Jesus extends this in a very clear way to the sick and incarcerated as well. This should lead us to understand the connection between Deliverance, Remembrance, and Justice. Let me take this a little further.
Jesus is our deliverance out of sin. We should not disconnect our understanding of this from the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Just as the people of Israel were called to remember this, we Christians are to participate in the Sacrament of Communion as a remembrance. The Old Testament remembrance ought inform the New Testament remembrance. The New Testament remembrance should not remove the Old Testament remembrance. It is the combination of the two that fueled the movement against slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the United States of America. These movements were another great awakening in our country, which provided a new lens of understanding Kingdom justice.
Today, the church should still be about the evangelistic work of deliverance, the communal act of remembrance, and the missional work of Kingdom justice. As a product of the African-American church, I’ve never understood the historic divide in the European-American church between evangelism and the social gospel. I realize that the term social justice has taken on a bad name in evangelicalism and in many ways I understand why. Justice has been kidnapped to a large degree by humanism. This was the undoing of the Civil Rights Movement in a lot of ways. It went from being a church-based movement, to a secularized and political one. But the church should never stop connecting Evangelism and Kingdom Justice. God is a God of love, deliverance, and justice. We should always remember that.
I have an issue with folks who deal with the race issue by simply talking about liberation and the end of White supremacy. This limited solution to the issue of race misses the mark in two ways. One, it doesn’t go far enough in bringing a more comprehensive solution because it keeps the issues within the matrix of race. The further development of blackness becomes the solution for dealing with the problems of a dominant whiteness. The more comprehensive solution must include pulling the covers back on both blackness and whiteness and exposing this false social construct. Blackness and whiteness must be dismantled. Ethnicity and culture are truer elements of humanity than race. Whiteness rose by making itself good while blackness was bad. Is the solution to simply just reverse this and make blackness good and whiteness evil? Or to fight for the empowerment of blackness?
The second issue is that a race-based solution doesn’t work within a true biblically-based, Christian theology. Now I know that there are many who are fighting for racial justice, who don’t care if the solution to racism is deeply connected to a Christian theology. Well as a Christian this is of utmost importance to me. Christianity works for me because it is about dealing with sin. Racism, injustice, prejudice, and oppression are forms of sin and the God of the bible has a solution for this. This solution is about liberation and reconciliation. Racism is truly dealt with in Christ. Not the black or white christ, but the true multi-ethnic Christ who is both Jew and Gentile. Jesus Christ walked the earth as a multi-ethnic and multicultural human being (Matthew 1). When we are reconciled to God through Christ, we are born again and given a new identity beyond the social construct of race. Until we get to heaven though, we still live in this race-based society. This is why we must dismantle the segregated state of the church so that the church becomes a true new and reconciling community. This kind of community can in part deal with the ugly and sinful issue of racism and the injustices that come from it.
The bible is the story of God delivering a people out of oppression and it’s also about the opportunity for reconciliation and new identity for all humanity. To separate these two critical points is to limit freedom and salvation.
Even though it’s been over a month since my return from Kenya, I’m still feeling the experience in a profound way. I couldn’t help but connect the poverty that I saw and specifically the issues of African children and youth in some of the areas of Kenya with African-American children and youth in many of our inner cities in the United States. I struggled in explaining clearly to my European-American brothers on the trip with me what I was experiencing. I had similar feelings when I visited South Africa in the summer of 2001.
I believe there is a deep connection between issues facing African children and youth and African-American children and youth. For some reason though, many evangelicals have developed a deep sensitivity and compassion for African children and youth, but not as much for African-American children and youth. I know that this is a broad statement and that I must give room for the exception. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s harder to get large suburban evangelical churches to become just as passionate about dealing with issues of poverty and brokenness in Oakland, Detroit, or North Minneapolis as they are about it in Kenya or the Congo.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is an extreme poverty that exists in parts of Africa that no poverty in the United States can be compared to. But even with this fact, there are still issues within inner cities of the United States that call for the same passionate action as is evident in parts of Africa. It’s not an either or issue, it’s a both, and.
