Reconciliation or Bust

Article by   April 2012
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:27-29)

I remember the first time I flew first class in an airplane. I was around 13 years old. My father and I were traveling to visit our family in Trinidad, and the airline had overbooked the flight. We had reservations, but in order for us to fly together they had to split us up. Since the error was theirs, they upgraded one of our tickets to first class. My father, of course, insisted that I take the first class seat. 

This was a brand new world to me. Every time I turned around the stewardess was asking me if I wanted something to drink, if I wanted something to eat, or if I was comfortable. At first, it felt a little awkward to me. But then I thought, "This is nice! I want to fly like this all the time!" What I didn't realize, of course, is how much more a first class ticket costs. The lesson that experience taught me is that in this life there are different and better levels of privilege in society that one can access depending on how much money and/or resources you have at your disposal. 

That last sentence is hardly newsworthy. We all know that there are walls that separate us in society. It's also not news that those same walls exist in the Church. Yet, the clear message of the three verses quoted above from Galatians is that there is only one class in Christ. The apostle Paul declares that the three primary categories where societal separation is most vividly seen--ethnicity, social status, and gender--are no longer valid reasons for separation when it comes to the Church. In Christ, ethnic, social, and gender distinctions are not obliterated. Rather, what is done away with is the sinful inequality that separates us from one another. My passion in pastoral ministry is to see the local church press towards a life where our differences, diversity, and distinctions are far less important to us than our unity in Christ.

I want to do three things in this article. First, tell you how I got here. How did this passion develop in me? Secondly, what is the theological perspective driving this passion? Lastly, how's it working out? What is taking place in the local context of the church I serve?

How Did I Get Here?

My first experience with the Christian faith was at Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, NY. Hanson Place was my father's church until his death, and remains my mother's church to this day. During my late teen years, however, it became clear that my parent's faith had not become my own. I rejected Christianity. And through my college years at City College of NY in Harlem, I came to view Christianity as "the white man's religion." I wanted no part of it. 

The only expression of the Christian faith that had any interest to me was the Black Church experience. This interest was driven by the reality that historically, in America, the Black Church was the single most authoritative force in the Black community. Not only that, but the Black Christian worship experience represented an ongoing connection to the African worship experience. I was in full agreement with Dr. Molefi K. Asante, who asserted that this connection to African religious expression made the Black Church "the most logical institution for the beginning work of instructing the masses concerning African customs, habits, and styles."(1) That's what I wanted to see happen. 

The value in the Black Church was seen in its ability to further the cause of the Afrocentric movement by political and cultural activism and by recognizing that it is the place where the religious aspect of the continuity of the one African Cultural System is vividly seen. I did not view the Black Church as place where souls are saved and set free from the bondage of sin to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, it was a place where, if it does right, people can be saved and set free from the bondage of Eurocentric thought and oppression. 

So, how does someone go from this view of the Church to pastoring a multi-ethnic church in the PCA? I'm glad you asked! When my wife and I moved our family to Maryland in the mid-nineties, we began attending historic New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, DC. We attended that church, not because we had any interest in becoming Christians, but because we were invited by family. We'd left all of our friends in NY and figured that it would be a good way to meet some decent people. Of course, if you fool around and start attending Bible studies and worship services you might just meet Someone else. That's precisely what happened. My wife and I became believers.

A very decisive shift in my worldview had taken place. While I could, like Paul, have a burden for my "kinsmen according to the flesh," the biblical vision of the kingdom of God was reconciliation and peace across the breadth of humanity. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was a growing discontent with the state of mono-ethnicity in the church given the growing diversity in our communities.(2) My pre-Christian understanding of humanity was that brotherhood was predominantly based on racial identity. The clear message of the gospel is that the brotherhood God creates is based on union with Christ. I saw in the Scriptures not simply a message of reconciliation, but a declaration of immeasurably great power working in the Church for reconciliation, unity and peace (cf. Eph 1:15-4:16). Yet it seemed to me that the church was quite comfortable maintaining our divides. 

Over the next three to four years at New Bethel I began to have a growing sense of call to ministry. At the same time I became exposed to Reformed Theology through the Ligonier Ministries Renewing Your Mind broadcast. I enrolled at the RTS Washington/Baltimore campus and began taking courses in 2000. Although I was taking courses at RTS and developing an understanding of covenant theology, my wife and I weren't looking for a new church. However, I had a desperate need to be mentored in ministry. 

