Results tagged “cultural sensitivity” from Reformation21 Blog

Laying R.I.P. to Rest

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I have great admiration for non-Christians who have contributed to the improvement of society through their inventions, production, leadership, literature and art. My wife and I were recently reflecting on the remarkable ways in which Steve Jobs' labors helped changed the world in which we live. I love so many of the beautiful works of art and music that have been the product of secular artists; and, I do not, for one second, believe that we should sequester ourselves from the use and enjoyment of the contributions of self-avowed unbelievers in the world arounds us; otherwise, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "you would need to go out of this world" (1 Cor. 5:10). There is a common grace principle at work in the world by which God allows men to benefit their neighbors, making life in this fallen world a little less painful than it would otherwise be.

That being said, I've noticed something of a concerning trend over the past several years. It is the way in which believers speak about culture-impacting individuals at their deaths. Instead of simply expressing appreciation for their life and achievements, it has become commonplace for Christians to use the shorthand R.I.P. ("rest in peace") on social media when speaking of individuals--in whose lives there was no evidence of saving grace--at their death. At the risk of sounding ill-tempered, I wish to set out several reasons why I am troubled by this occurrence.

First, when we employ the abbreviation R.I.P. we are inevitably admitting a state or condition inseparably linked to the idea of the afterlife. We are not speaking of something indifferent to the truth of the hereafter. Someone might push back at this point, suggesting that R.I.P. is nothing other than a way of expressing appreciation for an individual's life and achievements. However, while certain words and phrases can be fluid in their meaning (e.g. "goodbye" has taken on a different meaning than its Old English sense, "God be with you"), "rest in peace" gives the sense that the deceased are "in a better place"--a place of rest and peace. If we care about the eternal salvation of men, and whether or not they are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life, then we should painstakingly avoid giving the sense that we believe in any form of universalism whatsoever.

Second, as Christians we should revolt at the idea of "praying for the dead," since there is not a single ounce of biblical support for such an idea. By saying "rest in peace," we necessarily run the risk of giving the impression that we are saying a prayer for the deceased--whether for self-professed unbelievers or self-professed believers. This alone ought to give us pause as to whether we should seek to abandon the practice.

Third, the Scriptures teach very clearly the costly nature of both rest and peace. The biblical narrative is one of the redemptive rest that God has promised to provide through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession and return of Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-10). The eschatological rest that Jesus has purchased for believers comes at the costly price of His blood (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). Additionally, the Scriptures are clear that there is "no peace for the wicked" (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). The LORD warned, through the prophets, of the false prophets' message of "Peace, Peace!" when there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God has purchased peace only "through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The rest and peace for which we should long--both for ourselves and for those around us--is grounded on the nature of the Person and atoning death of Jesus. If men have spent their lives rejecting the Gospel and have not professed faith in Jesus, we should not be offering them posthumous well wishes. It puts the nature of the exclusivity of Jesus and the Gospel in jeopardy--even if that is not our intention.

This does not mean that believers are to be hasty or uncharitable in the way in which we speak of the death of those who most likely died in unbelief--or that we are to speak in such a way as to indicate that we know with certainty where someone has gone when they have died. Surely, we have comfort and joy when someone who has professed faith in Christ--and in whose life there was fruit that they are in Christ (Matt. 7:16, 20)--departs from this life. It is the great comfort of believers to know that their fellow believers are now "resting in peace," as they "rest in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:14). The Old Testament speaks of believers as being "gathered to their people" at their death (Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33). This is reserved only for believers. It is set in contrast with how the Scriptures speak of unbelievers at their deaths. However, when asked about those who never professed faith in Christ--someone who has spent the better part of his or her life adhering to some particular false religion--we should remember that none of us knows what God the Holy Spirit has done in the hearts of men and women moments prior to their death. None of us knows whether the regenerating grace of God has come at the final moment; and, therefore, we should only now be seeking to warn the living of the wrath to come in order to hold out the hope of redeeming grace in Christ.

In a day when the biblical doctrine of Hell has virtually disappeared from pulpits across the land, and the social conventions of the time demand more seemingly congenial speech than the Scriptures exemplify and require, we should give great personal examination to what we are saying and why we are saying what we are saying. We should weigh the implications of our speech, both in verbal and written form, remembering that the same Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 1:28-29) also said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36).

In parts 1-4, I briefly highlighted some of my thoughts regarding liturgy, music, and the inclusion of more minorities (or more specifically, African-Americans) in our churches. I am going to take a slight detour in this fifth segment, a detour that has nothing to do with liturgy or music. While living in southern California this was my experience. As I plant a church in Richmond, Virginia, this is also my experience.

One of the many reasons more African-Americans are not Presbyterian and Reformed (e.g., PCA, ARP, URC, etc.) is because of the lack of familiarity with its brand, or denomination/federation. On both coasts, when I invite African-Americans to church, probably 8 out of 10 cannot define what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed, have never visited a Presbyterian or Reformed church, and do not know any Presbyterian or Reformed Christians. This has many implications. Here are two.

If an African-American family, for example, were to move to a new area and look for a church, they would not visit a Presbyterian or Reformed congregation. Even if they did not have a commitment to one particular denomination, it is more likely they would attend a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational church. The same can be said for newly converted African-Americans. If, for instance, an African-American gets saved through means other than the preaching of the word on the Lord's Day (e.g., street preaching, gospel tract, etc.), it is unlikely, once he looks for a church, he will visit a Presbyterian or Reformed congregation. He, along with the minority family mentioned in the previous example, is unfamiliar with its beliefs, practices, and its brand. This newly converted man would also, more than likely, end up attending a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational church. 

