The Three Phases of Rare Racial Reconciliation in Churches: From Cordial to Messy to Real

The Three Phases of Rare Racial Reconciliation in Churches: From Cordial to Messy to Real

Ephesians 4:1-3, I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (ESV)

From September 2001 until January 2011, I was the Senior Pastor of a predominantly Black PCA church in Fayetteville, a southern suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. That church was a mile away from a “ninety-nine predominantly white PCA church. I am hesitant to use the terms “Black” and “White” in describing the two churches because the use of those terms denies the diversity one encounters amongst people of the same color. My church was Black, but the people were very diverse—Black from the United States, Panama, Haiti, Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Africa. Most of the members of my church believed that their congregation was already diverse. I am sure that there was a similar diversity dynamic working in our sister PCA church up the road. Sadly, in our country, black is black and white is white.

The two churches had a great relationship with each other—we co-sponsored denominational conferences, community youth initiatives, we participated in joint services, and shared building resources. However, there was never an outcry from the leadership or members of either church to join the two congregations into one. Everybody seemed to be fine with the present arrangement. I think I know why—both congregations were under the belief that they each were a self-sufficient, autonomous, representative of the Church of Jesus Christ. They didn’t need to be physically connected or integrated with each other to be validated as a communing body of believers. Each was a particular church. Each had a ruling body of elders.

Speaking as the pastor at the Black PCA church, there was the strong desire to maintain our own worship culture—a Bapto-Presby-Costal worship style encompassing traditional and contemporary Black gospel music, hymns, passionate bible preaching, calling the pastor’s wife “First Lady”, etc. Many at my church said that while they believed in Reformed doctrine and really appreciated the structure and accountability of the PCA, they didn’t relate to many of the PCA churches they had visited. One member stated, “It isn’t my place to tell people how to have church, but after I hear the Word of God, I want to rejoice out loud. PCA churches feel dead.”

The negative effects of racial segregation in the Church’s past are yet exerting force on our efforts to mature in the struggle for racial reconciliation. I am by no means suggesting that the gospel is powerless in this struggle. I am suggesting that we are far from done with the race problem in the North American Church. For hundreds of years, Blacks in America experienced racism and maltreatment in southern and northern white churches, and they were expected to adjust to it because these injustices were legal, and sometimes encouraged as a healthy part of discipling Black people to remember their ontological inferiority.

Eventually, Blacks were allowed or prompted to form their own churches, and this seemed like good compromise. However, this solution – great as it may have seemed for both races – served to solidify the belief that white Christians and Black Christians are better off worshipping apart from each other — that is, intentionally separating so that they might “better” worship the same God who made them all.

Predominantly white Evangelical churches, in the attempt to enter into reconciliation, often don’t realize how much it will cost them or their congregations to pursue racial reconciliation. Don’t get me wrong, these churches are precious to Jesus, He paid for these churches with His blood, I am not talking about their value to the Kingdom. I am talking about a lack of desire for the presence and contributions of non-white people that impacts the church’s work.

Possessing knowledge of God-ordained cultural diversity – in communication, lifestyle, worship expression etc. – is different from expressing joy over that knowledge, and it shows. It shows in welcoming people of different cultural backgrounds, and in teaching congregations that cultural competence is not a special calling reserved for people who “like ethnic things”. A desire to rejoice in God’s “deliberate diversity” (as my brother Jemar Tisby puts it) will eventually lead to a deeper understanding of self among white people. They might begin to see what people of color have in this country have known for centuries. That is, reconciliation is much more than finding the money to pay a “diverse” leadership or to start a “diverse” program or to do a combined worship event. The cost of going “all in” is sacrificing white pre-eminence, sacrificing white control, for the purpose of doing what white Christians have never had to think about as a group: affirming the value and contributions of brothers and sisters of color. People of color are often instructed to prove their collective worth, in history and in theology, while the North American Church has never needed a reminder of the value of white cultures.

Blacks are accustomed to being sub-dominant to whites, so we have had a lot of practice in listening to their viewpoints. But most white Evangelicals in white Evangelical spaces are not accustomed to being told that worship liturgies, music, preaching or involvement in social justice need not be uniform in order to have equal impact. Further, the idea is rarely entertained that social justice and worship practices in a white-centered world might best be reconciled to biblical standards of ethnic unity through the leadership of people of color. The Church cannot uplift the marginalized through strategies developed by the privileged. This is why reconciliation – the development of authentic relationships between divided groups – is so awkward, so messy, and so rare.