That need was met by Rev. Kevin Smith, an African American pastor/church planter in our area. Kevin had planted Mount Zion Covenant Church (PCA) in Bowie, MD. Our family joined Mount Zion in 2002, and I was now in the PCA. This church was a relatively unique PCA congregation. The congregation was largely a mix of African American families and predominantly Anglo American college students. Needless to say, there was a vast difference between our experience at an over 100 year old Black baptist church and this four year old ethnically diverse church plant.

So, all of these factors--my pre-Christian worldview, conversion at New Bethel, RTS studies, and church life at Mount Zion--formed my passion to pursue multi-ethnic ministry in the local church. 

What Drives this Passion?

The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be. It can only be somewhat unfolded in its depth and riches in a humanity counting billions of members. Just as the traces of God (vestigia Dei) are spread over many, many works, in both space and time, so also the image of God can only be displayed in all its dimensions and characteristic features in a humanity whose members exist both successively one after the other and contemporaneously side by side...Only humanity in its entirety--as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation--only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.(3)

At RTS the Lord began to add theological fuel to my passion. It was there I was exposed to covenant theology. There wasn't any particular emphasis or focus on the implications of the gospel for pursuing diversity in the local church. But when I came across these words by Herman Bavinck they immediately resonated with me as having deep implications for the local church. Much of the gospel message has been reduced to simply having "a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ." In other words, there is a radically individualistic emphasis on what it means to be a Christian. While no one would argue that the Lord saves individuals and reconciles them to himself, the gospel is so much more than that. It must include the fulness of what it means to be made in the image of God. And Bavinck is right. The finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God is the entirety of redeemed humanity. 

Let me focus on a few texts from Genesis to make my point. The first words about humanity in the Bible come from the lips of God, 
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Covenant community is created. Male and female are covenantally bound to the Lord and to each other. Humanity's beginning was in covenantal community. This is as much an aspect of what it means for us to be made in the image of God as is our being rational, thinking, feeling beings created "in the virtues of knowledge, righteousness, and holiness."(4) The Father, Son and Spirit, who eternally exist in the perfection of covenant community, images himself in the creation of humanity in covenant community. 

So, what happens when sin enters the world? Just what we would expect. The marring of the image includes the fracture of covenantal relationships. This extends far beyond marital problems between husband and wife (Gen. 3:16). It includes fratricide (Gen. 4:8) and extends to the decline of humanity into corruption and violence (Gen. 6:11).  

Even when there is unity among humanity after the fall, it is unity in our rebellion and rejection of our covenantal Lord's commands. We're told in Genesis 11 that there was a time in human history when everyone had the same language and spoke the same words. Humanity was in solidarity. Moses tells us that everyone could speak and understand each other. Everyone is unified in Genesis 11, but it's in their rejection of God's command. They're on the same page in their rebellion against what God has explicitly commanded them to do. After the Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, God once again commands humanity to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth (9:1). Yet, what do we find humanity doing? In direct and conscious rebellion they determine, "we don't want to fill the earth, we want to settle down right here." There is no serpent in Shinar tempting humanity to disobey God's word. An external tempter isn't necessary. Humanity is one big happy family against the Lord. 

The word that fell at Babel in Genesis 11:7 included judgment and mercy. Our language was confused so that we could not understand one another, and we were forced to fill the earth. The willful rebellion of humanity against God's explicit command resulted in the use of all our faculties united for an impossible goal. We were joined together to establish ourselves as God, with all authority and power. God mercifully moved to restrain our sin by confusing our language. 

Yet, there was still the issue of the confusion of our language. We now had the creation of "ghetto living." From Babel onward, we are still in solidarity against God. And now, just as then, this solidarity is expressed in isolated communities. These ghettos, because they are in rebellion against God, also naturally rage against each other. So, far too often, what unfolds is that we tie our human dignity and value to our isolated communities. And we love our ghettos: our ethnic ghettos, our social ghettos, our cultural ghettos, our economic ghettos, our academic ghettos, etc. And we love them to a fault. When we see cultural and ethnic differences we don't embrace our dissimilarity, we immediately distrust. We instinctively reject and often mock because we're still confused and don't understand each other.

