Part 2—Dear Church: Can We Talk about Race?

Dear Church,

We all know that over the past three weeks, the constant news about our global pandemic has given way to relentless dialogue about race. These impassioned conversations are happening almost exclusively in online spaces due to our homebound lives and our collective dependence on the endless town hall meeting we call social media.

There are many ways to address these issues, and many angles to pursue, but for the moment, I’ve decided to write a series of articles (see Part 1—The Reckoning: Race, America, and the Church). But before I go any farther, I feel compelled to write a letter to the Christian church.

Because I’m wondering: Can we talk about race?

Equipped or Coddled?

I’m now a pastor, but I came from a Christian academic institution where any topic was fair game. We were expected to engage the issues of the day, not run from them, because (1) we were convinced that a solid grasp of Scripture and a keen awareness of our own limitations should give us the baseline discernment to engage any thorny topic, and because (2) our task was to train students for a lifetime of Christian faithfulness outside of the controlled environments we instinctively construct for ourselves. I loved this training environment, and I loved being a learner in it.

But I’ve learned to wonder whether the church is a place we come to be equipped or a place we come to be coddled, a fellowship laboring side by side for the gospel or a club we choose because it caters to our comforts.

I fear that many of our churches today are filled with therapeutic messages that turn preachers into life coaches and the refining fire of God’s word into the fuzzy blanket of positive thinking. But then we find ourselves confused and conflicted and angsty when the real issues of life are neither fuzzy nor positive. You can’t live on the chicken nuggets of key verses and the Skittles of inspirational quotes and then endure the hard hike of the ambassadorial Christian life which often takes us high above the tree line.

Don’t get me wrong: Believers need regular reminders of God’s grace and love that cleanse our consciences and warm our hearts with the new covenant promise that God has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12). We need to hear and re-hear that through Christ we’ve been adopted into God’s family so that he’s now our Abba, Father (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:5). We need the gospel soul care that heals our self-wounded hearts and stirs up our faith, hope, and love in the most practical ways (Col 1:3–4). We need the profound basics of the gospel to nourish and comfort and encourage us (Eph 3:17–19).

But could it be that we’ve turned the gospel into a medicating message that mainly salves the disappointment we feel over our nagging sense of insignificance? Could it be that we’ve learned to misuse God’s word like some parents mishandle their role: flattening the road for the child instead of readying the child for the road? Could it be that we avoid thinking about hard things because our churches unknowingly struggle with being all family and no army, all community and no mission?

These are all reasons why I’m wondering: Can we talk about race?

Speeches without Surgeries

About a year ago, I was frustrated with my own preaching. I could tell I hadn’t been my normal self since I arrived in Houston. The messages were stale, at least by my own standards.

Some of it was my pride. As a new pastor, I didn’t just want people to be encouraged. I wanted them to be impressed. So I tried to keep my words so tight that many just came out cold.

But there was also something else going on. I slowly realized that I’d been preaching from my heels, not my toes. I was playing defense, not offense. Instead of trying to win, I was trying not to lose. For many months it felt like I was performing for high-end clients instead of feeding hungry friends. Ultimately, I wasn’t loving our church; I was protecting myself.

What had happened? Even though I’d been preaching straight through God’s word my first two years (Titus, Ezra, the Sermon on the Mount), I’d seen enough conflict and heard enough rumbling and watched enough of an exodus that I wondered what I was allowed to say. I could scan the crowd every Sunday and see the faces of those upset about something, faces that soon went missing as person after person left the church.

I knew I was broaching topics that might not be popular, because every page of Scripture says things that lodge uncomfortably in our lopsided hearts. I learned that pastoral transitions at churches our size usually result in lots of people leaving, no matter what high percentage voted for the new pastor. I soon saw that God was going to prune us as a way of growing us. But it didn’t matter what I knew, or learned, or saw. It was all still painful.

So I unwittingly resorted to more technical, from-the-page preaching—accurate, but not urgent; speeches, but no surgeries. I was no longer doing what a preacher’s called to do: study yourself full, pray yourself hot, and preach yourself empty. I was still bringing God’s word, but in my discouraged heart, I was doing something I hated: appeasing a crowd of spectators instead of training an army of ambassadors. Yet I knew all along that God didn’t call our family to Houston so I could be a pastoral Pilate giving up on Jesus by caving to a Bible Belt culture that struggles with the harder things he has to say.

I truly have no animosity toward the brothers and sisters who’ve left our church, and I’ve rejoiced to hear of so many who’ve settled into solid church families in our area or elsewhere. I’m grateful to cross paths with so many around town or at special events that draw our broader church family back together. God is always shifting his sheep into our assigned pastures, and the one I’m tasked to tend is only one small plot in his full planet of fields.

Yet the revolving door of church life still makes me wonder: Can we talk about race?

