Grace Church, the Gospel, and a Class on Racial Reconciliation

Let’s play a quick game of word association.  Say the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word…

Providence.

Growing up, I probably would’ve said a city in New England, or a so-so college basketball program.  When I entered ministry over five years ago, I’d give you a theological definition to describe God.  Today?  In 2020?  Providence is the reason I sleep soundly at night in the midst of a tumultuous year.

Providence is a close cousin of sovereignty, in that God’s sovereignty is the right and power to do all that He decides to do.  Only God is truly sovereign, for only he contains the independent and supreme power to do as He pleases.  Providence, therefore, is “God’s purposeful sovereignty by which he is completely successful in the achievement of his ultimate goal for the universe.”[1]

The Providence of God is often wrongly seen in a cold way, like a busy parent who says “ just put a band-aid on it, you’ll be fine” to a kid who just scraped his knee.  Rightly seen, it provides peace in the midst of chaos, joy in the midst of suffering.  Rightly used, it’s more like a parent who looks at their child in the eye, with two hands on their face, telling them that everything will be ok.

Providence is the perfect control of a perfect, sovereign Being.  Providence is the fact that God uses imperfect things to bring about his perfect purposes.  Providence is God is working all things for good, even and especially the things we cannot see.  Providence is God using us in all our imperfections in tens of thousands of ways throughout our lifetimes to accomplish his perfect will.  Providence can be confusing at times, but even still, providence is the soft pillow on which we can rest our heads.

What’s the reason for this short, theological primer? I believe it is due to God’s providence that this country has had more discussions on race and racial reconciliation in the year 2020 than it has had in the last 50 years.  The wrongful death of one man, one day, in one city, sparked a nation-wide conversation during a time when there were no sports, no school, and no commutes to work.  All the normal distractions of life that often shortens the news cycle of yet another black American being wrongfully killed were gone.  The country couldn’t look pass it, we couldn’t just move on.

You combine this with the fact that the pandemic has changed our entire model of ministry in 2020, like it has for all churches.  We couldn’t do in-person classes beginning in September like we do each Fall at Grace, so we changed things up and offered them on Zoom on weeknights.

Over the summer, we prayed about racial injustice in our weekend gatherings and weeknight corporate prayer nights.  We preached from Exodus how God’s design for his people is to look out and advocate for the oppressed.  The staff had in-depth discussions on race, and I had isolated conversations with members about it in June and July, but when I designed a class in August called “Racial Reconciliation”, I was hoping 6-8 people would sign up.  Week one came, and 45 people showed up on Zoom.  By the time we ended after six weeks, 45 were still there.

This is not a victory lap.  This is not a pat on the back, looking for other pats on all the backs.  This is partial repentance, that it took a cultural upheaval to provide the “courage” to have a class on race in a majority white church in the suburbs.  We are not talking about race because it’s now “in” to talk about race. Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, and the pursuit of racial reconciliation is a direct implication of the gospel, which provides all the fuel and motivation we “need”.  This is the church’s work, because this is Christ’s work, and we are the body of Christ.  It shouldn’t be controversial.  It shouldn’t have taken a wrongful death for it to happen, but it did.  And here we are.

George Floyd died on May 25, 2020.  And as a result, Grace Church of Ridgewood began a six-week class on racial reconciliation.  This is an example of God’s providence.

I wish I could write every single thought I have coming out of the class, but you’d be scrolling until tomorrow.  Rather, I’ll provide an overview of the major talking points and takeaways, share some potential next steps for our church, and then finish with several brief reflections written by men and women who took the class.

Week 1: What is Racial Reconciliation?

Racial reconciliation is the pursuit of believers and churches to live a life worthy of the call of Christ, humbling themselves before one another and to be bound together in the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace into the body of Jesus Christ.

The topic of race and racial reconciliation is a significant one in our current cultural moment, but no one has more motivation and reason to pursue than the church of Jesus Christ.  Reconciliation between races cannot be separated from reconciliation with God, for the latter will fuel the former.  Reconciliation is part of the meta-narrative of Scripture from cover to cover, the sweeping storyline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

In Ephesians 2:13-16, the apostle Paul speaks of the significance of Christ’s atoning work on the cross:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Then in the book of Revelation, John casts a vision of the future, proclaiming in Rev 5:9-10 and Rev 7:9-10:

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

Diversity within the human race will not be erased in glory, it will be celebrated in God’s beautiful design of a diverse, unified, human race that is united in Christ.

