When I was a child in an evangelical church, there was a growing sense that the church in America was failing to cross cultural borders in the way the early church did. There was recognition that the first-century church included Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds coming together as equals in the shadow of the cross; and that the evangelical churches at the time could not claim that same unity. This was seen as an important issue, a failure of the church to properly practice and display the love of God to the world regardless of race, background, or culture. One of the things that began to happen in light of this understanding was a push for more diversity in our churches. Racial reconciliation was seen as a necessary part of the church pointing the way forward to a more powerful and effective image of the body of Christ.
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Ever since the case of Rodney King, conversation about the level of violence used by police in dealing with black people has occasionally broken into mainstream conversation in white America, but never really stuck and rarely became anything more than idle conversation. But tensions were rising and black people were having greater access to each others' stories and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement finally forced the issue into the spotlight and kept it there. And I have talked to and read the words of so many people of color who watched what the evangelical churches that were trying so hard to welcome them did in response to that. And, by and large, white evangelicals dismissed the concerns, argued in defense of the police in case after case, and then voted for a presidential candidate who was being widely criticized by every race but Europeans partly (largely or entirely, in some cases) due to his statements on women and minorities.
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
The highlighted segments in the trailer show, as "godless ideologies", speakers (some of whom are pastors themselves) calling for pastors to listen to the concerns of their black friends and congregants, to reach out to professionals for help in cases of sexual abuse or other areas they are not specifically trained to handle alone, and to take responsibility for making the changes necessary to facilitate varying forms of reconciliation. It also includes egalitarianism, which has been an issue in some circles but will not be discussed in this post. This has been met with a great deal of backlash, including some of the acceptable leaders shown in the video asking for their involvement to be removed because they feel they were misled about the nature and content of the documentary. One of the responses stated that he was asked to speak about Biblical authority and felt it inappropriate that his words were being used to attack leaders who were well within orthodoxy.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
Between my experiences in church planting over the last decade, and the people I know at school and at various gatherings, and just my life in general these days, I meet a number of people who take some measure of interest in church planting. Which is great! I love talking about it, and expect that I'll be talking about it a lot here. But I have picked up the habit of beginning by warning people that if they intend to get involved in church planting, one of the most important things they need to do (aside from prayer and normal planning matters) is adjust their definition of success.
What I mean by that is actually fairly simple: success in church planting is more about faithfulness to the call than about money raised, or seats filled at launch, or baptisms in the first couple months. These things are important, we should strive to be actually making an impact on the lost in our cities, but for a church planter the primary means of measuring our success is whether or not we are doing what God has called us to do. Let me point you to some examples.
One church that was deeply important to my growth as a Christian and to my move toward full-time ministry was a decent little church in the middle of the Pioneer Valley. This church was planted about ten years before I arrived at it, and wasn't what most people would consider a successful church. It still relied on donations from outside (and still does, to some extent), people mostly in Texas and Oklahoma that believe in the mission and faithfully give month after month. Why? Well, when the original team came to the area, they had very southern ideas about church planting methods, and none of them worked. But in working near a major college campus there, they found themselves acquiring a handful of students. At first, the temptation was to turn these students around and use their energy to recruit adults and get the type of people they had been told to get: stable families who can invest for multiple generations and can be convinced to give enough in tithes and offerings to get the church financially sound within a few years.
But nothing they did in that sphere worked, and more students were beginning to show up. The day came when they had to take a step back, realize that God was actively giving them a body of new believers that needed to be taken seriously as disciples, and give up on the idea of making a church that looked like what they had always been taught was a successful church. In the years since redefining their idea of success, that church has never reached full financial freedom, still holds more students than locals, and watches its population turn over almost completely every four years. But hundreds of people have come to Christ, been put on mission, and sent out as maturing disciples to impact the world wherever they went. The church has seen massive returns on their investment in the lives of people who would have been largely ignored in a different model, and God has been glorified throughout.
My third church planting work was also the first one that I led. My wife and I returned to a town that had already seen a church plant fold after the planter walked away from the faith, because we knew the work wasn't done and that we were being tasked with doing something about it. We went in with high hopes. God was going to do amazing things in that city through us! It was going to be awesome, we were going to really make an impact and start a church that would be in a prime position to send new plants out throughout a region seriously lacking in active churches. We met regularly with another family who had signed on to the work. We did the legal stuff to make it a real church. We bought supplies and started doing meetings outside and inviting people to join us. And...nothing happened.