This is quite interesting in light of a report that was submitted to the 205th general assembly of the PCUSA, which suggests that African-Americans had a much greater affinity for Presbyterianism at one time. After reading this, provided it is true, I wonder how we can make our denomination, or more broadly those within NAPARC, more familiar to all minorities. What can we do to have better name recognition? I have ideas. You may as well.

I hope you will take the time to read this. In a section of the report, titled, "Toward a Nonsegregated Church in a Nonsegregated Society," the authors wrote,

"The end of World War II brought a rising tide of expectations and an irrepressible demand for equity before the law. African Americans, who had once again shed their blood in defense of their country and the cause of democracy, returned home to find their own lot essentially unchanged.

While it might be expected that the churches would have provided ethical leadership for the nation in responding to African Americans' yearning and struggling for justice and equality, such was not the case. The Presbyterian church bodies as a whole did little beyond issuing platitudinous statements. Black clergy, laity, and churches, however, continued their historical role of providing to their communities educated and sophisticated leadership, often through close cooperation with secular organizations like the NAACP. Black Presbyterians were keenly aware that it was government, through the courts, and secular organizations that took the lead in calling the nation to social reform in race matters. In the South, the subject of race relations and racial justice was seldom raised from the pulpit. And as long as the problem was so much identified with southern mores, northern church people could pretend that it was a southern problem, not one with which they must grapple.

In the years between the two world wars, none of the three Presbyterian bodies that now are melded into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) achieved vigorous growth among their African American constituencies. The southern Presbyterian church (the Presbyterian Church in the United States) hardly grew at all until Lawrence Bottoms was brought into the picture as the assistant secretary of the Board of Negro Work, which came into being in 1946.

The Committee on Colored Evangelization of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) was established in 1892 and went out of existence in 1910. At the time of its establishment, there were fifty-six Black congregations with a total of about sixteen hundred members. When the committee was discontinued, congregations numbered fifty-nine and the membership totaled 2,355. (150)

Evangelizing and teaching Black people was not a popular preoccupation. "Someone remarked facetiously and yet with much truth that when one went to Africa as a missionary to evangelize the Negro he was canonized; when he stayed home to teach the Negro he was ostracized." (151)

When the Committee on Colored Evangelization was discontinued in 1910, its work was transferred to the Executive Committee on Home Missions as a Department of Colored Work. Snedecor continued as superintendent of this work until he resigned due to failing health. This coincided with the failure of the independent Afro-American Presbyterian Synod. In that same year, the independent synod was restructured as a synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). It was renamed the Snedecor Memorial Synod in honor of Snedecor, who had given so much of his life to work among African Americans.

After Snedecor's death, several persons were chosen to give leadership to the work among Blacks. Although this succession of men worked hard to move the church to shoulder its evangelistic responsibility, they could not overcome the apathy now grown to aversion. As the Snedecor Synod, and thus an integral part of the General Assembly, the Black constituency still experienced anemic growth. In 1918, there were 1,492 members; by 1933 that number had only increased to 1,847.

The place at which Black church growth did occur was the cities. In the period following World War II, successful PCUS mission centers were established in Louisville, Richmond, Atlanta, and New Orleans. A feature common to these locations was the development of strong Sunday schools and attention to the social, economic, and educational needs as a part of the evangelistic thrust.

Work for and among African Americans in the southern Presbyterian church continued under the Board of Home Missions until 1946 when the Board of Negro Work was formed. The creation of this board represented not only a change in structure, but a change in attitude. Lawrence Bottoms, who played a key role in this development, describes the changes this way:

"[The Home Mission Board] governed and functioned like a plantation system. The executive secretary of the Board of Home Missions worked through certain key ministers who carried out the instructions given by the Board and endeavored to develop the work within the synod and presbytery without the body knowing exactly what they were doing and where they were trying to go; and the body was governed by these key ministers who operated and functioned under the instruction of the Board of Home Missions. The members of the Synod (Snedecor) and the presbytery did not learn to use the tool of government, social organization, economic process and social process, or political process. ... Neither did they learn about Presbyterian belief. ... The work was carried on in a paternalistic fashion in the hope that the people being led by these ministers would become good people who would adjust to the systems of segregation and be comfortable in those systems without causing any difficulty." (152)

Substantial growth of Black membership in the PCUS began under the leadership of Alex R. Batchelor, who was appointed secretary of the Division of Negro Work in 1947. Lawrence W. Bottoms, serving first as part-time regional director of Christian Education, succeeded in getting Blacks and Whites to plan together for new urban churches, such as All Souls Church in Richmond, Virginia, rather than have Whites plan for Blacks as had been the practice before.

Bottoms later became full-time regional director of Christian Education, then associate in the Division of Negro Work and, at the death of Alex Batchelor, director of the Division of Negro Work. Bottoms' unusual background had prepared him well for an unenviable task. A deeply spiritual man, he had grown up in the Church of the Covenanters, earned his A.B. degree from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and completed his theological course at the Reformed Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before coming to the national staff, Bottoms had served PCUS pastorates in Selma, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; and Miami, Florida. In 1974, he was elected the first and only African American moderator of the PCUS General Assembly.

In 1949, this work among African Americans was placed under the Board of Church Extension as the Division of Negro Work, along with the Divisions of Home Missions, Christian Relations, Radio and Television, and Evangelism. This placement of the work in the church's structure overcame some of the sense of isolation that the Division of Negro Work had experienced and was strategic in achieving a more integrated relationship with other aspects of the church's work.