Running from the Issues

Last week I talked with a friend who recently started a sermon series on race at his predominantly white church. He’s one of the most gentle and humble pastors I know, he’s rightly trusted by his congregation, and he pastors in one of the cities roiling with protests over one of the recent killings. He hadn’t addressed the topic directly before, but he and his leadership team believed it was now important to do so. But right after his first message, amidst the many appreciative responses, some people started saying they were leaving the church. Within 24 hours of raising the topic, this pastor was discouraged and his elders uncertain. Together they started questioning if he should keep going, because they didn’t want to divide the church.

I’m sure he didn’t say everything perfectly. My understanding is that Christians believe a gospel whose first assumption is that we don’t do anything perfectly. But here’s what I hear in these stories:

Please, pastor, don’t talk about race. Don’t talk about awkward or tense topics. Don’t teach us what the Bible says about anything in my “political” category. Exegete Ephesians for me, but don’t start extrapolating from Jew/Gentile to black/white. Regale me with Luther’s fiery quotes about Galatians, but don’t use Galatians 3:28 to challenge our segregated congregations. Warm our hearts with messianic promises from the prophets during Advent, but don’t ask us to ponder how his kingdom justice applies in our own neighborhoods and nations throughout the year. Lead me liturgically through the Lord’s Prayer, but please don’t lead us to do anything practical to see God’s good kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. Tell and retell the story of the Good Samaritan, but please don’t tell me to go and do likewise.

Imagine if we took this approach with every thorny issue? What if we just looked the other way and refused to think or talk about homosexuality, transgenderism, the environment, sexual abuse, war, abortion, government, and immigration? We could also avoid mental illness, pornography, divorce, autism, materialism, the foster care system, domestic abuse, sex trafficking, political corruption, and the many other signs of brokenness in our world. We could go full-on Thanksgiving dinner and sit awkwardly with our racing minds and our plasticky smiles, walking on eggshells to avoid discussing anything difficult.

Or we could do what so many Christians are secretly longing to do, whether they know they’re starving for it or not: We could recommit to our role as kingdom ambassadors, we could open God’s word afresh, we could commit to bearing with each other through the process, we could ask for Solomonic wisdom, and we could trust the Spirit of the one who’s greater than Solomon to unite us rather than divide us as we “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). There would be growing pains, for sure, but just imagine: there would also be growth.

So I hope you can understand why some of us are asking the question: Can we talk about race?

Silence Is Not an Option

I recently worked with a graduate student researching race and the church. This student had interviewed Christian millennials about their experiences in the church surrounding the issue of race. They’d grown up in diverse neighborhoods and schools but don’t remember their churches talking about it. Swirling around them were 9/11, our first black president, Trayvon Martin’s death, Colin Kaepernick’s knee, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and numerous controversial shootings of black men—a simmering cultural storm. But still, their churches didn’t talk about race.

What was this grad student’s conclusion after hearing about these young believers’ disappointment with church culture? What’s her advice to pastors, churches, and Christian leaders of the next generation? “Silence is not an option.”

So I’m wondering what she’s wondering: Can we talk about race?

The Next Generation

You see, I’m not just thinking about you. I’m also thinking about your kids. I’ve barely settled into our church here in Houston and I’ve already watched baby-faced 11-year-olds turn into strapping high school freshmen. High-schoolers are now in college, and parents are turning into empty-nesters. Now I’m watching preschoolers move into kindergarten, kindergartners nearing the youth group, and middle schoolers signing up for camps and retreats, leaving their parents behind as a harbinger of their growing independence.

Are we training them well? Will we train the ones coming after them? Are we preparing them for the actual world that exists, or are they only prepared to hibernate in the demographic time capsules we’re creating for ourselves in our monochromatic churches? Are their first serious conversations about race going to happen in our kids’ ministry or youth group or over Sunday lunch after one of my sermons, or are we going to hide the light on this topic, leaving it for their radical atheist professor at the state university who will regale them with cherry-picked theories and impassioned rhetoric about transgressive ways forward in our brave new world?

We say we want to reach the next generation. We say we want the gospel torch passed down. We say we want our kids to love Jesus and the church. And we say we want to “engage the culture with the gospel.” But why do we say these things if we don’t want to talk about hard things?

I know we can talk about football, because we do. I know we can talk about the weather, because we do. I know we can talk about our kids and our jobs, our sins and our struggles, our joys and our trials, because we do, and we do, and we do.

But still I wonder: Can we talk about race?

Light for the Path

I know I won’t do it perfectly, and you won’t either. No one but Christ ever does. But when I err, and sometimes I will, here’s the good news: We have a shared source of authority to which you can appeal. When you misspeak, and sometimes you will, we have a sacred book whose truths always trump even our most sincere intuitions. Even when we unwittingly follow the spirit of the age instead of the Spirit of Christ, we can re-open the sacred book together and get back on the same page with God and with each other.