I think part of the issue is that many evangelicals see the United States as this fair and just society that provides opportunity for anyone who is willing to work for it. This is to say, that if you are poor in the United States, to a large degree you are to blame. But, because of the perceptions and views of Africa, poverty in there is somehow connected to other forces. My question is, can the United States be the land of freedom, opportunity, and democracy and still have other forces beyond simply individual opportunity that could cause one to fall into poverty? I think the recent economic crisis in our nation proves this to be true. Many hard working and educated Americans have lost their jobs and homes despite in many ways doing the right thing. There are some who have lost their homes because they were given a home loan that they really should have never received, but there are many others who are victims of the other forces.
I came back to America with an even deeper passion to work to see the Christian church have a biblical and broad ministry strategy to address the poverty impacting both African and African-American children and youth.
Because I’m very fortunate to speak at a lot of christian churches, conferences, and other events, I get a chance to hear a lot of christian music. In general, christian music can be broken down into the following categories; contemporary christian, gospel, southern gospel, urban gospel, holy hip hop, and traditional hymns.
To be more specific though, you can break christian music down to black christian music and white christian music. Many people don’t want to talk about this, but that’s the current state of christian music and it’s been that way for a long time. It’s race-based and is mostly influenced by places like Nashville and Detroit in the United States. Even when I preach at a Latino church, the praise and worship is mainly contemporary christian(white); it’s just being sung in spanish.
Even christian radio is segregated. Rarely, does a ccm station play urban gospel and never have I heard a black gospel/urban gospel station play ccm. As a matter of fact there aren’t very many black gospel/urban gospel stations, but mostly shows that last about two hours weekly hosted by Be Be Winans or Dr. Bobby Jones. Why is it that in this multicultural reality, christian music is for the most part, race music? This shows how far behind christian music is compared to so-called secular music.
Secular music has transcended race. A black artist like Seal to some sounds white, while Pink sounds black. A white rapper named Eminem is one of the hottest artists in what is considered a black and urban genre. Yet, we expect our multicultural, christian youth today to value christian music over secular music. You may want to push back at me (and you’re welcome to), but christian music is held captive by race and we don’t want to seem to talk about it. My theory is that this is done by secular record industry powers to keep christian music a second class genre and we need local church folks to fight against this reality.
Most christian record labels and other companies have been sold to larger secular companies. Find a christian for profit and it’s most likely owned by a company headed by someone who is not a christian. Maybe this explains it. Or maybe it’s because many christians don’t want to have healthy and real discussions about race, business marketing, and power and its impact on christians.
There is hope though. There are christian artists such as Toby Mac, Israel and New Breed, John Reuben, and Kirk Franklin who are being bold enough to cross race lines and create kingdom music. This must be the future. We must move beyond christian music enslaved to race, to a more liberating genre. I will this call kingdom music. Kingdom music is christian music set free, designed for all God’s people, also able to reach all lost people. Can I get a amen? Now what we need is a group of non profit kingdom music record labels that won’t sell out to secular companies. Can I really get a amen?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of the church or what could be called, the church of the future. Mostly, these thoughts have been limited to the church in the United States. After rereading a number of book recently on the future and state of the church though, my thoughts have gone more global. Phillip Jenkins sees places like Africa and South America as the future of the church. If this is true, then compassion, mercy, and justice must become a major focus of the church of the future. This does not mean that compassion, mercy, and justice replaces evangelism, discipleship, and mission. What it means is that compassion, mercy, and justice must be interwoven into evangelism, discipleship, and mission. This is not just an issue of relevancy, more importantly, it’s biblical. In the bible, God speaks to the chosen people about remembering their deliverance by being mindful of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. The future church must speak beyond social politics, towards a Spirit-filled picture of justice. A new liberation theology must be embraced by the church of the future, which includes the authority and centrality of Scripture.
Dave Olson says that the church is in crisis. When compared with population growth in the United States of America, the church is not growing. The vast majority of Americans are not in church on Sunday morning. So not only do we still have a segregated church on Sunday morning, we have a dying one as well. With all the mega-churches in our nation, a major movement of evangelism and discipleship within the local church is in question. I believe that the church still being for the most part a segregated institution is directly connected to its struggle in keeping up with population growth. Even though the United States is becoming more and more multi-ethnic and multicultural, the church is still stuck within the race-matrix of black and white. Even, many of our Asian and Latino churches are stuck with choosing worship songs and developing ministry models within a black and white framework. The future church must be multi-ethnic.
