I am grateful for CNN's special report, "Black in America," as well as the subsequent article on church segregation on this 40th year after Dr. King's assassination. The article describes the "racial fatigue" that Christians of all colors seem to experience in these days of ever-increasing diversity. It sounds to me like the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage. If there is not real confession, repentance, healing, and reconciliation, the only options are divorce or despair.
As "ambassadors" of God's kingdom, we Christians ought to be the leaders in racial reconciliation, for "they will know we are Christians by our love." Instead, we lag behind a secular society in getting along, even among so-called Christians! That the segregated church in America is patterned after a racist society, and not the other way around, is an indictment of our life together and cause for national repentance and revival. How did we get here, and how do we move forward?
I think most of us know that a large membership does not necessarily make a church successful, but there is a part of us that envies the big churches and wonders why our congregations are not successful in that way. The church moves toward reconciliation not because it will lead to numerical success but because the church has been called to faithfulness. As part of this faithfulness, the legitimacy of the "homogenous unit principle" needs to be questioned. I believe this "principle" has given theological justification to ancient tribalism and the idolatry of division. It does not call us to be a new creation but entrenches the old.
Two thousand years ago the church was small, renegade, and countercultural. Local congregations were radical communities of love and compassion. Their very existence as a community defied the claim of imperial sovereignty. These congregations overcame the prevailing social barriers of race, class, and gender and showed compassion to the rejects of society. The early church posed a serious threat to Roman hegemony and social order. It was its witness as a kingdom-oriented community that had a powerful effect on the empire, not the size or political connections of the church. The early church was not so much about church growth as about parabolic witness. How does a band of 10, 20, 50 people demonstrate the power of God's redemptive love by example? How do these individuals live the Christian life together as a living parable? How do they serve as a parabolic witness to the world? That was the fundamental evangelical question.
The eventual conversion of the Roman Empire has been a mixed legacy. The new status of Christianity as the state religion gave it legitimacy and power but also forced compromise as it had to serve God and empire, church and state. As time went on, the church moved away from its Pentecost roots of unity in radical diversity and toward an increasingly homogeneous power structure.
It's time to ask ourselves what kind of impact the church in America could make today if we actually took advantage of the diversity in our midst. In our local congregation, the Church of All Nations, we use the term multicultural as opposed to multiethnic or multiracial. Not all churches can be multiethnic if the geographic context does not allow for it, but every church can be multicultural if we understand the term culture to encompass different generations, socio-economic backgrounds, education levels, etc. A local congregation ought to reflect the full diversity of its particular geographic community. I would go further and say that, in accordance with our call to discipleship, every local church in the world has a mandate to be as multicultural as possible.
We must contend with the unsettling fact that the most ethnically and culturally diverse country in the world with a strong Christian heritage seems incapable of producing ethnically and culturally diverse churches. Researchers estimate that only 6 percent of churches are multiracial, and only 2 percent are intentionally multiracial (as opposed to the cause being neighborhood demographic shifts). Instead of seeing this as a golden opportunity, we see it as a threat to our safe and secure homogeneity. We succumb to our primitive need to be surrounded by members of our "group." Is this not a form of ecclesial tribalism?
[to be continued ...]
Jin S. Kim is pastor of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minnesota.