On July 23, 2016 Pastor Joshua Nelson helped organize and lead a worship service in which churches, primarily separated by race/culture, came together for a Sabbath of Unity. Below are Pastor Nelson’s reflections on the event, his life experiences that preceded it, and a prescription for 7 steps to cross-cultural collaboration between churches.
A Rude Awakening
“We have never baptized a white person in this church before!” exclaimed one of my elders in a tone I had trouble deciphering. I naively chose to assume his exclamation was one of excitement, and that he felt it was a good thing for the church to have this experience. Regardless of what he meant by his expression, I later learned not everyone was thrilled with the new white family joining our predominantly black congregation. I was floored because I had never seen such bigotry from black people toward white people before. At the time, I called it “reverse racism,” because my experiences and observations of racism were directed towards me (or people of my complexion) by white folks. Looking back on that experience, I realize now that it exemplified a divide that still exists in our churches today. I went on to baptize that family and they became a part of our church. That same family immediately began putting their newfound faith into practice in extraordinary ways, even adopting an at risk boy in that black community. It was probably the most awkward conversation I’ve ever had, when I had to explain to that white family that our church had different conferences and different churches often divided by racial lines. After moving on to pastor another church, that family remained faithful Seventh-day Adventist but decided to worship at a different church.
Racial Division in the Body of Christ?
Let’s be honest, race is usually a difficult subject for people to talk about. Now try having that discussion in a church setting and it becomes even more uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable because our own personal beliefs, ideologies, and culture tend to undermine our Christian identity. So when the big story of the day is on the topic of police brutality, the targeting of black men, and issues of social justice, we find it uncomfortable to speak about these things. Well, actually, we speak about them—to ourselves and in our respective corners—but just not across racial lines. And with such sharp racial divides in many of our churches it is easy to just stay to ourselves and categorize (and often demonize) each other. Many blacks I meet in our churches have never even attended a predominately white church, and the same is true in the reverse. Depending on how you were raised or your ability and willingness to view such topics from a different point of view, chances are you carry at least some biases and racist tendencies. At the root of these biases is simply a lack of knowledge and experience. Racism is simply ignorance that is being expressed. We have to learn to admit that we do not understand each other. However, what the missionary life of Paul teaches us is that we have a duty to try to understand. We cannot just ignore one side of heaven and act as though our differences and biases will magically disappear. As uncomfortable as it makes us we must face each other and show intentional unity. As professed disciples of Christ, let’s meditate on the following questions…
- Isn’t Christianity measured by how we treat those who are different than us? (Matthew 25:40)
- If we never come together and choose to remain in our comfort zones, are we fulfilling the vision of Christ’s true church, centered around Him (and not race or culture)? (John 12:32)
- Have we not failed as a church to demonstrate the unity that Jesus prayed for so passionately? (John 17:21)
There is the on going debate as to whether our North American Division should restructure our conferences, as many see our current separations are based on race. Hopefully the reader knows the history of the black work and how regional conferences originated, due to the denomination’s refusing inclusion and equal treatment for blacks at the time. We cannot go back and change the past, but we can bring unity to the future. We should celebrate our differences instead of allowing them to divide us. In my view, the opportunities are fertile in the local church to demonstrate to our leadership inclusion and unity.
Crossing the Color Line
Crossing the color line starts with the family unit. My parents came into the church as first generation Seventh-day Adventists and joined a predominantly African-American church. However, by the time I was in elementary school we had moved from that area and began to attend and join a European-American church. For my sister and I it was a fluid transition that only now do I really consider the stark differences each church brought and how it broadened our conceptions of “the church.” I do not remember experiencing any negativity towards us, even though we were the minority, being one of only five black families in that 2,000+ member church. It was, and still is, an awesome church where I developed and grew spiritually. It was in this environment where I gave my heart to Jesus, was baptized, and would later preach my first 11 o’clock sermon. I still consider the pastor there “my pastor,” and my parents still attend the same church where they have cultivated deep relationships and exercise their gifts in holding leadership roles. Since then, I graduated high school, attended Oakwood College, now Oakwood University, and later would be assigned a position as Pastor in the South Atlantic Regional Conference (which is predominantly Black and Hispanic). Looking back, I have now been the lead Pastor or assisted with six different churches including my time at Andrews. While working with these six predominately black churches I have grown tremendously. My perspective on worship, church culture, and Adventism has crossed a large chasm. I like to believe my perspective is somewhat balanced on this topic of racial division within the church because I have worshipped in both predominantly white communities and predominantly black communities. Of course I still have my own biases, but my experiences have conditioned me to be more accepting and open to worshipping across the color/cultural line.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Racial unity can start at the family level, but for a broader impact it takes an intentional approach by our local churches to bridge racial divides. Just recently my two predominantly black churches set out to worship with a predominantly white church. Originally our decision to worship together had nothing to do with race, but in light of the recent racial climate in the country, I felt it would be a great opportunity for a black and white congregation to join for unity. If the world wants a solution to racial division, they are going to have to see the solution exemplified by the Kingdom of God first. So we decided to take a risk and actually close our doors for one Sabbath and join a different church for worship.