Batchelor writes of that period: "In 1946 something happened in our church. It seemed that God spoke and commanded us to go forward in Negro Work. This was a voice to the whole church." (153) It happened to coincide with the post-World War II period when many new nations in Asia and Africa were gaining independence. Change was in the air and African Americans were pressing the case for democracy in the United States with unprecedented vigor. Batchelor, appealing to the best instincts in the White constituency of his church, observed that the usual procedure in a Christian fellowship is not for the minority to have to make demands, but for the majority to take the initiative. In other words, the majority ought to care so much about the minority that it anticipates the latter's needs and addresses them. "If it fails to do so, it opens to question the extent to which it has appropriated the Spirit of Christ." (154)

A piece of hard evidence that a new day was on the horizon in the PCUS was the appointment of Black staff persons at the national level to guide and administer the work among African American churches. Batchelor seemed of a different spirit than most of his predecessors, and an important clue to his effectiveness was his employment of capable Black men and women to share responsibility for the work. In addition to the appointment of Lawrence Bottoms, Leon Anderson succeeded to the position of regional director of Christian Education and Mrs. A. L. DeVariest, staff member of the Board of Women's Work, conducted training workshops for church leaders and youth.

During the post-World War II era, the Black constituency of the PCUS experienced substantial growth under Bottoms' and Batchelor's leadership. Some forty new churches were started and, during a five-year period, the Black membership increased from three thou- sand to about seven thousand (155)" (pages 113-17).
Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church, in Richmond, VA, celebrated its ninth Sunday on December 21, 2014. Time seems to be moving quite quickly. Before you know it, if the Lord wills, we will have finished our series through the book of Exodus. We average about 50 persons in attendance each Sunday. That includes people from various ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is quite a blessing to see what the Lord is doing in our church.

Since the first service, our liturgy has remained the same. We have several scripture readings, a confession of sin while kneeling, preaching of the word, administration of the Lord's Supper weekly while sitting around a table and partaking of a common meal, benediction, etc. You can view our liturgy here (sample_liturgy.pdf).  We hope to add the sursum corda next year. Interestingly, our liturgy is not entirely different from the most recent all black Baptist church I visited. Consider also the latest partnership between some Pentecostal and Anglican churches. What is my point? As I shared in parts 1 and 2, the liturgy is not what is keeping minorities away from Presbyterian and reformed churches.

In part 3, I began to introduce music into the equation. Is a certain genre of music keeping minorities away from our churches? Is it the way its sung? Here are some of my thoughts regarding those questions.
I wonder if what may be keeping minorities away from our churches is less about the genre of music that is sung and more about the way in which we sing it. In many of our churches, especially if they consider themselves, "old school," generally we know what to expect musically--hymns and psalms utilizing traditional tunes with very few instruments. As an aside, we sing hymns from the Trinity Hymnal at Crown and Joy. There is nothing wrong with these musical preferences, but what I have noticed more recently among churches that are increasing in ethnic and cultural diversity is that they are singing many of the traditional hymns using more modern tunes. Minor chords, more upbeat tempos, and choruses are utilized. These churches have attempted to contextualize the music, particularly as it relates to the tunes, while maintaining the rich and biblical lyrics associated with traditional hymns.

Depending on the church's context, this seems to help. Minorities, especially if they have a church background (see part 1), may feel more comfortable during the singing aspect of the Lord's Day service because the tune is more fitting to their previous church experience. (Here is one example). Unfortunately, in my opinion, not all churches are willing to do this. They are unwilling to alter this segment of their church service to help minorities feel more comfortable in an already foreign situation (i.e., reformed and predominantly white). 

I think if we consider our local congregations more as missionary establishments it may help us. In other words, it seems that missionaries, when thinking soberly, note their cultural context. They pay attention to the dialect, cultural practices, musical tastes, food, clothing, living arrangements, etc. This helps them minister to the locals in that community. If we adopted that mindset versus catering almost primarily to those already in our churches, or even those with similar preferences whom we foresee joining us, we might be more willing to change certain aspects of our music. As I write this, I also confess that I believe the church is for Christians, yet it is also a place for non-Christians to attend and be saved. What might those elect saints, who have yet to embrace Christ by faith, be listening to musically? Will taking that into consideration as well as implementing it, within reason and biblical standards, help them feel more comfortable in our midst? Regarding those who have a church background, will taking into consideration what those saints are listening to musically, who may later become reformed, help them feel more comfortable when they visit us? One African-American comes to mind, one who has been in a Presbyterian church for over 10 years and has a Pentecostal background. This person does not like the music at that particular Presbyterian congregation. What can we do for someone like that?

What about churches that are unwilling to adapt? If one's church will not change the tunes associated with many traditional hymns, are they hopeless? If they reside in diverse contexts and are unwilling to change their current musical practices, should they toss in the towel, so-to-speak, regarding diversity? Or what about those churches that are willing to change their music for the sake of ministry contextualization but do not feel equipped to do so? I hope to address those questions in other posts. 
Various social media websites and the news outlets are still ablaze after the #FergusonDecision. While I am concerned about how the world is reacting, both positively and negatively, I am also concerned about how the Church is responding. As I shared here, what I am observing further confirms that we, as followers of Christ, are still divided on these issues. Unfortunately, while disagreement is one thing; we can disagree on issues related to ethnicity and culture, terminating friendships and assassinating someone's character are completely different. (Yes, I have seen these things occur). The latter must cease.

