They were an ebony and ivory couple. And in the Deep South of a quarter-century ago, that did not make for sweet music in the church. When I began pastoring First Assembly in Winston Salem, N.C., in 1981, the black and white communities may have evenly populated the city, but our church was predominantly white.
I wasn’t surprised when I received a phone call from one of the elderly saints.
“I hear we’re going to let these people join our church,” the person said. A slight pause, then the hopeful follow-up. “I knew we wouldn’t do something like that, and I just needed to call you and verify it.”
“What do you think Jesus would do in this situation?” I asked the caller.
There was dead silence.
“I guess Jesus would do what you’re going to do,” came the reply.
The couple joined our church.
Everyone is welcome
When I arrived at First Assembly, we had only a few African Americans in our church family. That is not a picture of the true body of Christ, and we began to pray to change that situation. “Lord,” our prayer team petitioned, “we want to reach this city. Whatever it takes, we want to reach this city.”
Any time you pray that kind of prayer, the Lord will put you to a test. On a Sunday morning within a few weeks of that time of prayer and fasting for the lost in our city, the Lord brought that couple into our church.
Here’s what I believe. Had we not passed that divine test of our commitment to truly love and welcome everyone into our congregation, there might still be only 300 people attending First Assembly today.
I believe God will test how serious you are about reaching lost people. God will test a church’s willingness to do what they pray. That couple’s presence created a catalyst moment that turned things around among us, that proved our willingness to love people no matter what, that started us on a journey toward true community-wide outreach.
And outreach has remained the driving force in drawing our people together.
In any church that exists over the long haul, the more structure you put in place the more difficult it is too change. A lot of churches become so ingrown and so internalized they no longer reach lost people. That dynamic of personally reaching out to the lost in our community nourished and drove our growth.
People who came out of an African American or Hispanic culture who really wanted to feed the hungry and deal with issues of social need wanted to be a part of a church that was actually ministering to their communities. First Assembly was one of those churches, and so people from across the city were drawn to us, knowing that as they joined with us they would be joining a ministry force that touched everybody.
Consistent outreach, genuinely fulfilling the Great Commission, became a legitimizing banner for the integration taking place in our midst. There are a lot of lily-white churches that preached a social gospel in our city. We lived it. They had a hard time criticizing us because we were what they said they wanted to be while they could never get through the barriers in their own mainline churches.
Everyone is represented
I wanted African Americans and other groups who came to our church to see people in leadership who represented their community. I did not want them to see a platform of leaders who only represented a white church. This was a church for the city. And the first step to convincing every group that you are serious about serving them is to hire people on your staff who represent those cultures. Five to seven years into the journey, we were electing the same spectrum of members to our church board as were now filling our sanctuary.
When Jackie Brown joined us as staff evangelist we began to show the African American community we were not interested in tokenism. We were interested in reaching everyone, and we wanted African Americans and whites and Hispanics all to be stakeholders.
There were some bumps along the way. Due to the baggage people bring with them from their racial background, they may develop a filter system that sees everything as a potential racial problem. A couple of people wanted to be on our church board for the wrong reasons, and our people could see through that. The change came when a man was elected who didn’t seek the job but was chosen and was an African American leader.
Over the years I met with several groups of people who raised racial concerns. This is how I approached their fears. “I will not pastor blacks and whites,” I said. “I’m going to pastor people. Don’t force me to pastor people based on the color of their skin. I am not going to do that. We’re not going to have that discussion.”
I was perfectly willing to discuss the merits of involving more people in various places of ministry, but I always drew the line when that choice deteriorated toward any kind of racial quota. If you try to pastor people in separate groups, you invariably open a can of worms. You begin validating or dealing with an ever-growing number of contradictory problems and concerns. You become paralyzed in your ability to shepherd a congregation wisely as soon as you begin worrying how individual groups will react to a church decision.
Everyone shares God’s grace
You hear the term “rights” come up a lot in any larger discussion of race relations. You need to leave such discussions at the church door. We were focused on reaching lost people instead of being concerned with who had what rights here and there.
We lay all of our “rights” at the foot of the Cross. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. I bring all my issues to the foot of the Cross and you bring yours. If we don’t live at the foot of the Cross in unity then we will always find reasons to have issues.