So, since Ephesians 2 has already been accomplished at the cross, and Revelation 5&7 has not yet happened in Glory, what should the church pursue right now?  The answer is to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and living out the implications of the gospel, including Biblical justice.  Racial reconciliation is a central part of Biblical justice, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, growing us into Christlikeness.

Week 2: Why Is Racism So Divisive?

Racism is any prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

Everyone agrees racism is real, and that people are capable of being racist.  Many would even say they know someone who is “racist”.  So when do things get divisive?  Once we begin to talk about racism that is not just personal, but institutional or systemic.

I shared with the class that until around 2015, my naïve view of our country’s racism was as follows: America had a slavery problem until that was solved by the Civil War.  Then America had a racism problem until that was solved by the Civil Rights Era.  Today, there may be lone wolf racists here and there, but there is not a “racism problem”.

Over the past five years, that view was exposed for what is was: naïve.  Not reality.

“Racism, like any sin, begins in the human heart.  The problem is, when fallen human beings attach themselves to systems, those systems are by default going to be contaminated.” – Bryan Lorrits 

The hard reality to swallow for many is simply this: you don’t have to be personally racist to benefit from a societal system that is contaminated with racism.  Redlining, mass incarceration, wealth gaps, and educational opportunities were all things we learned about and discussed Week 2.

The reason this is so divisive is the presence of terms and phrases that are often used as weapons against white people for shock and awe instead of careful explanation.  White privilege. White fragility.  White ____.  When the church uses these phrases, there is growing concern that Christians are capitulating to secular worldviews, and that it’s a slippery slope to Marxism, Intersectionality, and Critical Race Theory.

However, fear of those phrases and the worldviews that accompany them should not prevent the church from talking about racism, both personal and systemic.  We can be honest about these things, and still be rooted in sound Biblical doctrine and be careful to not align ourselves to secular ideologies.  To write off anyone who brings up systemic racism as being a theological liberal who lost the gospel is lazy at best and sinful at worst.

Many say that racism isn’t a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.  I think Thabiti Anibwiyle, a pastor in Washington DC, provided the more accurate statement: racism is a sin problem that made skin a problem.

Week 3: What Is Biblical Justice?

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The gospel displays a Savior who justifies us from a position of power.  He emptied himself in order to serve and give of Himself, and as a result of salvation, he equips us to follow in His footsteps.  Christians are not just saved, they are saved for good works (Eph 2:10), including the pursuit of justice in the lives of those are who are marginalized and oppressed.

The practical outflow of Biblical justice, as defined by Tim Keller, is “disadvantaging oneself for the advantage of others.”  This is both an individual and corporate responsibility for Christians the church, respectively, and it is a direct implication of the Gospel itself.

This focus upon Biblical justice separates us from secular justice movement that at best, don’t find their support in the gospel, and at worst, are openly hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, this separates us from those who truncate the gospel implications by saying the church should “just preach the word” and avoid justice in fear of liberal theology.

Week 4 – What is The Church’s Role in Racial Reconciliation?

In the realm of Biblical Justice, no one church can do everything, but every church can do something.

The church doesn’t operate from a “have to” framework due to external pressures or politically-correct optics, but we operate from a “get to” framework as agents of reconciliation.  As the representation of the heavenly kingdom on earth, the body of Christ is the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt 5).  In this way, the church of Jesus Christ doesn’t only have a role in racial reconciliation, but it is the primary preservative of spiritual and moral integrity in a decaying world, and it is the bright witness that brings life and love to a darkened and morally bankrupt world.

In Justin Giboney’s book Compassion and Conviction, put out by the AND Campaign, the pathway of racial reconciliation is AWARENESS, RELATIONSHIPS, ADVOCACY, and ACTIVE RECONCILIATION.