In light of all the current dialogue about ethnic and cultural issues, specifically as they surround the #FergusonDecision or more broadly the conversations in general, allow me to provide 3 don'ts of ethnic/cultural conversation. These mistakes are being made all over the place, and it does not aid in this most important discussion.

I do not claim that these are standard across the board, specifically as it relates to blacks and whites, but from the vast majority of conversations with brothers and sisters in the faith, these observations seem quite consistent. 

3 Don'ts of Ethnic/Cultural Dialogue While Speaking to African-Americans:

1. Don't tell us we make everything about race. It is easy to avoid conversations about race, or ethnicity, when it is not a category you are accustomed to discussing. To the same degree and in the same manner we have had to be concerned about the color of our skin, you have not. Driving, shopping, and walking while black are things that will never concern you. Instead of telling us we make everything about race, it will be helpful for you to learn about our pain because there is truth to our story.

2. Don't be so quick to respond. #blacklivesmatter . At times, it seems like you have no desire to sympathize with us. While we do not expect you to feel our pain as we do, surely you can weep with us. The racial/ethnic tension in this country has existed for hundreds of years, and it is still present today. At times, however, it takes more subtle forms. When we mention this unfortunate reality, please refrain from pulling the trigger of your keyboard so quickly or providing a verbal rebuttal. Just listen. You may gain a new friend and/or develop a deeper relationship with us.

3. Don't quote other African-Americans in support of your position. We know there are African-Americans who disagree with us in certain areas. Quoting from one of our own, according to the flesh, may do more to hurt your position than help you. From an extreme perspective, it may appear like you are trying to turn us against our own. From a much narrower point-of-view, when you quote an African-American, it is akin to quoting "your one black friend." In other words, you only use him when it is to your advantage. 

3 Don'ts of Ethnic/Cultural Dialogue While Speaking to White Americans:

1. Don't make us feel guilty. There are many of us who desire to help and move forward in this highly charged area, but we sometimes feel as if you are pointing the finger at us without giving us an opportunity to say, "We are on your side." Furthermore, you sometimes make us feel as if everything is our fault when, in fact, many of us are immigrants, and our ancestors had nothing to do with much of this tragic history of this nation.

2. Don't disregard our position simply because we differ. Sometimes we feel as if you do not want to hear our position because we may have another perspective. Is it wrong to disagree? Perhaps in conversation you may convince us of your position, or quite possibly we may convince you of ours, whether in part or in total. But please listen to us. We feel like we have something valuable to add, too.

3. Don't act like we do not care. We know there are many issues at hand, issues that are far more numerous than we understand. Nevertheless, that does not mean we do not care. We want justice to be upheld. We want God to be honored. We do care. We will never be able to walk in your shoes, but we can walk along side you to hear your frustrations and pain. 
In parts 1 and 2, I suggested that liturgy does not necessarily keep minorities away from our Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Following our examination of the liturgy, I wanted to pose another question:

What about music?

The so-called worship wars, as I read them, normally center around the type of music we sing and how we sing it. Are older hymns (i.e., that which is in the Trinity hymnal) our best option for singing? Should we eradicate it all, whether traditional hymns or contemporary music, and simply sing psalms? I will leave it to Dr. Jones and Dr. Clark to argue whether or not exclusive psalmody is the biblical and/or historic reformed practice. In the context of this post, however, singing psalms or hymns may not be the issue. Perhaps it is the absence of a choir? After all, many African-American churches--and other churches for that matter--have choirs. Perhaps it is the lack of African-American gospel music in our churches that causes our pews to virtually be void of minorities? Or maybe we need more instruments in our musical ensemble? Will that help? 

There are a host of questions into which we must inquire, and depending on whom you ask, the answer varies as much as the waves in the ocean. What follows is my opinion. 

Let's attempt to tackle one of the questions that I often hear raised. Do we need a choir? According to a story I recently heard, the answer is yes. Since many, perhaps most, African-American churches have choirs, the conclusion is that we, likewise, must have a choir. This addition, some believe, due to familiarity, will help our brothers and sisters feel more comfortable in our churches. There may be some truth to that, but ultimately it depends on the African-American culture to whom you are catering. Yes, you may need to reread the previous sentence. I did say, "catering." 

If you have not discovered it by now, we are all catering to someone, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It is more evident, it seems, in those churches that have signs on their property that say, "Traditional service at 8:30am and Contemporary service at 11am." They are catering, which does not mean biblical compromise, to those who prefer traditional music (and liturgy) and to those who prefer contemporary music (and perchance less liturgy). 

Catering is less apparent, some think, in some of our reformed churches that sing, for example, all hymns and have a standard liturgy, however we define 'standard.' To whom are they catering? The answer is simple: those who prefer singing hymns within the context of a standard liturgy. Categorically, these image-bearers would arrive at the 8:30am traditional service. An example is in order.

Several years ago a certain presbytery was pursuing me as a church planter. One gentleman in that presbytery, who wanted me to plant this church, said that he desired a solid Presbyterian church that sings from the Trinity Hymnal. To be Presbyterian, or in his language, "to be conservative," meant to sing all hymns. He further elaborated that a service that pursues this direction will attract a certain type of people (e.g., other conservative Christians). He recognized the link between intentionally arranging certain aspects of Lord's Day worship and the ability to garner certain people.

While some African-Americans may prefer choirs, some may not. There is not homogeneity among blacks that can somehow help generate a standard music practice in our churches that will guarantee more minorities come and stay (yes, stay). This complicates the ability to cater, or perhaps put in language that may not scream of affirmative action, contextualize our ministry. 

