Breaking Barriers Down

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I think the key to approaching Kalifungwa's concern about racial division among Christians was his qualifyer "in our churches".  There are many forces outside of our churches that shape us along racial lines.  For instance, the composition of a church is usually going to be shaped by the demographics of the community it serves, and it will be influenced by the racial dynamics of that community.  (If races don't mix in the surrounding culture, that will influence their willingness to mix in our churches).  Because of the racial division in our culture, we will long have such a challenge in our churches.  What we are most responsible for are the barriers "in our churches."  In that respect I think there are two main commitments we can make that will dramatically lower racial barriers in our churches: 1) focus ourselves on a Christ-centered ministry of God's Word; and 2) cultivate a true spirit of Christian catholicity.
One can feel the difference between a church that is gathered to celebrate the glory of its own culture, versus a church that is gathered to be discipled by the Lord Jesus through His Word.  The latter will find itself becoming racially broader.  Any church that identifies itself with the triune God of the Bible and focuses its identity on authentic discipleship to Jesus through abiding in His Word will find its demographics changing.  This is what we experienced at Tenth Presbyterian Church in downtown Philadelphia, and it is what we are experiencing at First Presbyterian Church in suburban Coral Springs, Florida.  Among the observations that I frequently hear and most delight in is the observation that in recent years our church "sure has a lot more poor people" and "we are a lot more racially mixed than we used to be."  This has happened not because we set out to be racially diverse, but because we set out to be biblical.  This is the single most important factor in racial diversity.  The people who want to celebrate their glorious affluent, contemporary, white culture will soon leave your church, and people of all kinds who simply want God's Word will start coming.

But catholicity is also very important.  A huge barrier to racial diversity in the church today is the "homogeneous unit principle" of church growth.  That is, when we tailor everything to "a certain kind of person" and thus to a certain style of activity (are there any more racially-divided churches than the "seeker" churches?).  This especially happens when the culture of a church is shaped not by Christian tradition but by a specific consumer niche of the secular culture. 

Every church is going to have a basic culture.  A historic Presbyterian church is likely to have a Scottish-Old America culture to start with and a historic black church is likely to have an African-American spiritual culture.  There is nothing wrong with that, but we should avoid overly reinforcing it.  We want to tie the culture arising from our denominational and congregational history to the great Christian culture that is so much larger.  If we respond to our tradition by jetisoning it for a contemporary consumer niche, we can be certain to raise great racial barriers.  But if respond to our particular tradition by tying it into the broader Christian culture, we will be lowering racial barriers.  This means bringing in forms that are biblically appropriate but that derive from a part of the Christian tradition other than our own denominational tradition.  This is what I mean by deliberately practicing catholicity.

As an example, in our church we stand together and confess our faith with one of the great creeds or confession.  We mainly use the Apostles' Creed, but have also used the Nicene Creed, portions of the Heidelberg Catechism, etc.  But we have also used the Massai Creed, a lovely adaptation of the Apostles' Creed employed by missionaries in Kenya.  We sing our hymns out of our Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal, but I delight to point out the many hymns in it that come from the broad Christian tradition, such as the hymns of John of Damascus (catholicity is a lot easier when you are singing from the hymnal -- and even more so when using the psalter!).

During one of my recent trips to East Africa, the issue raised by the Africans was the problem of promoting a "white man's religion."  Their response to this objection was lovely.  They said, "God took his gospel of salvation from the Jews to the Greeks.  We are grateful that the Europeans brought this same gospel to us in Africa.  It is not white man's religion; it is God's gospel of salvation and it is for every tongue, tribe, and nation."  That statement made me feel pretty welcome, being the white man that I am.

Catholicity will influence so many aspects of our church life.  It will influence the kinds of sermon illustrations we use.  It will influence the missions and church-planting partnerships we form.  (Because we are in an increasingly Hispanic area, our church invited a non-English speaking Presbyterian church to use our facilities and invited their children to join in with our English speaking Sunday School and youth programs.  That is one example, although we still have a long way to go in overcoming the language barrier.)  Every church should frankly admit with gratitude its own particular tradition, while also frankly confessing the sins of that tradition (as the PCA did a few years ago by confessing the sins of our forefathers who justified Southern slavery).  But then we should stake out our identity not solely in our particular heritage and tradition but deliberately identify ourselves with the culture and tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

It is by centering ourselves on the ministry of God's holy Word and by practicing our identity as the great Church of Jesus Christ that we will more and more exhibit the qualities of the "one new man in Christ" and the divisions will begin to disappear.
Posted September 4, 2006 @ 10:13 PM by Rick Phillips
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