In our prayers, we felt convicted to really give the task our all, for a short time. We didn't know what would come of that, but we were willing to do it. I was working at a college and got laid off every summer, and it was appearing that my time at that job was coming to an end anyway, so we talked and prayed and pondered and came to the understanding that when I got laid off, instead of picking up sporadic hours or looking for something else, I should devote my time to the work for the entire summer. Treat it as my job until September, and then revisit and see what God was doing. So we did. We bought some more supplies, especially Bibles, and I began making daily trips downtown and praying over the city and talking to people and seeking opportunities to share the gospel. An opportunity came to attend an upcoming conference as a church planting pastor, and I leapt at it. It wasn't until the following February, but man, think about how far we may have come by then! And then my health rapidly deteriorated. And problems started arising, and by the time September came around, we seemed to have actually gone backward.
When we took all this to God and got confirmation that our time working in that town was over, at least for now, it was heartbreaking. I felt like we'd failed. I didn't know why God would have even called us to the work if He didn't intend to do anything with it. But then some other things started to happen.
We had had what many would call a real failure under our belts, and it tested us in a big way. And it wasn't until we were dealing with that that we found ourselves more committed to church planting than ever. This was the first real confirmation that we weren't just following a fad, but that God had really placed something on us that could burn bright and survive even a catastrophic collapse of everything we thought we knew. We needed some time to recover, but we were hungry for what God had lined up next. The months passed, and I had trouble finding a new job, and our reliance on Him became ever more apparent, to the point where what resolve we had to make things work for ourselves was broken. We came to really understand that God will provide, even if we don't see any way for Him to do so.
When I went to that conference, wearing a badge that labelled me as the pastor of a church that no longer existed, I was confronted with a host of opportunities and lessons and was able to connect with God about the mission and my place in it in ways I never had before, and I realized I never would have been there if it hadn't been for that plant. And then, when we had the chance that summer to meet with another church planter and offer our help if needed, and our brief lunch meeting turned into a two-hour blast that revealed that this was where God wanted us next, I learned that God had not wasted any effort. The supplies we still had from our plant met needs this new plant had, and my experiences gave me insights that pastor was eager to hear. We were a month into working at that plant when we realized that our closed church had, among other things, prepared us for this specific opportunity, and our willingness to follow every step He laid out for us and then apply it all where He intended meant that we had been, in the end, successful. We faithfully did the task set before us, and there is nothing more that could have been asked of us.
I wrote the following a year ago in an attempt to explain one aspect of this:
Consider the church in America.
There are places in this nation where the land is soft and yielding, where you can throw a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and a thousand weeds, and the church will praise the massive amount of growth.
And there are places in this nation where the land is rocky and dry, where you can throw out a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and they will stand alone in an otherwise barren field.
And it is growing increasingly frustrating to see people from the first land mourning how hard it is to see growth in the latter, and proclaim that they alone can farm it.
People come to church planting with settled ideas on what success looks like, and as someone working in New England, this is nowhere more apparent than in the people who come from the south and expect their systems to work here the way they do there. I can't count the number of times I've listened to people from the south talk about how churches in the northeast are dying and need some of whatever is working in the south when they first arrive, and then bemoaning how hard the soil is and how the gospel just can't penetrate the culture after they've been here a little while.
Listen: the ground here is tough, but it will always feel more tough when you use the wrong tools and expect a crop that doesn't grow in it.
What is happening is that people come here expecting to use the systems they've always known and seeing the results they've always seen. And if they don't adjust their definition of success, to at least accommodate the possibility that the church will look a little different once it gets going, they will always feel like a failure. It is always more important to faithfully follow the call on your life, and to find how to get the gospel to people in your context, and to nurture whatever crop may grow from it, than to make your dream church or a copy of the church that sent you. Do not change the message of Christ; but learn to recognize what you are used to from your culture rather than from the Bible, and be prepared to lose those things in the face of a different culture. And when God closes a door, or a church plant, don't jump straight to looking for a window. Be sure you are on the path you are supposed to be on, thank Him for using you in the way He has, and then start looking for what He has next. Learning to follow His leading, regardless of outcome, will put you in a better position than anything else you can ever learn.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation