As I reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, I can’t help but meditate deeply on something he wrote within an article entitled, “The Case Against Tokenism” for the New York Times, August 5, 1962-
“…it is still true that the church is the most segregated major institution in America. As a minister of the gospel, I am ashamed to say that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning-when we stand to sing ‘In Christ There Is No East Nor West’- is the most segregated hour of America, and that Sunday school is the most segregated school of the week.”
So what is the state of the church in the United States of America today, some 40 years after the murder of Dr. King? Christian sociologist Michael Emerson, who co-wrote the important book, “Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”, has said that today only about 7% of the church in the U.S. would be deemed multiracial. Of all the institutions in the United States could it be that the Christian church has struggled the most in living out the dream and vision of Dr. King? It seems so. But, in order to be missional into the future this must change. I am actually very hopeful about this happening.
On the website, churchleaders.com, Sam Rainer recently wrote about “Ten (Unexpected) Church Trends to Surface by 2020″ (http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/157452-10-unexpected-church-trends-to-surface-by-2020.html). The very first trend he mentions deals with something that champions of the multi-ethnic and missional church have known for a long time. Rainer points to the trend that the heterogeneous (or homogeneous church principle) church will explode. The question becomes what will cause this and are we preparing emerging leaders for this reality?
Let me deal with the issue of preparing leaders. No longer can we afford to make multi-ethnic and missional ministry simply a “track” within a leadership conference or a “Pre-conferene” before the general conference begins. Multi-ethnic and missional ministry must become the central issue of every denomination, church planting association, seminary, and leadership conference. I’m so glad, that the Evangelical Covenant Church, the denomination I serve, has done just that (www.covchurch.org).
Theology, preaching, church leadership, and ministry practice must be connected to this central issue of multi-ethnic and missional ministry. Multi-ethnicity is important, not just because of the current and future multicultural realities, but also because Jesus walked the earth as a multi-ethnic human being and the Bible is the most multi-ethnic story you will ever read. Being missional is about the church having a sense of urgency concerning evangelism, outreach, and biblical justice. These are the key components of the advancement of the kingdom of God.
To live into this multi-ethnic and missional movement, we can learn much from Dr. King the theologian. I encourage you to engage his writings and then return to the Scriptures with new eyes. Allowing Dr. King to influence how we engage the Scriptures allows us to see the God of salvation, deliverance, and liberation. The new church that is needed today can be developed as the words of Dr. King allow us to see the true church of the Scriptures. This church takes on the mission of advancing what Dr. King called, The Beloved Community. The Beloved Community is realized as the church embodies reconciliation, redemption, transformation, and justice.
This morning as I was running on the treadmill, I was also watching CNN. A story came on about a shooting in Washington D.C. The police chief was speaking with the mayor of D.C looking on. She stated that, “people are just ready for acts like this to stop.” I didn’t get a chance to see who was involved in this latest incident of urban violence, but it led me to reflect on the violent acts committed in my own city of Minneapolis involving young African-Americans in most cases. This statement raises the question, “How do we stop the violence in our inner-cities?”
On one level we must address this issue from the standpoint of individual responsibility. Churches and other ministries must develop ministry initiatives, which deal head-on with the issue of violence as the primary means for solving conflict. Peace and nonviolence cannot be seen as an outdated strategy of Hippies and those who participated in the part of the Civil Rights Movement directed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many young people in the city lack a strategy free of violence to deal with loss, anger, stress, and not being able to have what you want immediately. Ministries to children, youth, and families must contain initiatives dealing with conflict resolution rooted in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has something to say in Chapters 5-7 about conflict resolution and specifically on how to deal with enemies. These biblical principles must be contextualized for today. We can also look at chapter 3 of 1 John. Within this chapter John reminds us of what happens if our souls are not being driven by the love of God by pointing back to the story of Cain and Abel. What led to Cain killing his own brother is today at the root of violence in the city as well as the suburbs. The lack of being filled with Gods’ love through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a major factor in the ability to attempt to take the life of another human being. It’s also easier when you don’t see the other as just as much Gods’ beloved as you are. Sometimes the ability to attempt to take the life of another begins with not seeing oneself as the beloved of God.
The second factor that must be dealt with in order to deal with violence in the city is being willing to deal with the realities of class and race. What is behind so much violence in the city among so many African-Americans? There is a connection between poverty, race, relationships, and violence. To deny this is to ignore some root causes that go along with individual responsibility. Inner-cities are the way they are on purpose. The White Flight of the 60′s and 70′s play a role. The Educated Black Flight of the 80′s play a role as well. This is not a guilt trip for those in the suburbs for I live in the suburbs myself. The issue is figuring out how to live in the suburbs and still have a heart for the city. This was the place of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. It broke his heart to know the city of Jerusalem was in ruins and he took some of the responsibility for why this was the case. We must acknowledge the systemic issues behind urban violence and take responsibility as well. Those living outside the city must take responsibility and work with those in the city to be salt and light.
Nonviolence cannot be an ancient social strategy that was just good for a season. We must raise up an generation who are able to experience, “a peace that passes all understanding” that it might, “guard our hearts and minds.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke often of something he called, the beloved community. This was the title given to describe a reality where freedom, love, justice, and reconciliation would reign. In many ways this was a mainstream way for Dr. King to speak of the Kingdom of God being advanced within a sin-filled world. Today, there is still a need for the beloved community. The question becomes though, “can there be a beloved community without a beloved church first?” Another question to consider would be, “can there be a beloved church without beloved children of God in intimate relationship with God thru Christ Jesus?” These questions must be reflected on deeply, if the church is to be a force of Kingdom advancement in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural world.
Though we live in a world that is becoming more and more diverse by the day, the church in the United States of America is still one of the most segregated institutions there is. It’s funny how the church in the United States of America, through its many denominations, sees itself as a leader in world missions but can’t consistently develop churches that look like that world or the Kingdom of God where we will live eternally. Though collectively financially resourced, the church is socially bankrupt when it comes to living outside of the race matrix of this nation. Why is this?
This reality of the segregated church continues for two reasons. One reason is, many are in denial that the Christian church in this country was planted in a soil of race and racism. The treatment of Native Americans and Africans in the beginning of what became known as the United States of America went against the very gospel message being preached by some Europeans carrying a Bible in their hands and racism in their hearts. We must explore this history on a regular basis that we might re-plant the Christian church in this nation.
The second issue is that the church in this nation is still evolving in a race-based soil, which creates comfort in racially segregated churches. Though many people would not see themselves as racist, they attend churches based on race values even though they don’t realize it in most cases. The not realizing factor is true for many European-Americans. Many African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians proudly attend racially or ethnic specific churches. For many of them this is about being in a community of empowerment in a society where they collectively hold little power even in light of a minority president. Yet, this reality is a major obstacle to the beloved community. There will never truly be shining examples of the beloved community as long as we Christians have a taste for the segregated church. As a pastor of a multi-ethnic and evangelical church, I cry out in the wilderness like John the Baptist. I cry out to prepare the way for a movement of churches think look like the Kingdom of God and not the race-based society of this earthly realm. I cry out for the beloved church. What is your heart cry?