Soong-Chan Rah says the church is held captive by the western church. This points to the historic European influence upon the church in the United Staes. It also points to a dominant White theology and philosophy within the church. Please know that I don’t believe in eliminating the European and European-American perspective from the church. I believe we must add to this perspective. Large suburban and predominately European-American churches must be willing to become students of the church of the future. They must be willing to have their current cultural mindsets challenged, accepting that some of them are not biblical, but more based on a racial constructed upbringing. The answer to this is further developing cross cultural competencies.We must also develop best practice models for small, medium size, and large churches that take us beyond the black and white matrix. In order to do this we can’t be anti mega-church. The mega church has the influence and resources to point the way to the future church.
Together, as black, white, asian, latino, small, medium, large, urban, and suburban churches we must begin the journey towards the future church. If we do this, we can advance God’s kingdom like never before in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural world.
I was recently walking thru the Mission and Dolores Park areas of San Francisco and couldn’t help but see so much change. Places that used to be predominantly lower-class and African-American were now predominately Asian and Latino. Places where the homeless crowded to find a place to sleep on the ground, were now places where people walked wearing skinny jeans and converse shoes.
I passed trendy coffee shops on every corner. I walked into to one and had a great cup of coffee from Kenya. Within the coffee shop, I saw much ethnic diversity. Not only was ethnic diversity obvious but so was a significant gay and lesbian community. I both admired the beauty of the diversity and also wondered what happened to the people that used to be there. I also wondered how in the world an evangelical church could advance the Kingdom of God in this reality. I shouldn’t just focus on the evangelical church, because any type of church would struggle to make an impact in this reality because the church is so slow when it comes to change.
Somewhere in all those thoughts I was wrestling with diversity, change, the church, compassion, truth, and justice. Were the poor that used to be there forgotten? Has San Francisco forgotten about African-Americans? Will the church truly seek to advance God’s Kingdom within predominantly gay and lesbian communities? Will the church passionately seek to be multi-ethnic and about compassion, mercy, and justice? What does evangelism and discipleship look like in this context?
Recently, Christian sociologist Michael Emerson said on average the church in America is 10 times more segregated than the community its in and 20 times more segregated than the public schools in that same community. The multi-ethnic church is only about 7% of the church in the United States of America. The city is changing at such a fast pace, how will the church catch up?
We will catch up by catching the Spirit of God. God is not intimidated by the changing cities. God desires to use His church to bring truth, transformation, justice, and love to the city. Will we join God?
As we continue to live within the ever-increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural reality, it is more and more obvious that the Black and White matrix of the American Christian Church is outdated. It seems that regardless of the racial and class constructs that exists within our nation and world, God is determined to to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28).
If there was ever a time for Pastoral Leadership with the ability to lead Christ-centerd and multicultural communities now is the time. The reason I say Christ-centered is because leading a multicultural congregation should not compromise biblical truth. Some churches in the United States of America and beyond have sacrificed biblical truth for the sake of becoming multicultural. This Christ-centeredness and belief in the authority and centrality of Scripture ought to lead us to proclaiming truth, righteousness, evangelism, discipleship, and Kingdom justice. A true commitment to Christ-centeredness in no way compromises the commitment to biblical truth, because the Word of God is the beginning point for understanding the nature, words, and works of Christ. This ought to be the on-ramp to the next area, which is cross-cultural leadership.
The ministry of Jesus was very cross-cultural in nature. His ministry included the Tax Collector, the Samaritan, the Canaanite, women, the poor, and those of privilege. Jesus Himself walked the earth as both God (John 1) and a multicultural Jew (Matthew 1). His ministry was cross-cultural and He was cross-cultural. Thru the Holy Spirit, He lives within us as Christian pastors and lay leaders. This reality is the on-ramp for our understanding that God desires to equip and empower us to minister in the multicultural reality in which we live daily.