“Racial reconciliation is a process that begins with the gospel and ends with the gospel” – Justin Giboney

Weeks 5 & 6 – What is Grace Church’s Role in Racial Reconciliation?

For the final two classes, we narrowed the funnel to ask the question, what’s next for Grace Church?  What is God calling us to as a local church in the realm of racial reconciliation?  We don’t want to just feel good about ourselves that we had this class.  We don’t want to be all talk, with no action, and at the same time, we don’t want to rush to action just to say we did without intentionally and prayerfully considering where God would have us.

We don’t have all the answers after six weeks.  As one pastor advised majority white churches on the topic of race, “don’t resent small beginnings.”

This class was a small beginning, but an eye-opening, unifying and edifying one at that.  Here is where we landed, for next steps:

Listen: Continue to be open to listening to and learning from those Christians and leaders, particularly minorities, who have committed their lives and work to Biblical justice in the realm of racial reconciliation.  Below there is a list of books we recommend to everyone for further reading.

Pray: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2b).  Our commitment to prayer, both individually and as a church, will expose how desperate we really are for the Spirit’s leading in our lives, or conversely, how much we’re relying on our own wisdom in thinking we don’t need God’s help.

Partner: Grace Church is a local church, but we are surrounded by other Bible-preaching churches and faith-based organizations that are already doing great work in the space of racial reconciliation.  Who can we partner with to pool resources, brainstorm strategies, and make Jesus Christ known to a world that is so divided?

Act: Lord willing, this class will not be the end of our pursuit of racial reconciliation.  It is a great start, but it is just the start.  I trust that this path will stir our affections for Christ, bolster our confidence in the sufficiency of the gospel, and energize our passion to know Jesus and make Him known the more we travel upon it.  Action will require our time, our talents, and our treasures, as we rightfully steward the things God has blessed us with in order to be a blessing to others.

Final Word and Reflections

To close, here are a few reflections from Grace Church members who participated in the class:

When I came into this class I felt very ill equipped to enter into the race discussion.  This was not only due to my skin color or my lack of personal experience being profiled or wrongly judged based solely on my ethnicity, but this lack of confidence was also due to my naivety of how deep this sin issue goes in our country.  I was so grateful for the materials we were given to help open up our eyes and challenge us.  In a cultural climate that threatens to silence your voice if you don’t align with the doctrine, I am so grateful to have spent 6 weeks listening and learning how I can better love others, speak up against injustice, and ultimately strive to live out the gospel in very real and practical ways.”

 “I feel I have begun  to ‘see out of the window’ of the African American people in a way I never have before- realizing more about the way many people’s everyday lives are affected by systemic racism and historical trauma in particular. I know there  is so much more to learn but this has been a great start to that process. I feel excited for where God is going to lead Grace Church in this and am blessed to be a member.”

“The one thing that I got out of this class was how the church stood by/supported racism over the years.  This is embarrassing for me as a Christian.  I think because of this the church should be active in condemning racism now.”

“There is no way that I could possibly convey fully the impact that every piece of information along with our discussions has had upon me and my walk with the Lord. Information opened my eyes to so much truth. That our brothers and sisters in Christ in our nation are hurting is an understatement.  In whatever way we are able as a church community to develop and further develop opportunities to pray, fellowship, minister together, or work with together in outreaches to help others is a deep desire within my heart. I would like to be a part of working together to heal and bring racial reconciliation within the body of Christ.”

FURTHER RESOURCES

Faith-Based Organizations:

The AND Campaign: A Gospel-centered worldview that is committed to redemptive justice (&) values-based policy

Be the Bridge: Equipping bridge-builders toward fostering and developing vision, skills, and heart for racial healing.

Book Recommendations for Further Reading:

Historical Perspective:

Divided By Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabella Wilkerson

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Pastoral Exhortation 

One Blood: Final Words to the Church on Race and Love by John Perkins

Bloodlines by John Piper

Weep With Me by Mark Vroegopp

Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr  by Bryan Lorrits

Racial Reconciliation

Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison

Compassion and Conviction by Justin Giboney

United by Trillia Newbell

Plantation Jesus by Skot Welsh and Rick Wilson

 

[1] From John Piper’s forthcoming book, Providence, due out January 2021