Jesus died for our sins. We tend to think of that reality as a nebulous whole. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember the specific rifts in relationship Jesus’ death and resurrection are intended to heal—our angers, our resentments, our fears, our injustices, at some point our racism.
As we submit to the lordship of Jesus, we are reminded where the greatest injustice of all took place. When Jesus gave His life and hung on that cross, He took all of those issues of division to that cross. If we will live there, realizing the magnitude of how much we have been forgiven, we will love each other to the extent Jesus loved us and gave himself for us.
In any gathering of fallible human beings, there will always be issues that arise. People will inevitably do and say things that are taken the wrong way. But if our common denominator is that we have been saved and we have been changed and redeemed by the blood of Jesus then we can turn those differences over to the sovereignty of the Savior.
When you read through the New Testament you discover the Early Church had those same cultural racial issues we face today. The New Testament church had to deal with Jews and their culture and with Gentiles and their array of cultures. Again and again Paul kept saying and kept pressing in his epistles that there is neither Jew nor Greek in God’s eyes. We are all one in Christ. Paul was led of the Spirit to break down those barriers and the racism that existed in the New Testament. We are called to carry out the same task today.
Everyone is one-of-a-kind
The mixed-race couple who helped us begin our journey of inclusion brought to light related issues we all deal with in relationships. There were parents who raised concerns about interracial dating, and we always made it clear we would not interfere in a family’s decision in that regard. Church issues and parenting issues should always remain separate.
Whether you come out of a different race or a different culture or even a different region, you will encounter challenges in relationships. A couple may not be interracial and will still have plenty of differences to overcome. One may be a white from Chicago and the other a white from Alabama, and the same issues apply when an African American from Detroit decides to marry an African from Nairobi.
Issues of race may not seem to be controversial today, but 25 years ago in the South our church was one of the first breakthrough churches. But the breakthrough was far more than any human commitment to overlook past differences and press on. Our people were divinely drawn together by the Spirit of God. It takes His touch to create true bonds of love between anyone, even when race issues or other differences aren’t on the table. God created us as individuals, with different gifts to share with the body of Christ. Our differences are intended to enrich our corporate identity as believers when each of us contributes those unique abilities for Kingdom purposes.
Our love for one another evolved. Our services evolved. Our worship took on a different flavor. Times of worship and praise no longer represented one culture or one tradition, but took on the richness of multiple cultures. I believe anytime a church successfully breaks down culturally or racially established walls, that congregation moves a step closer to the true worship we will all experience one day around the throne of God.
Everyone pays a price
One of the things we never anticipated was that initially in the ’80s the African Americans who came to our church paid a price to come to our church. They were criticized in their community and had to bear that criticism when they made the decision to join with us in worship and ministry. In fact, it was far more difficult for them than it ever was for any of our white families.
But they were hungry for God and they were hungry for ministry that developed people and that reached the lost. And many of them came out of churches where there was a hierarchical system stifling true worship and true outreach. They came to us and discovered an array of ministry opportunities. They felt needed and valued, and that made all the difference.
It takes a work of God in a church for believers to come to terms with the central question of the Great Commission: Are we willing to reach everybody God will save? Any church that settles for just reaching a segment of the population is not fulfilling their God-given purpose.
I am convinced that a healthy New Testament church does not prioritize any one group. I do not subscribe to the homogenous principal of church growth. I know people may be more comfortable reaching out to their own. I know that principle can drive a certain level of growth in a church. But I do not believe that is a New Testament principal. I do not believe a first-century New Testament church operating in the 21st century should look like the product of some focused demographic study.
In fact, in the church growth movement of the last 20 years where we have targeted age groups a lot of those churches are beginning to realize they are missing something vital in God’s greater plan for His church. A pastor I know who serves an incredibly growing church of some 4,000 20- and 30-somethings said to me recently, “Ron, I’ve discovered something is lacking in our church. We don’t have any grandparents.”
I believe when the day is done, although you may have a focus on a specific target group, a New Testament church recognizes the value of the widest possible swath of culture, of age groups, of racial diversity that makes us who we are. I believe the Lord will push us to live with people from outside our “inner circle” in order to deal with those issues in our lives that fail to reflect the all-inclusive love He has shown all of us through Christ. God is going to knock the edges off of our lives. He is going to force us to come to terms with the lordship of Christ in our lives and do more than give lip service to love.