The monochrome elephant in the sanctuary

A couple of years ago The Help was released to much critical and popular acclaim, depicting the relationships between white families (particularly women) and the black women who worked for them (“the help”) in 1963-64 Mississippi.

The character of Hilly Holbrook (pictured) exhibits the worst kind of condescending racism. It’s my opinion she is the best written movie villain in many years, as you laugh when you see her get hers, but still want to just ring her neck in the end.

There is no doubt race relations in this country have changed drastically for the better in the past fifty years, since the era depicted in the film, but if the recent death of Trayvon Martin and trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman tell us anything, our society has a long way to go (Note: By that I am referring to the reaction on all sides, and not on the guilt or innocence, right or wrong, of Zimmerman).

This is a tragic reality, really, but not nearly as tragic as the fact that this long way to go is nowhere better seen (I repeat, nowhere better seen) than the local church. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself who said in 1963, “We must face the sad fact that at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing…we stand in the most segregated hour in America.” As the pastor of a small rural Southern Baptist church, I can attest to this fact.

It should not be this way. The local church should look like the community in which it is based. That means that often there will be a heavy majority of whites, blacks, or another race in a church based on the demographics of the area. However,  more often than not, white people will be drawn to the white church no matter the area, and black people will go to the black church. I’m thankful this isn’t always the case, but most of the time it is, and again, it should not be this way.

When God set aside the nation of Israel for a time because of their obstinance, unbelief, and rejection of their Messiah, His Son Jesus Christ, the gospel went to the Gentiles. In fact, Jesus Himself, as Lord having authority over all things, ordered His disciples to preach the gospels to all nations (Matt 28:18-20). Jesus was not speaking about political entities, such as the United States of America, the British Commonwealth, or the Russian Federation. He was speaking about people groups, made obvious by the use of the Greek word ethnos, from which we get our word “ethnic.” Quite simply, He told His followers to promiscuously promulgate the gospel of Jesus, regardless the pigment of a person’s epidermis.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

The gospel was never meant to be preached only to people who look like us, and thus the local church was never intended to be monochrome, but like Joseph’s coat, varicolored. Luke records the words of Paul in Acts 17:26, that “from one man [God made] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” That tells us that, while skin color is a creation of God and given by God, race (at least the way we think about it), is an invention of men.

Have you ever heard someone say that if you don’t like church you’re not going to like heaven, because worshiping God is what we’ll be doing there? It’s one of those Christian cliches, really, but the fact of the matter is that many of our churches are not previews of heaven in that they are monochrome.

In Revelation 5:9, Jesus is the One found worthy “to take the book and to break its seals; for [He was] slain, and purchased for God with [His] blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” In verse ten, Jesus is the One who made this mass of people to be a kingdom and priests to God. So white churches, black churches, Latino churches, and everyone else is in for a wake up call. Color will be, and should be now, irrelevant in the kingdom of God. Well, that is except for red, because all who are truly in Christ are covered by His blood.

What shall we say then? What ought we do? Well there is no quick fix, but there are steps every individual Christian and every church ought to consider, beginning with me…

  1. Pray that God might cleanse your heart of any racism, prejudice… any kind of preconceived notions whatsoever that are based upon the color of one’s skin. And pray not just for you, but for your church. These thoughts are for the old man, which was crucified with Christ, in order that our body of sin might be done away with (Rom 6:6). The new man seeks after God and has the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), meaning it sees people without a sinful regard for their ethnicity.
  2. Pray that God would draw individuals and families of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds into your life and into the life of your church. God is in the business of saving all kinds of people, even kings and those who are in authority (1 Tim 2:1-4). He’s drawing all kinds of people to Himself (John 12:32). Pray that He might use you and your church to do that.
  3. Welcome with open arms people to your church who don’t look like you. For most reading this, most of the people in your church will share your ethnicity, so someone visiting your local church may have a chip on their shoulder already. It will go a long way for you to be proactive in welcoming them and further inviting them to be engaged in the community of believers.
  4. Be intentional in reaching out to all peoples, and not just certain demographics (be they age, gender, or race related). We gravitate toward those who are like us. It’s just a fact of life. But we must remember that Jesus, a Jew, went to Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Gerasenes, and more. Paul, a Jew, took the gospel throughout Asia and into Europe (possibly even to Spain, like he wanted). Many of us have a missionary impulse that stops pulsating once it sees someone outside of our comfort zone. But to be Christ-like, we must remember that we are like every other person in the world fundamentally, in that we are sinners in need of redemption found only in Christ. Thus, we should with intentionality engage both people who look like us and people who do not.
  5. Remember what you were before Christ saved you. All racism and prejudice ultimately comes from a heart which believes it is inherently superior to another. But what does the Bible say about us? Only that we had hearts more deceitful than all else, desperately sick (Jer 17:9), intent on only evil continually (Gen 6:5). We were helpless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. And yet God demonstrated His own love toward us anyway. Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-11). So we ultimately have no right to racism, prejudice, or whatever you want to call it, because such were some of us, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 5. God has been gracious to us, giving us what we don’t deserve, and merciful, not giving us what we do deserve. We need a constant helping of remembering this each and every day.

Now these things we must do are not always easy, and I’m not writing as one who has never struggled with this. But be that as it may, for this we must labor and strive, as those being conformed by God to the image of His Son Jesus Christ.

May God be glorified in Christians and churches slaying the monochrome elephant in the sanctuary.

…and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)

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