Over the past year, many pastors have been grappling with how best to lead their congregation through hard conversations about racial justice, reconciliation and unity. This challenge is evident in many church contexts, including multiethnic worship spaces.
In a recent episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, Derwin Gray, Lead Pastor at Transformation Church in Charlotte, South Carolina and author of the new book Building a Multiethnic Church, joins Carey Nieuwhof and Brooke Hempell to talk about the ongoing challenges of leading a multiethnic church. During the conversation, Gray shares why a Gospel approach to racism requires both systemic and individual approaches and the common mistakes leaders make when pursuing diversity.
Challenge of Leading Multiethnic Church
There are a variety of different approaches that leaders are taking to pursue racial justice and reconciliation within their churches. In a recent study Barna study titled Beyond Diversity—conducted in partnership with the Racial Justice and Unity Center—data show that a third of Black practicing Christians (33%) say putting people of color in leadership positions is a way churches can improve racial and ethnic dynamics in our country. In many contexts, this looks like white leaders seeking input from, and even deferring to, non-white leaders.
Gray reiterates the importance of giving people of color positions of leadership within churches, noting that multiethnic churches too often become culturally white, leaving people of color still feeling outcast, even in a visually diverse congregation. Gray comments, “What happens is [people of color are told to] bring your color but leave your culture at the door. Bring your music, but you can’t give theological reflection, you can’t preach or teach, you can’t be in positions of leadership, and when something goes down in society and culture, we’re really not going to talk about it because if we do, then white people will get mad.”
Gray sees the act of giving up power as essential to exercising the Gospel mandate, saying, “Salvation is not separate from God building His family. He doesn’t just rescue us so we can stay racist [or] prejudiced.”
Instead, Gray sees the importance of implementing a multiethnic approach from the foundations of a church. He shares, “We planted a church and our staff was multiethnic and multi-generational from the beginning; [that’s the] gospel innovation in Acts 6.” Gray sees this work as something that transcends church walls. “We, as teachers and preachers and leaders, must be willing to lead the way,” Gray shares, “But you cannot plant or lead a multiethnic church unless you’re living a multiethnic life.”
A Gospel-Centered Approach to Racism
Another data point Hempell—Barna’s Senior VP of Research—reflects practicing Christians’ perceptions of racism within U.S. society today. When asked whether they thought issues of racial discrimination were built into America’s society / institutions or if they were a reflection of individuals’ own beliefs, a huge gap emerged between white and Black respondents. While 61 percent of white practicing Christians viewed problems of race as an individual issue, 67 percent of Black practicing Christians saw it primarily as a systemic issue.
A Gospel-centered approach to racism, in Gray’s perspective, must take both systemic and individual sins into account. Gray notes, “We know, systemically, there are dark powers. We know, individually, there are people with dark hearts. And so the issue is not, ‘Is it individualistic?’ or ‘Is it systemic’? It is both, and it requires all of God’s people to unleash the gospel understanding this.”
White leaders, in particular, should be careful to examine what identities they hold too tightly which may cause them to resist seeing racism as a systemic reality. Gray says, “Your identity is not in America… this isn’t just white folks’ country. This is all of our country.” He continues, “When people of color bring up systemic injustice, it doesn’t mean that we don’t love America. We love America. […] But the goal is for us to look back and to collectively as Christians mourn.”
More Than Diversity
For Gray, the pursuit of diversity does not simply mean getting more people of color present in a room. Gray says, “One of the mistakes that the majority culture Church has made in America is [asking] ‘How do we get diverse?’ and trying to check that off pragmatically. It’s not about how we get diverse; it’s about how we love each other as brothers and sisters.”
Instead of simply focusing on “getting different colors together,” Gray sees a vision of the Church as a united community of believers where “these different colors become a mosaic” that loves one another across lines of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender.
Speaking from 20 years of experience leading a multiethnic church, Gray encourages leaders to continue to wrestle with their own prejudices, concluding, “God’s grace and the scope of His goodness is big enough to heal us. But, are we willing to obey the Gospel?
About the Research
The research for this study surveyed 2,889 U.S. adults online between July 19 and August 5, 2019 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Practicing Christians, African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.89 at a 95% confidence interval.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who have attended a worship service within the past month and agree strongly that their faith is very important in their life.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021