Note: This article originally appeared here on the Lifeway Pastor’s blog.
This year, our country has experienced much racial tension. Events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and Charleston have revealed, once again, the ugly wounds of racism still present in American life. Thankfully, in recent days, the otherworldly display of forgiveness and authentic faith of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston showed the world the power of the gospel to bring unity and reconciliation.
Sadly, the unity of the past week is largely an anomaly. The very place where the message of the gospel is preached, the same gospel that eradicates ethnocentrism, is often where carnal divisions are tolerated. We saw this in the differing reactions to the racial flashpoints of the past year, with white evangelicals and black evangelicals expressing widely divergent reactions to the same news stories. This is inevitable because, sadly, our churches are still very segregated. These conversations on race should be family conversations between redeemed, blood-bought brothers and sisters in Christ.
Thankfully, this has spurred many evangelical leaders toward a renewed emphasis on racial reconciliation. But how do individual, local churches begin to embody this kind of racial reconciliation in their own communities? It must begin, I believe, with pastors—particularly white pastors—prioritizing racial reconciliation in their preaching and teaching. Those called to teach the Bible carry a weighty responsibility (James 3:1) to feed the people of God (1 Peter 5:2-4).
I didn’t fully recognize this until I became a pastor. It was while serving my congregation that I realized the influence of the office. Church members value what their pastor values. In many ways, they depend on their church leaders to help them understand what is and what should be important. Those of us who spend our working hours analyzing the news, reading theology, and learning from a variety of sources help filter these things for church members who are busy working long hours, raising their families, and doing their best to study the Word and evangelize.
For most white evangelical pastors, racial reconciliation hasn’t been a primary emphasis of their teaching. This may be for a variety of reasons. First, as the majority culture, white Christians don’t feel the sting of prejudice. It’s not that all white evangelicals are insensitive; it’s that many are not in proximity to racism or injustice. Because most of our friends are white, we aren’t forced to empathize with our minority brothers and sisters in Christ. Second, there is likely some fear of addressing race. Racial issues are delicate. Pastoral leadership is already a tightrope act; why stir up more trouble? Third, it could be that pastors might view racial reconciliation as a worthy goal, but not a gospel issue. Russell Moore reminds us that it is:
The church, the Apostle Paul said, is a sign of God’s manifold wisdom, to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). When God joined together in one church, those who are both Jewish and Gentile, he was doing more than negating the bad effects of ethnic strife. He was declaring spiritual warfare. When those who the world thinks should hate each other, instead love each other, the church is testifying that our identity is in Jesus Christ (Col. 3:11). We cannot be pulled apart from each other, because we are one body, and a body that is at war with itself is diseased.
So how do pastors begin to preach on racial reconciliation in a gospel-centered way? Here are three ways I’ve found helpful in my own ministry and in observing the ministries of others:
1. By faithful exposition of the Scriptures
The best way, in my view, to embed the priority of racial reconciliation into the everyday lives of our people is through the faithful application of the text. By this I mean through expository preaching. I’m a firm believer in the systematic, Jesus-centered preaching of whole counsel of God. The task of a pastor is to declare what God has already said in His Word.
Racial reconciliation is not something that has to be forced onto the text. In fact, if you are preaching systematically through Scripture and you do not preach on it, you might be skipping it. The thrust of God’s promise to Abraham and the promises to Israel are His desire to be made known among all nations. And almost every New Testament book embeds its presentation of the gospel with its unifying, reconciling power.
1. You can’t faithfully preach the Great Commission passages without stopping to acknowledge them as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to build His church from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
2. You can’t preach Galatians without preaching on the racial divisions that flared within the early church.
3. You can’t exposit Ephesians without spending time on the gospel’s bringing together of diverse people into “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15).
4. You can’t preach through Acts 1:8 without seeing the ingathering of the peoples of God as a sign of God’s promise to call a people to himself from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
5. You can’t do a series on the book of Revelation and not behold the majestic beauty of the diversity around God’s throne in Revelation 7 and 9.
Sadly, I’ve heard many messages from many “New Testament churches” that never touched on the priority of racial reconciliation found in Scripture. Why is this? It could be that we, as white evangelicals, don’t see it as a priority because we don’t see the problem of racial tension in our midst. It’s time pastors start seeing and preaching what is already there in the text. The heart of God’s people must be stirred to make this as much a gospel priority as Christ has in His inspired Word.
2. By faithful discussion of history and culture
We’re not only reminded to preach on racial reconciliation when the text demands it, but faithful pastors should take the opportunity to preach on racial reconciliation either when the calendar reminds us or when a cultural issue is so big it becomes necessary to address it. My preference is to do this kind of topical preaching sparingly. The best way to address racial reconciliation and other cultural issues is to be faithful to them when they are specifically referenced in the text. This way your people understand that racial issues are gospel issues, not merely political or cultural issues. But exceptions can be made, as we do on issues like abortion with events like Sanctity of Life Sunday.
It’s important when we do a special emphasis that we still adhere to good hermeneutical practices and avoid a sloppy, proof-texting approach. It simply means we choose a text like Ephesians 3 and exegete it faithfully. (See here for a good example of this).
What a special Sunday like this signals, to the congregation, is just how important an issue is. It also sends a signal to our minority brothers and sisters that we are seriously thinking through, studying, and learning their heritage. Sundays like this might also be accompanied by resourcing the church through blogs, newsletters, and handouts. We might recommend good books to read on civil rights and encourage people to have meaningful conversations with people of other ethnic backgrounds. Your church might also consider hosting a roundtable with leaders from the community, maybe even a local civil-rights leader.
3. By faithful sensitivity in application and attribution
I’ve often found it is in the types of applications made during preaching that demonstrates pastoral sensitivity to the people. This is where pastors can offer leadership on an issue like racial reconciliation. When we talk of forgiveness of sin, perhaps we might not only name sins that are common: sexual sin, financial impropriety, and church gossip. We might also include prejudice, pride, and racism. When we speak words of comfort to our people during trial, we might not always include the same kinds of suffering stories. We might instead include a story from the perspective of a minority fighting oppression in the civil rights era.
My friend, David Prince, assistant professor of preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky told me that white pastors need to reach outside of their own experiences when making applications from the text:
“The reason we don’t immediately think of racial issues is the same reason we read past famine in the Bible without thinking much of it. We are the dominant majority so we think of ourselves as the insiders and the norm. Loving our neighbor means counting others as more significant than ourselves. Awareness of and sensitivity to ethnic minorities is not some foreign social agenda–It is Christianity 101.”
Application is a subtle teaching tool. It personalizes, for the congregation, the abstract things we are preaching from the text. It sends a message; this is the kind of thing the Bible is talking about. We should be specific, original, and diverse in our use of application. This means we shouldn’t only draw from our white majority status, but from the experiences of minorities.
It also helps if we quote, non-white pastors and theologians and acknowledge their contribution to the shape of Christian history. This kind of preaching, however, has to be shaped by a pastor who has the curiosity to read outside of his tribe and experiences. White pastors should read biographies of civil rights heroes, histories of the era, and should engage in regular conversations with minority pastors and leaders.
This is about more than merely adding some diversity to the message. It’s about serving your people by cultivating a growing, learning, changing mind. You, as the pastor, will model for them what it looks like to work for racial reconciliation. And you will see your people, over time, begin to emulate what you display.