If the community in which your church resides is ethnically and culturally diverse, conduct some research. Intentionally seek the demographic that is absent in your church and see what their church experience is. That will help you better understand the musical tastes of the people. This is ministry contextualization.

To be clear, I am not simply building an argument so that you can arrange your worship service ultimately to take Christians from other churches. More can, and perhaps should, be said about that, but for now, I will leave it there.

One final word is in order about the choir. I would go so far as to say that it is less about the choir in African-American churches and more about the enthusiasm, excitement, joy, and life the choir brings to the congregation. Can such joy and enthusiasm be produced without a choir? 

As a brief aside, there is nothing wrong with joy, whether displayed inwardly or outwardly, and enthusiasm when singing to the God of the universe. It seems that many people downgrade these emotions as mere tactics to infuse energy into the church or polemics to engage the emotions. Can it be that? Yes. Does it have to be that way? No.

In closing, I wonder if what may be keeping minorities away from our Reformed and Presbyterians churches is the apparent lack of joy and enthusiasm while singing. Notice I said, apparent. We all express the aforementioned emotions differently. In many of the contexts in which I have been placed, it seems that those emotions are predominantly expressed inwardly. "I have joy in my heart," some say. The lack of visible demonstrative expression, however, may be a hinderance to minorities visiting our churches who prefer an outward expression of praise and thanksgiving. While no one has placed a sign above the door of our churches suggesting that you cannot outwardly express yourself during the singing aspect of worship, whether by swaying, lifting your hands, or kneeling, the atmosphere of the church may express something different. When no one is doing it, perhaps some may wonder if it is acceptable. Could this keep African-Americans away from our churches? It all depends on the context.

If this is, in fact, occurring (i.e., a lack of demonstrative expression is keeping blacks from our churches), how can we change this? Provided you are not insisting the Bible forbids such expression, maybe you can remind your church that they may express themselves in said manner. If they have never heard that from the pastor and/or session or consistory, how will they know those modes of expression are acceptable. Furthermore, if a minority, who prefers that mode of expression, hears that from the leadership, it may make her feel more comfortable. 

In the next post, I want to focus particularly on singing traditional hymns and what that may, or may not, do for increasing African-American diversity in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. With such a broad topic, I do not plan to cover every aspect of this discussion. Whatever it is I have said in this series, I hope it is helpful.

Mike Brown: We're Still Divided

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Are you watching the news? Are you reading blogs and news reports about the recent death of 18-year old Michael Brown? Have you watched the protests that have and will continue to occur? Are you, in any sense, moved to pray or talk to others about this?

I have scanned the internet for various stories on this unfortunate incident. It is unfortunate because someone is dead and families and those in his community are grieving. I wish I could say this is a unique occurrence; it is not. As one author said, "Michael Brown is not special. In all its specificity, the 18-year old's death remains just the most recent example of police officers killing unarmed black men."

To be quite honest, this angers me for many reasons. One reason is its frequency. In Los Angeles, where I was raised for part of my life, I was accustomed to seeing white spray paint on the ground that outlined the newly deceased young black man's body. I was submerged in stories about police brutality toward my people. Do not let the preacher's robe and Presbyterian polity fool you. I come from a place to which many of you cannot relate. 

Despite my current position as a PCA minister, these are still my people, and I completely understand the frustration and anger they feel. But you are my people, too. And thus I believe we must work together for the sake of the gospel to better understand each other in light of the now deceased 18-year old Michael Brown. 

Did you notice the distinction I made in the previous paragraph between "they" and "you"? Let's be transparent: the majority of both readership and authorship on this blog are white. Do not be ashamed that you are white. I am unashamed of this visible difference. You should be unashamed, too, and take great pride in God's creative genius to create us visually different. Yet, simply because we are in Christ does not flatten the beauty of ethnic and cultural distinctions that we maintain. Galatians 3:27-29 provides no grounds for such a conclusion.

With these ethnic and cultural distinctions, therefore, we may see the Mike Brown proceeding through a different lens. For some of us this simply highlights what we have always known, or at least believed, to be true: young black men are unsafe in this nation. For others, perhaps some of you, especially if you have been following this event, may wonder, "Why do they (i.e., African-Americans) have to make everything about race?" Based on your observations, you have concluded that blacks, and/or other minorities, unnecessarily pull the proverbial race card. Some African-Americans, or other sub-dominant cultures, might respond, "Why do whites always dismiss the possibility that race, or ethnicity, was a motivating factor in said event?" 

These are real questions with which people wrestle, and events like the death of Mike Brown only bring to the surface the questions that have lingered for years. I wonder, however, how this affects the church. I am particularly referring to the institutional Sunday morning (or afternoon) gathered church. Does Mike Brown, and those like him--even unarmed poor whites who have been harmed by law enforcement--affect the institutional church? I maintain it does. 

Consider the recent and ongoing immigration debate. How has it affected you? What do you think when you see a Spanish speaking image-bearer, one who knows, or at least it is assumed, very little English? What has caused your conclusions? Do you remain unaffected by the outcry of some in the media who thrust names on them, such as, "illegal," "unwanted immigrant," or "wetback"? The point of the news, while to inform, is also to sway opinion, and I think we may lack transparency if we claim we are not, at least in part, somehow affected by what some branches of the media portray about immigration.

The same can be stated about African-Americans. For years in this nation, African-Americans have been, and continue to be, portrayed in shrouds of untruth. "We are lazy, good-for-nothings," some have and do say. "We are animals," it has been said. Or in the words of PCUS minister, Benjamin Palmer (1818-1902), "The worst foes of the black race are those who have intermeddled on their behalf. We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless."

Whether one-hundred years ago or now, our views about other ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, and mentally (in)capable groups are largely determined by our context, and the media helps form our views within our context. All of this makes it difficult to have important conversations about Mike Brown, situations like it, and the church.

This is why we need a movement of the Holy Spirit. Amid the horrific realities of Mike Browns all over the United States, and even the incidents that occur which are not broadcast (e.g., unjust acts taken against poor whites), we must demonstrate that the church is different. We are unlike the world, which can segregate, almost immediately, based on the color of one's skin and other factors. Have you noticed that is what has occurred in the death of Mike Brown? Why do you think the pictures and quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have newly surfaced on the internet, largely from ethnic minorities? Why do you believe pictures from the 1950's and 1960's have been newly awakened? For many, history continues to repeat itself, and that angers African-Americans and other minorities. Perhaps we, specifically Christians, are also angry at the lack of representation in the 'Christian' blogosphere from others in the majority culture. Robin Williams is okay, but apparently Mike Brown is not.

There are potentially many answers to the lingering question, "What can we do?" The Transformatlists, Theonomists, and Two Kingdoms advocates 'can have a go at it,' as they say, discussing the church's role in this situation, particularly as it relates to the notion of justice. As a response to this situation, one of my concluding desires is to remind you of the Abrahamic (Gen. 17:4ff) and New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) promises.

You know, I believe it is extremely easy to notice the ethnic and cultural divide that has ensued due to the death of young Mike Brown, yet we might fail to see the same division in the church. It is there. You cannot miss it. If you are in a Presbyterian and/or Reformed/Reforming congregation, look around this Sunday. What do you see? Some are blessed to see diversity on numerous levels in their churches. Most are not. In large measure, we gather with those who are culturally, ethnically, mentally, and financially similar. The segregation that we see in the world, therefore, is, in much the same way, the segregation we see in the church. In other words, the same factors that contribute to segregation in the world are the same factors that create segregation in the church. Perhaps we are more worldly than we think?

Consider the Mike Brown matter in relation to the divisions we see in the church. What caused the uproar surrounding Mike Brown? Death and ethnicity--white cop, black man, one is dead. Is the church divided based on death? Yes. How many tens of thousands of Africans/African-Americans died either crossing the Atlantic during the slave trade or years after slavery was apparently abolished, were lynched in the south? Would you want to worship with someone who may kill you? The answer: be forced or voluntarily attend a different church. Furthermore, even when death became less of a threat, many African-Americans and other minorities were not permitted to worship with whites, and if they were, blacks were placed in the back of the church in what we now call, 'the choir loft.' 

Are we separated based on ethnicity? Of course. Why do we use terms like, 'the black church' and 'the white church'? Are we divided because of class and education? How many poor whites and blacks do we have in our midst? Are we frequenting the trailer parks and projects to announce the good news and invite them into our church family? By the way, poor whites and blacks, as well as those who do not have a degree, are also in the suburbs. 

Are we separated based on mentality capabilities? How many mentally disabled members do we have in our churches? Is our church a place where they, as well as their families, can feel safe, or have we made them feel unwanted because of the happenings mentality disabilities provide during Lord's Day worship (e.g., audible outbreaks). Are we divided based on culture? While many people have written about the Mark Driscoll situation, or perhaps better stated, situations, I have always been amazed at the type of people he attracted. I do not typically see those same people in Presbyterian and/or Reformed churches. Where are those who are tattooed from the neck down? Where are those who wear skinny jeans and have enlarged holes in their ears? Where are the punk rockers and the hip-hoppers? It seems, based on my observation, they/we gather with those who are like them/us.

Mike Brown: We're still divided.

Yes, what occurred to Mr. Brown is tragic and it grieves my heart. Was he even a Christian? I would hate for him to go from one tragedy to another. Yet, I wonder if this event is revealing a larger issue--the death, divide, and destruction that we have in our own churches. Both the Abrahamic and New Covenant promises reveal that God never intended his church to be divided as it is on Sunday mornings (Gen. 17:4ff; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 28:16-20; Gal. 2:11-14; Eph. 2:11-22). His promises are for all peoples (Rev. 5:9-10). Everyone, regardless of the distinctions they maintain, needs the good news of God, in Christ, come to save sinners. That must be our foundation; it must be heard; it must be believed; and the results must be manifest in our midst (i.e., a worshiping community that displays the demographics of the community). Only then will we be able to have conversations about the Mike Browns in our midst and better understand one's perspective(s) on such horrible situations. 
"Our call to worship comes from...", "If you have confessed your sins, I declare to you...", and "The Lord bless you and keep you" are statements frequently found on Lord's Day worship at Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Are these things keeping African-Americans away from our churches?

In the previous post, I narrowly defined the terms "liturgy" and "minority." Liturgy, I suggested, "is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service." Since every church has a liturgy, I more particularly narrowed the focus to "that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches" (see DPW, section II). Regarding the term "minority," I mentioned, "...I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational."

At the conclusion of part 1, I suggested, "Liturgy does not...ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches." However, what can keep some African-Americans away from our churches, specifically regarding liturgy, is how the liturgy is conducted. Previously, I noted, 

"The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing."

Along with a somewhat stale presentation of an otherwise glorious event, something else that can keep African-Americans away from our churches is the pace of the liturgy. Further, I would suggest the culture of that church, which is expressed within the liturgy, may also reduce African-American presence in our churches.