In twenty years of working for racial unity, I have most often experienced three phases of racial reconciliation: the all too common “Awkwardly Cordial” Phase, the “Oh Lord Jesus Help Us this is “Awfully Messy” Phase, and finally, the extremely rare “Real Relationship” Phase.

Phase one, Awkwardly Cordial, is where many congregations prefer to camp out. This cordial phase is not bad, it is a necessary beginning. It is where we share a meal or host a Black History event, which itself is radical for some churches. But when the event is over, congregations can choose to retreat into the safe space of customizing our home environments according to personal preference. Though we must begin in phase one, we cannot survive there, because we still think that we are in control of reconciliation. When we spend too much time in phase one, we begin to congratulate ourselves for enduring topics we consider weird, yet avoid the mess of acknowledging that there are deep wounds between us. We cover our divisions by applauding our awkward exchanges. We experience anxiety when communicating across cultural lines begins to feel messy, or tiring. We dislike discomfort.
I am a grandfather now, and even though I love my grandchildren more than I love myself, I can only take so much running, wrestling, horseback rides and children’s programming. I love When I am done, I tell their parents, “I am going upstairs and watch TV.” I want to control how and when I love my family. I want to leave when I am annoyed, instead of working with them (for what seems like forever) to understand me, so we can relate differently.

The cordial but awkward phase is the place where we all begin, but real relationship still lies ahead. The church is not called to be cordial, the church is called to be real. Unfortunately, we live in a country where most prefer that people who worship differently would worship separately. This is not a biblical norm, yet it has become a foundational principle in most churches. In order to change, churches must enter the Awfully Messy phase of reconciling our ignorance, indifference.

This is the phase where the food fight starts, and that’s okay as long as nobody leaves the room. We as God’s children often feel like “I want to go to my room and get out of this mess!”. My friends, there is only one room in this house. This is the phase when church leaders and members must plant their feet and stay in the struggle. By the power of the Gospel we must love one another and speak the truth to one another until we make it through this phase. “Awfully Messy” is the phase where I might ask a white church’s leadership if they understand that diversity means that you have to learn how to shepherd Asian, Black and Latino people; activists and protesters; LGBTQ people. When churches say they want diversity, they should ask themselves if they are willing to make the racial, cultural and emotional sacrifices necessary to actually pay for it. However, too often our labels as conservatives, liberals and more have trumped our relationship with Christ.

When the Real Relationship phase starts we will know it; we won’t be afraid of each other anymore. The hard conversations and the struggles will be there, race and justice will still be big, but our Unity in the Faith, and our Bond of Peace will be bigger, stronger, higher and wider than any issue we face, good and bad. Many goliath-sized problems have for centuries mocked the United States church and dared her to strive – or even hope – for the promised ultimate reconciliation. Goliath will gladly concede Awkward Cordialness, but he will vehemently resist progress into the Messy Phase because he knows that if we as a church endure this phase, we will enter into the rare and real relationship phase, where we disarm the giants of our own arrogance and paranoia. It is these giants that keep us awkward, that keep us presuming each other’s thoughts without asking each other about them.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, in their book Divided by Faith, offer what I think is a significant insight to how racial groups define themselves. They state: “In many respects, we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an in-group always has at least one out-group by which it creates identity.”1 Blacks are not white, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, Evangelicals are not Mainline Christians, Carolina Tar Heels are not Duke Blue Devils. We may not like what they say, but I think this is what has happened. And most divided cultures, at least when it comes to having church, are happy about who they are not.

Ephesians 4:1-3, I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

In this text, a prisoner of Christ feels the need to urge us to walk worthy of our calling. I believe Paul urges us to unity because he knows that when we try to build relationships, especially across racial, cultural and perceptions of religious practices, we tend to fight for our right to be right. Paul knows what it is like to be the most impressive person in the room. He really believed that God could not possibly become human and be from a place like Nazareth, and be crucified by Romans, and be raised from the dead by Jehovah, the Jewish God. Brothers and Sisters, if your church feels like a food fight – or even a fistfight – hang in there. The Lord is moving us out of Awkwardly Cordial. It feels nasty, crappy, angry and scary, but hey we asked for it—we claim that we want to truly reflect the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and now we must work on the bond of peace. If you are a church leader, I hope you hear this urging from Paul as a plea to real relationship with those you would label your enemies. Jesus destroyed our divisions in his body, so that our church bodies could be joined together, to become the dwelling place for God.

-Pastor Mike


1. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America: Oxford, University Press, 2000), 143.