When Christ came, he proclaimed far more than individual salvation. He proclaimed the coming of the kingdom. Integral to that is the restoration and renewal of community; the reversal of Babel. Jesus said that his Father assigned to him a kingdom, and he assigns this kingdom to his apostles (Luke 22:28-29). This is, of course, covenantal language. After his resurrection, our Lord spent forty days speaking to his disciples about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). When the Spirit came and filled the disciples for kingdom proclamation and work, the first thing we see is them declaring the mighty works of God. Men from what Luke calls every nation under heaven--Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians--were able to hear, understand and respond to the message (Acts 2:5ff). The work of bringing people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation under the banner of the Lamb of God had begun. 

That is the work God continues to do today. It is work that will not be complete until the consummation of the kingdom. The day is coming when the redeemed fully reflect the image of our Creator as one family, summed up under our single head, Jesus Christ, "spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation." This is the biblical, covenantal vision that fuels my passion for ministry in the local church. I would summarize it this way: the ministry of reconciliation as demonstrated in the local church by the gathering of people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures is the natural outworking of a rich covenantal theological commitment. 

How's It Working Out?

"At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic."  These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So now we get to the question, "How's it going?" It's relatively easy to make statements about the implications of covenant theology, but what does it look like in practice? 

The church I serve is City of Hope in Columbia, MD. Columbia is a suburban community in Howard County, MD, founded 45 years ago. It is located mid-way between the City of Baltimore and Washington, DC. The vision for Columbia was to create a city that was diverse in every way. Columbia's founder, James Rouse, in explaining his vision for a complete city stated, 
"Columbia will be economically diverse, polycultural [sic], multi-faith, and inter-racial."(5)

This vision has been attained. "Columbia has achieved economic, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity." Yet, by and large, the quote above from Dr. King is true among most of the churches in our community. Thus, when I'm asked how things are going, I'll give this tongue-in-cheek answer, "It's going." If I were not convinced that God's vision for his Church as he builds his kingdom is to gather people together from diverse backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities into the the local church, I would be quite satisfied to stay in my cultural comfort zone. The ministry of reconciliation is hard. Everyone comes with preferences. If you intentionally pursue ministry in such a way that the makeup of the local church reflects its community, you are forced to deal with the issues that relate to power dynamics. We rarely think of the issues in that way, but discussions about liturgy, worship music, Bible Study groups, preaching style, service length, etc. (and there are more) all relate in some way to the question of power.  

What we have learned is that the answer to the question of power is not, "who wins, or who loses" but it is, "who dies." In this difficult pursuit we get the privilege of asking the question, "Is this thing that's offending me a kingdom issue, or is it simply a preference that the Lord would have me die to for the sake of unity in the body?" I don't want to die to my preferences, and some would say that I shouldn't have to. Yet, the practice of Christian liberty calls me to be ready and willing to do just that. 

In the first five years of City of Hope, I have seen the Lord take us through the controversies and challenges of pursuing multi-ethnic ministry. One way we've seen this happen is in the development of our music ministry. When the church began, we hired an African American trio of gospel musicians two Sundays/month to be very intentional about having a Black gospel sound regularly. We had to deal with the question of whether or not we should be hiring outside musicians for worship. Even though having musical diversity was and is a high value, that did not prevent the topic of paying such a high price to bring in people who were not committed to our church. Staying the course turned out to be a blessing because the value and pursuit of diversity in our worship music has become an integral part of our identity. Our own musicians developed with this value. With those early conversations now in the distant past, our music team leaders organized a Christmas Chorale for the 2011 Advent season. What a blessing it was to be led in song through Negro Spirituals, traditional hymns, and Contemporary Christian Music. That Chorale was a microcosm of our current dynamic. If you worship with us you'll find that the musical genre changes from week to week, and even within the service. And we're just fine with that. 

Our most difficult challenge to date struck at the core of our ministry vision. We planted the church with an ethnically diverse pastoral team. For both financial and functional reasons it didn't work out. We had to wrestle with whether or not a multi-ethnic pastoral team was essential to the ministry vision or a "nice to have, but...." The dissolution of the pastoral team was hard. Did I say it was hard?  Some of the dear people who began with us left the church, and we had to go through a period of recovery and healing.   

That recovery has taken place, and in a recent gathering with a handful of brothers from City of Hope I decided to pose the, "How's it going," question to them. I told them I was writing this article and wanted their input on how this vision for a diverse church that reflects the community is working out for them. "What has the experience been like?," I asked. This was an impromptu dialogue; I hadn't intended to ask this question. But the conversation was outstanding, and too long for me to include in its entirety. Here are some of the things they shared.