The Pace of the Liturgy

Having visited many Reformed and Presbyterian churches across the United States, the pace of the liturgy is often the same. Once one aspect of the service is complete, the minister immediately proceeds to the next section. For example, after the declaration of pardon, the minister soon thereafter states some variation of, "Having heard the declaration of pardon, let's sing a song of response." The pianist then begins playing. In the majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, it seems, that is acceptable. The pace provides a certain flow to the service that has become normative. That pace, nevertheless, can become inhibiting to those who are a bit more demonstrative. 

Some of our Caucasian brothers and sisters are not extremely expressive in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. A head nod, perhaps an "amen" under her breath, or, according to one seminary president, a grunt is an adequate response to confirm what just transpired during Lord's Day corporate worship. For many African-Americans--I am included--the aforementioned verbal or bodily gestures of agreement are acceptable and within one's comfort zone. However, for others, they are not. Some African-Americans desire to more loudly or expressively declare their verbal or bodily assent to a certain declaration from the minister, but the pace in many of our churches prohibits it. In other words, there is very little time to express one's gratitude to the glorious truths found, for instance, in the declaration of pardon because the service quickly advances to the next segment. Unless someone desires to get into a shouting match with the minister, it is best to remain silent. 

For some African-Americans who have experience in Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and/or Non-Denominational churches, there is sometimes space, due to the pace, to offer verbal or bodily assent to a certain portion, or portions, of the service. That sometimes occurs because the minister solicits it. At other times, there is enough down time, or space between parts of the service, to allow verbal confirmation. In our churches, what may that look like?

After the declaration of pardon, instead of moving directly to the next area of service, the minister could say some variation of, "And all God's people said?" The response should be, "amen." That provides an outlet for those who are more expressive in worship. One might also ask rhetorical questions (e.g., "Isn't that good news?"), or other questions, that grant people the opportunity to express themselves, albeit decently and in order. Who knows? You may have some people in your congregation currently who would appreciate this, and they may not be African-American.

The Culture of the Church Expressed within the Liturgy

While the pace of the liturgy in many of our churches may not allow demonstrative worship, the culture of the church, which is depicted within the liturgy, also does not provide space for demonstrative worship.

Several of my African-American friends have expressed feeling somewhat alienated when they declare a passionate, "amen" to the minister's sermon or the declaration of pardon. In their opinion, the stares, after an "amen" is stated, confirm their feeling of alienation. They, therefore, feel prohibited from making further gestures of agreement. That is not something liturgy does. Liturgy does not inhibit nor prohibit verbal expression (e.g., "amen" or "preach, Pastor") nor a bodily response to certain parts within the liturgy (e.g., raising hands) -- people do. 

Outside of singing, confessing sin, and reciting a creed, many of our congregations are silent. Although there may be no bylaws suggesting one should be quiet, the culture, which provides those "unwritten rules," clearly announces that reality. Must those African-Americans who are more demonstrative in worship conform to the church's culture, or will there be enough room for them to maintain that aspect of their cultural identity and remain expressive in church?

Perhaps you are either thinking, "To what degree should a minister and/or congregation allow people to be expressive?," or "How do I inculcate a more expressive culture in my church?" Maybe you are not asking either question. To the extent that some of you may be interested, perchance I will attempt to articulate answers to those questions at another time. 

Until then, consider requesting a copy of the liturgy from Christ Central Church, City of Hope, or Grace Mosaic. Each of these churches are cross-cultural, multi-ethnic, intentional about reaching out to various ethnic groups and cultures, maintain a word and sacrament centrality, and uphold the liturgical elements found in DPW, section II. These churches, though this anecdotal, confirm that liturgy does not keep African-Americans away from our churches.
I have had a change of heart. I wonder if and how it will work.

Days ago, Ed Stetzer wrote a piece at Christianity Today, titled, "More Thoughts on Multicultural Church: 3 Things to Consider About Multiculturalism." It is a great article and worth your time.

Here are several quotations from the article.

"A multicultural church is a foretaste of the family of God we will experience in eternity. Doing multicultural ministry is a gift because it gives us a glimpse of forever."

"If you're going to engage in multicultural ministry you're going to hurt somebody's feelings or have your feelings hurt. Different cultures have different pressure points that are often unknown to those on the outside. Conflict is inevitable, but when it occurs we can apologize and move forward."

"A multicultural church is not simply about skin tone, but about the intentional, effective engagement of cultures. Racially diverse churches may be as culturally homogeneous as churches that lack racial diversity."

Interestingly enough I was recently talking to those in our church plant Bible study about the third quotation. We are ethnically diverse, but we are somewhat culturally homogenous. Our desire is to see people, whose culture differs, become a part of what we are doing in south Richmond, Virginia, but I am certain that as our cultural diversity increases, certain relationships will get a bit awkward. When you fill a room with people whose education preferences differ (e.g., homeschool, public or private school), ideas for how one should dress on Sunday differ, musical tastes/current living accommodations/group of friends/financial tax bracket/English dialect differs, cultures will clash.

Consider your church. In whatever denomination you reside and wherever you happen to be located, imagine if someone visited your church on Sunday with a gold full frontal, dreadlocks, and tattoos on his neck and arms. How would your church respond? I would hope he would be warmly received and invited into your homes. That is the ideal. Unfortunately, his appearance may cause some people to avoid him. For those who do talk to him, however, there will be a period of awkwardness because of his culture. His culture clearly differs from that of those who likely already attend your church. What do you do?