We shouldn’t be afraid to speak about these issues if we trust God’s word. He tells us what matters most, what matters less, and what matters not at all. He’s faithful to confront our idolatries, expose our hypocrisies, and cleanse our iniquities.

So can we talk about race without everyone present getting all triggered? Can we talk about race on a Sunday without people bailing on Monday before we’ve even endured a few months of Berean tension as we search the Scriptures together to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)? Can we talk about these issues and trust that if the storyline of the Bible runs right through the promise God made Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through his offspring Jesus, maybe God has something to teach us about all the families of the earth?

If not, we’ll just have to settle for talking about churchy solutions to churchy problems, filling our vocabularies with Christianese so we can have Christian-easy conversations. But that’s not what I want, and honestly, I don’t think that’s what you want.

So, if you’re willing, I’m still wondering: Can we talk about race?

You Can Help

You see, whether we can talk about race productively depends just as much on you as it does your leaders. I can preach a message, or teach a series, or schedule minority testimonies, or host special events, or record a video, and I plan to do all of these things in coming months and years—not only about these issues, but many others. Ultimately, I can get up and talk about anything I want, which is the dangerous freedom of leadership.

But you get to decide whether to stay or leave, whether to pigeonhole the topic as “political” and “divisive” or recognize it as biblical and vital, whether to engage it like the ambassadors-in-training God’s called us to be or to get all triggered and twitchy because the Bible’s take doesn’t match the FOX News or CNN rhetoric that’s been training our moral palates for far too long.

Hear me: I don’t want to become an “issues” church that takes our cues from the culture. I’m not interested in offering a yearlong preaching diet of hot topics capped off by a few Christmas sermons. But I’m also not interested in being like shivering third-graders in a rudderless boat sinking into a satanic sea—Paul’s frightening image of a church tossed violently by the world’s maelstrom of philosophies (Ephesians 4:14).

So let’s be honest: How much time do you spend on Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? TikTok? How much time on YouTube, Netflix, cable news, or—when all is right in the world—sports? How many random links and studies and videos have you clicked in the past few weeks just searching for someone or something to stake you down in the storm? I know there’s a cacophony of voices shaping your heart and your perspective, because I hear that same cacophony surging through my own world each day.

So I’m wondering if we might get together, study the word, and learn from God and each other, seeking clarity amidst the confusion, justice amidst the corruption, love amidst the hate, and rest amidst the rage?

I’m wondering: Can we talk about race?

The Best Place to Talk about Race

I long to live the book of Acts forward, not backward. I long for the movement of our churches to resemble the Spirit-blown movement from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth, instead of living a redemptive rewind where the early church’s Jew-Gentile unity in Christ slides back into a new segregation that looks more like an Old Testament map than Revelation’s colorful vision of heaven.

That’s why, two years ago, our church embraced a new mission statement. It hangs from our rafters, reminding us of what we’re about every time we enter the building: Making disciples of Jesus Christ from all nations.

Our church knows that this statement is deeply biblical, a summary of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). But I think our church would agree that, at this point, it’s mostly aspirational. It’s not something we’re doing well, even though it’s something we dream about.

Yet it’s not a vision we’re going to abandon. Why not? Why not choose something more practical? Because we’re convinced that a family of Jesus-loving, neighbor-serving disciples is God’s vision for each local church. And these churches are not meant to be all male, or all female, or all old, or all young, or all hipsters, or all engineers. They’re also not meant to be all white or black or brown or any other color we use to describe each other, unless it’s language and location creating functional separations that only heaven will overcome.

At the end of the day, this is why I want to have these conversations not just with society, not just with my black friends, and not just with other believers in general, but with my own church family: Only in our local church families can we embody the horizontal reconciliation that our vertical reconciliation with God has created. Only in our local church families can we visibly display the new humanity that God has raised up and brought together through Christ. Only when we’re in each other’s hearts, in each other’s homes, in each other’s lives, and in each other’s business can we model for the world the unifying power of Jesus’ gospel which is always breaking through the ethnic walls which rise so tall and thick in our sin-laden world.

I love the church, I love our church, and I’m excited for the church. For all our brokenness, believing communities are still the presence of the future, slivers of new creation light shining back into the old world as God births colorful new citizens of heaven into loving families bonded by the very love of God himself.

Even amidst the chaos, I’m filled with hope, because whether you look at the global stats or the holy Scriptures, both are telling the story of Christianity in our day: The future of the church doesn’t belong to any one color or culture. It belongs to God, who’s even now fulfilling his promise to Abraham that through one true descendant, all the families of the earth would be blessed.

So, dear church, I’m asking one more time: Can we talk about race?