Here are some of the responses at length to give you a flavor of a multiethnic discussion on these issues: 
Because the gospel shows me my sin... it allows me also to look at my culture and some of the things that are wrong with my culture, helping me to be unafraid to point it out or try to safeguard it. It also shows me how my view of my own culture can be sinful at times. It shows me how God has created my culture and has created my heritage, and how I can look at my heritage and be proud of it. But, the gospel also teaches me how God has created every other culture and every other heritage as he willed. So even when a culture expresses itself in different music that I'm not too familiar with, I can see how even recent things I have made a part of my culture, and a part of who I am - I should be able to give away these things away. Because I'm not there just to serve myself in worship. There are other people who are also worshipping. So, it just kind of a giving up of myself in the context of community. That's part of worship because you're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it out of gratitude for what God has done for you in community."

"I love our church. It's probably the only church I've ever felt at home in; probably because I'm by nature multiethnic... But at the same time I think there is an easy tendency to fall into passivity when it comes to recognizing your own culture and the culture of the church just as a member of the congregation...For me, the process of coming to an awareness of my own culture and its benefits and its sinfulness, and the necessity of me as a Christian to be willing to step outside of that and learn that my understanding of God is limited because I can't grasp his image in other cultures, that was a painful process. Because it was like pulling teeth and pulling paradigms out that I didn't want to let go of."

"City of Hope for me is wonderful because I believe that when the Word is rightly preached, God is going to bring in people from every tribe and tongue and nation as long as they hear that word. So, for me, the big issue is, what is the guy in the pulpit saying. Not only what he's saying, but how is he saying it. Because you can even say things in a way that alienates other cultures. I found that in my African American homogeneity that I grew up in...So I see these tiers just building and expanding. For me [these] two are critical. The gospel has to be right on point, preached to all men. Then, secondarily, we must make sure that we know that there should not be fractures in our community because of our dietary preferences or cultural distinctions or things like that. That's what I like about City of Hope. I see those things playing out. And right now I'm not so keyed into trying to build this multicultural community through some means that somebody's thinking about. What I'm mainly focused on is that the Word coming out and, that in our dealings with each other in our body, we are making sure that we are not putting up walls to fellowship or growth. So that's what I love about City of Hope."

"When we engage others in the community my culture, my family's culture begins to change and reflect those others in my community. It begins to take on aspects of Black community. It begins to take on aspects of Latino community. Because we're doing life together. So, I change. My culture transforms. It's not just a bunch of different people coming together and going back and being our own different people. It's us coming together and being changed by one another fundamentally. And that's how our understanding of the image of God changes. As we change by reflecting what God has wrought in the cultural dynamic of the people we live alongside. That can't happen in a homogeneous community."  

The combination of the specific challenges I mentioned earlier (music and staff) along with the normal "mess" of ministry (shepherding people through loneliness, marital issues, parenting, health crises, etc.) makes this an intense pursuit. At the same time, hearing from these brothers enabled me to get out of the trees and see the forest. Not everyone who comes through our doors on a Sunday morning gets excited and encouraged by our ministry vision. Yet, we rejoice because the Lord is painting a beautiful picture at City of Hope. His Spirit is at work confirming the vision by actually bringing it to pass! 

I am humbled by the love, hospitality, accountability and fellowship that have become defining characteristics of the church. We know that we will never "arrive" until glory. Ministry will always be messy. But just like we don't wait until glory to pursue righteousness and holiness, to put to death that which is earthly in us, we ought not be content to wait until glory to see the nations gathered together under the banner of Christ pursuing the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

Rev. Irwyn Ince is the pastor of City of Hope Church (PCA) in Columbia, Maryland. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary.


Notes       
1. Asante, Molefi K., Afrocentricity (Africa World Press, Inc., Trenton, NJ, 1988), pp.74-75

2. I don't intend to make an oversimplification here. I realize that there are valid historic, indeed God ordained, reasons for the racial state of the American church.

3. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation 577.Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

4 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation 557. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

5 Columbia Archives, "History of Columbia: A Story of a Planned Community," http://www.columbiaarchives.org/?action=content.sub&page=history_community3&oid=1

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