Knowing this, I previously believed that, amid such differences, we should search for our similarities. (I still believe this). What I did not highlight as much during my previous conversations with those in our church plant, however, was our differences. We need to celebrate them. In other words, instead of allowing our differences to divide us, thank God for the diversity he places in our churches and let's take the time to learn about it. It is possible, it seems, that when we gather around different cultures, our awkwardness, due to our differences, can be a fuse to ignite our celebration for having those who differ culturally in our midst.

What does this look like?

Practically, I have no idea. The vast majority of churches of which I have been a part are culturally homogenous. Theoretically, I have some ideas. I wonder if and how it will work.

Lord willing, as our church plant continues to grow, I will let you know if my theoretical ideas actually work. Something tells me that it will but not because I have great ideas but because the Lord has surrounded me with a group of people who desire diversity in all areas. They are willing to be stretched if people enter our midst who are unlike us culturally. They want it! They pray for it! They are active in seeking it! In theory, that is one thing that will help a church become culturally diverse. The people need to desire it, pray for it, and seek it. If it just the pastor who wants to see his church culturally reflect the community in which the church is placed, the church will have a much harder time cultivating that type of diversity.  Everyone needs to want it  from the pastor to the parishioners and they must actually do something about it.

That is one part of my theory. I wonder if and how all the details will work out. I hope to let you know.
Reformation 21 exists for the purposes of, "Encouraging biblical thinking, living, worship, ministry, and constructive cultural engagement." I desire to engage the latter in this post. To be clear, I am not playing the race card nor am I claiming to be a victim. I am simply highlighting some things that the majority of our readers may not have considered as they interact with people in the sub-dominant culture. Although some of these things may seem trivial, they matter to many of us. I hope this will provide a different lens through which to see your words and actions that may benefit our time together as we seek to glorify God and enjoy him forever. In a word, I am hoping this will help you become more culturally sensitive. 

In 1974, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) produced a committee report titled, "Problems of Race." It is well-worth getting acquainted with this document. In addition to this committee report, someone posed this question on the OPC website. "How can we find out more about the OPC's race relations perspective?" A member of the OPC replied, "I think it's important to note that, while all those mentioned in Galatians 3:28 are equal before God, being Christians didn't obliterate gender, racial or cultural distinctions. It simply means that all are equally valuable in Christ and before God."

Correct! Gender, ethnic/race, and cultural distinctions are still present. Galatians 3:28 does not eliminate those differences. Therefore, since these differences still exist, there are certain things that can be done or said that are offensive in light of our distinctions. While I do not and cannot speak for all people of color (i.e., those in the sub-dominant culture), here are a few things you might want to reconsider saying and doing as you speak with and interact with some of us.

1. "You are very articulate" - When I am invited to preach at a Presbyterian/Reformed congregation, this is normally one of the first responses I receive once the service is complete. My first thought is, "What did you expect?" My second thought is, "Were you expecting me to communicate in a fashion that is unrecognizable?" I understand you are trying to be courteous and encouraging in much the same way as others respond, "Good sermon, Pastor," but this is derogatory to me. Look at number 21 on this list. I am not alone. 

Wanting to explore this more, I began asking my white friends what type of comments they hear after preaching at sister churches. These friends, I believe, are good preachers and extremely intelligent. Of the tens I asked, only one heard a similar comment. Why then is it said to me?

2. "We're colorblind in our family" - I think I understand what you are attempting to say. Essentially you are saying that you are not racist nor prejudice; you desire to love and serve all God's people (Matt. 22:39). However, in our day and age the truth is color still matters, and I believe it should in the most positive respects. People of different ethnicities bring perspectives to the table that are extremely beneficial. West Africans have a different perspective than Western Europeans on certain issues. Cubans may see things differently than African-Americans in some cases. Why? One potential reason is because our perspectives are attached to the color of our skin and our ethnicity. In many cases, you cannot detach the two. Therefore, it could be perceived that to raise our families colorblind is to obliterate these valuable distinctions (i.e., issues revolving around color and perspective). It is okay to see color. I see you; you see me.

3. "Ask Leon, he's black" - I am not the spokesman for all African-Americans. In fact, some African-Americans may disagree with some of the information on this post. If you are asking me a question because I am your only black friend, perhaps you should arrange a way to garner more African-American friendships in your life. I promise we do not bite. We may give you a hard time and push your buttons, but the feeling is mutual. Let's learn from each other and seek to cultivate as many friendships across ethnic and cultural lines as possible. It will enlarge our view of the world.

4. "Are you related to...?" - I remember flying across the country to preach in a Presbyterian church. Once the service was over, a lady turned to my friend, who was seated behind her and happened to be the only other black person in the room, and asked, "Are you two related?" 

5. "Meet the Jones Family" - I understand your desire to make me feel comfortable when I visit your church, but I do not need to meet the only other black family in your congregation. I know you are seeking to make me feel welcome, but you take a risk in doing this. For one, what makes you think we will get along? Secondly, just because our skin is a certain shade of brown does not mean we are the same ethnicity. I am reminded of something a Puerto Rican family from my congregation said. "Just because we speak Spanish does not necessarily mean we can make all other visiting families of Hispanic or Latino descent feel comfortable."

Discussing ethnic and cultural issues can be difficult. I know some of you may be thinking, "Let's move on already," or "Leon is simply chained to the past." I can assure you that I am not raising these issues for the purposes of reopening a wound, attempting to be purposefully offensive, nor suggesting that all white people think/behave this way (despite the title not being qualified by the word, "some"); nevertheless, I do think these things need to be said if we are going to gain a better understanding of each other. Besides, it is tough to move on when we keep repeating the same issues from the past.