Both of my churches agreed to be apart of this occasion. We enjoyed the church service, which was very similar in style to the church I had grown up in. I preached the word with passion and brought some of the black preaching style to their pulpit. All three congregations seemed to really enjoy the day. It was an extremely rewarding experience for everyone. It almost felt like we had finally discovered something we had been missing for so long but didn’t know what it was. We all had found it. The love and unity we experienced was unbelievable. At the end of the service we held hands and held each other shoulder-to-shoulder and prayed for unity, strength, and love.
As a result of this experience, I strongly believe we must stop viewing ourselves as individual churches and remember we are all members of one “mega church” with just different sites and outposts. If we communicate and behave like this, it may not be so groundbreaking when we worship together. We can each keep our own styles of worship and plan occasions where we bend and mesh together. We can share resources, ideas, and evangelism strategies. We can experience more unity even within our own conferences. If we would do this, I truly believe that the message would go forth much more rapidly and much more forcefully. (John 13:35) Maybe our lack of unity is one of the big reasons why Jesus still can’t return. Ellen White put it this way:
Love to man is the earthward manifestation of the love of God. It was to implant this love, to make us children of one family, that the King of glory became one with us. And when His parting words are fulfilled, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12); when we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts. (Desire of Ages, pg. 641)
It would be difficult to claim that we love those in the world, if we cannot even worship together amongst ourselves. If we want to replace division with love and unity, and if we desire real racial unity within our church, a revolution of change must begin at the local level; it must begin now.
Making Unity Happen
Here are seven actions you can take to create unity across conference and church lines.
- Start praying together. Prayer is the great unifier and often allows you to focus on what is truly important. When you pray for the well being of someone else it is hard to not come together. Also you will need guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit moving forward.
- Be bold and take risks. Sometimes things won’t happen because people have never seen it happen before. Trying new things always scares people. Make sure you explain your vision and plan to your leaders and try to put their mind at ease with whatever concerns they have. But do not let anything stop you in your conviction. You can be bold, in moving forward because you have the Word of God to back you up.
- Promote each others church activities. By doing this alone you send a message to the membership that we are invested in what other churches are doing. This could happen by putting their events in your bulletin, calling people to help volunteer, or just putting the information on the website. This requires communication from both sides that naturally will create opportunities to come together.
- Learn to appreciate differences. There will be a number of instances where you may not understand portions of the opposite culture. Instead of being angry or choosing to be uncomfortable, try to appreciate and learn the reason for certain actions. Try to discuss this with the leaders and make this an open experience where learning the reason behind certain traditions or practices is welcomed.
- Schedule a regular day when you worship together. This should create excitement and anticipation where both sides share the load of planning and participating.
- Stop worrying about who is in charge. This issue alone, is many times the root cause of trouble and strife between congregations because one side thinks the other is “taking over.” Recognize the leadership gifts and passions in your people, and then let those individuals lead, since they are the ones who can actually be effective. The last thing you want is for this to die and never happen again. However, do try to alternate churches, and try not to count or worry about which church attended better.
- Start to think like a “Mega Church” with a multisite framework. Instead of feeling like you are on an island and your church has to be all things to all people in your community, remember you have help. There is a church across town that is worshiping the same time and with the same message as you. You can use this to your advantage to build up both churches. This does not mean you should lose your own distinct identity and style. It means being intentional about opening doors and unifying for the advancement of the Kingdom.