Pastor Sean on Racial Diversity in the Church

From some of your participation in different events in the community, it seems that diversity in the church is important to you. Do you have any plans for how to increase the diversity in our own church body?

 

Yes, as you mentioned I have been involved with a local gathering of pastors, of different ethnic backgrounds (mostly black and white), called Fusion. The group was formed in response to racial strife within cities of our country, in order to witness to Jesus Christ by showing that the church was a place of reconciliation, peace and celebration. I am getting to know these other pastors and we participated in a joint celebration in 2018 where we sang worship songs and heard speakers as we work toward racial harmony within our community. I still meet with them in Bible Study and we have a pastors dinner planned for 8/23/19. It has been very edifying.

In essence I believe that the church should reflect the diversity of the community and proclaim the diversity of God’s kingdom. We see from the books of Acts that the early church incorporated people from many ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. The Gentile churches were situated throughout the world in different ethnic enclaves. It appears that the early church learned to incorporate different people into same congregations (Eph 2:11-20; Gal 3:28).

We see the diversity of God’s kingdom in the book of Revelation 7:9-10, which says, After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” We know in heaven that the nations will worship together. It would be wonderful to see them worshiping together here as well.

I am grateful for the diversity that already exists. Over the last two years we have held combined services with a predominantly Korean church. Our average church services have adults and children of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. We have marriages with mixed ethnic backgrounds (many with children), we have adopted and foster children who are different ethnic background than their parents. We have a number of people who grew up with another language, other than English, as their primary language.

In as much as we can celebrate in the diversity that we already see, more can always be done. Having a more diverse congregation is an important challenge to face. Consider that, in the next 10 years there will be no majority ethnic group in our country. The nation, and our community, is becoming more diverse. As Northern Virginia stretches down to envelop us, we will find more diverse communities, with the addition of new ethnic communities. It is challenging to address as it requires both sides to adjust cultural expectations. It can require the local church to make adjustments and for the person entering the church to adjust to their own cross-cultural situation. It has to be prioritized by both groups.

For this reason, it is important for us to be a “gospel church” – a church whose worship is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Taking from Martin Luther King, Jr., we want to be people who look at people, not for the color of their skin, but for the content of their character. We do not want to be associated with any ethnic group, but the gospel of Jesus Christ of which we preach. We believe that a rightly preached gospel is relevant to every person, regardless of ethnic background. We want to reflect the diversity of the community and of God’s kingdom. That being said, I imagine that some of our visitors notice that our services are predominately white. Our leadership is white and much of our style is inherited from European countries. Still, I think that our form of worship and our message is relevant no matter a person’s background, and I would like to demonstrate it as such.

One of the things I’ve learned through Fusion and interaction with predominantly African American churches is that they are often happy with their churches and their worship style. Our Korean friends are also happy with theirs. Recognizing that people may be drawn to churches by style or by the sense they will fit it, change in diversity may be very slow. In the meantime, I believe there is something to be said about having fellowship with churches with a fixed ethnic character. In other words, we can celebrate wherever the true gospel is preached, and true worship happens, even with different worship forms, and even when there is a dominant ethnic character.  We have already experienced this with the Korean churches. In the past we have shared pulpits with an African-American church.

That there is great diversity among Christian churches recognizes something in the nature of God Himself. We want to celebrate our faith together with other gospel-centered churches while recognizing that our styles of worship may be different. While I believe that the substance of worship is set out by God in the Bible, God gives liberty to some of the forms of worship we use (like music style or language). While diversity can be good, I find I need to resist the pride of thinking that people of other ethnicities would be better off taking on our style of worship (again, assuming certain matters of doctrinal fidelity are in place in those worship services).

On the other hand, we (NLIC) have to be attentive where we can be off-putting or un-welcoming to different ethnic groups who may visit. That is something we want to address with intentionality.

As I mentioned in my interview, faithfulness and love are two values that drive me. What is important when it comes to the area of diversity? 1) Faithfully preaching the gospel of truth. The gospel of truth has a universal appeal. Sermons should be Christ exalting, gospel-centered, Holy Spirit drive and clear and edifying. 2) Building a hospitable church community. We want to welcome in each and every person. In this, we need to think about how we come across to all people, and how things we do may be unnecessary hindrances to connecting. 3) Proclaiming the diversity of the kingdom. I think of some of the children who NLIC members have fostered or adopted minority children through the years. I pray that each child will see that he or she is part of one human race, with the same exact identity (as the image of God) as any other child, that he or she sees himself as a beloved covenant child of God like any other believer. I believe that the church these children have in their adult lives will look different than what churches they look like now. I think they must if we are going to be faithful to our call. This may require confronting cultural idolatries. 4) Pray for the diversity of the church. This has to be a movement of God’s Spirit. 5) Providing a pattern and plan for discipleship for every person, not matter their ethnic background. I can be involved with these by speaking to those issues.

If we are going to have a more diverse church, what are some practical ministry items we need to consider? Here are some that I am aware of: 1) Treating all people with equity, respect, and love 2) Listening to the histories and difficulties of different ethnic groups to understand and learn 3) Leadership: Hiring and/or raising up diverse leadership within the church wherever possible (and hire from outside the church too). This obviously has its challenges to it. 4) Heroes: Identifying black as well as white heroes of the faith.

You asked about “plans” – at this point, my plan is to continue to meet with the Fusion pastors and work with them on a 2020 celebration. I’m looking to build some friendships that maybe we can do a pulpit swap at some point.

Again, it is a matter of prayer. As much as I’d like to instantly see us have the same demographics as our community, it will be slow coming, so we can work to make it happen. I think Pastor Doug and the session have done a spectacular job with engaging all people, and we will to continue to think about it for all ethnic groups. The curse of Babel has established linguistic and cultural boundaries. We long for the vision of heaven in Revelation 7 to come about where every tongue, and language, and people worship God together. The only hope we have is the same hope of Pentecost, that the Spirit of God unites his church together in the vision of worship for Jesus Christ. Looking to Him, we see we are united Him and to one another. We have a commitment to one another. We know that this vision will ultimately be accomplished. If not by us, then by God in glory.