Cross-cultural leadership takes being willing to be informed and mentored by diverse, Christian leaders. If you’re European-American and evangelical for instance, it’s not enough to just have C.S. Lewis, John Piper, N.T. Wright, John Calvin, and Rick Warren on your book shelf. You also need Vashti McKenzie, Soon-Chan Rah, Francis Chan, Howard Thurman, John Perkins, and Anne Wimbley on your shelf as well. You also must allow God to lead you into deep, authentic cross-cultural friendships. God desires to raise up an army of Christ-centered, cross-cultural, post-black, and post-white leaders.
The recent news media reports concerning a well-known African-American Bishop outside of Atlanta brings me great sadness. My first reaction is to pray that the accusations aren’t true. My second reaction is to pray for those young men, who could be very damaged by a church in which they should find hope, love, and transformation. Beyond those two reactions, something that I’ve felt for a long time is still burning within me. A revisiting of a theology of the pastor is needed within the Black Church and beyond.
In my opinion too many mega-church African-American pastors are functioning within a theology of the pastor that seems to be more based on a Old Testament model of Kings, than patterned after the New Testament model of Jesus or Paul. Now please hear me, my reflections are based on my great love for the Black Church and African-American pastors. With this said, I believe the matrix of race and how it impacts the identity of the African-American male in society is driving the theology of the pastor in many Black Church circles rather than Scripture. Let’s take a brief historical look back.
The Black Church is a forced church in America, dating back to slavery. As we move up to Jim Crow segregation, the Negro or Colored pastor is the most powerful position of leadership within the community. Remember, the Negro or Colored man cannot be president of the United States or governor of a state at this time. The Black pastor for all leadership purposes in the black community is pastor and king. Think of this in terms of being taken from a land where your forefathers and mothers were kings and queens. Now let’s move to the Civil Rights Movement, where we see the Black pastor as political leader and social transformer. Let’s move to the 1980′s and see the Reverend Jesse Jackson running for president. Not much love and respect is given to Shirley Chisholm, who as a Black woman and non clergy person, ran for the office years before.
Now let’s look at the mega church Black pastors of today. Celebrity figures living in mansion (temples), driving expensive cars (chariots), and having armor bearers (assistants for a king). Where did Jesus live? What chariot did Jesus ride in? Were the disciples of Jesus merely glorified armor bearers? What about Paul? Did his life look like the pursuit of the American dream? Regardless of the situation outside of Atlanta, one thing is true, the larger a church gets in America the temptation to become a CEO or a King and less of a shepherd is there awaiting. This is true regardless of race.
I’m not here to judge, I have my own inner battles to face as a bishop, author, and national speaker. What I do know is that the integrity of all pastors must be pursued and accountability is a key element. I also believe that Satan would rather have pastors be first and foremost CEO’s and Kings, than humble shepherds. I also believe as well that it is possible to be a mega church pastor, international figure, and humble servant. Perhaps our model should be Jesus and not King David.
In 1 Samuel, we read about a boy named, David who prepared to face a giant named, Goliath. He spoke with Saul, the King of Israel at the time about taking on Goliath. After King Saul realized that he couldn’t talk David out of, “the call” of taking on Goliath, he tried to get David to put on some battle armor. The battle armor was too big, too heavy, and not what God wanted David to use to take on Goliath. So, David went out to face Goliath, with a lighter weapon; a sling-shot and eventually five small, smooth stones.
The ministry of a pastor can many times seem like a weekly battle of taking on giants. This is a given in the call to ministry regardless of the context. The problem with many of us as pastors is, we are trying to put on the heavier armor of a king, than the lighter ministry tools of the sling-shot and stones. We do this by trying to do ministry in our own power instead of out of the overflow of intimacy with God, identity in Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
If you think the church is yours, the people belong to you, and you’re doing the ministry, then you’re wearing the heavy armor of a king outside the favor of God. To believe that the church and the people belong to God, is to refuse the heavy armor and to pick up the sling-shot and stones. These lighter tools of ministry actually set us up to put on the new armor, which Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. Are you carrying too much weight?