Urban Church Planters: Don’t Punk Out On Race Issues!

Shortly after celebrating our nation’s independence, the clouds of racism cast their dark shadow over this country.  Over the span of 3 days, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died at the hands of police officers and a deranged shooter gunned down 5 patrolmen at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Dallas causing a social media firestorm.

These events reignited a nationwide conversation about systemic injustice, racial inequality, the unfair targeting of minorities in inner cities by police officers, and the use of excessive force by those sworn to protect and serve.

The confluence of opinions has not been limited to social media; it’s made its way into the church as well. Sadly, many local congregations are in disarray.

Parishioners, holding dissenting, and often-contentious opinions, have been sharply divided over philosophical lines, and the recent tragedies, along with the combustible climate of the political election season, has caused a disruption of peace and unity in countless churches across this country.

Church Planting Handcuffs

Because of this, urban church planters have found themselves in a precarious position. For the most part, conservative, white evangelical churches have funded their efforts, and some are hesitant to step into the tension and speak candidly on the issues of race for fear of losing financial support.

While the vast majority of urban planters have done well to avoid flippant Facebook and Twitter posts that garner strife, most are still searching for practical ways to thoughtfully engage racial issues in ways that are biblically faithful and strengthens rather than sabotages gospel bonds.

Maybe that’s you. You’re outraged about the recent events but are apprehensive about tackling issues of systemic injustice and racism for fear of loosing financial supporters.

Well, here are 3 practical ways urban pastors can challenge social issues

1. Make The Distinction Between Partners and Supporters

While supporters and comprehensive gospel partners are vital to the financial well-being of the church, we need to make a clear distinction between the two.

Comprehensive gospel partnership consists of two churches with deep relational connectivity using their resource and expertise to cross-train leaders, mutually plant churches, host missions trips, and cultivate deep bonds.

From my experience, it’s quite difficult to disrupt relationship with gospel partners because conversations about race, economics, police brutality, systemic racism, etc. have been discussed preemptively. The partner churches have engaged in difficult conversations on race issues in their congregations and often display both empathy for the plight of minorities and demonstrate cultural fluency.

What’s refreshing is that many gospel partners are on the frontlines fighting against such systemic injustice alongside their urban counterparts by engaging in conversations with their churches, hosting conferences on racial reconciliation, and showing a commitment to displaying minority leadership in their churches.

Supporters, on the other hand, are a bit different than partners. While they tend to give financially or materially (i.e. web design, construction, legal counsel, etc.), and even invite the lead pastor of the urban plant to preach at their church, the deep cross-ecclesia relational component may not be present.

They often support the mission and vision of the church planter, but because  of the superficial relational bond, when the planter speaks on social issues they tend to shy away from supporting.

It’s important to make this distinction because while supporters often fall away, comprehensive gospel bonds remain strong through turbulent times. Supporters will withdraw finances when church planters escape their social confines, but comprehensive gospel partners will remain unmovable.

As urban planters, it’s incumbent upon us to build enduring relational bonds so that supporters will become comprehensive partners and  serve alongside us when tackling touchy social issues.

2. Educate Supporters of Systemic Issues of Racism

The racial fault lines between blacks and whites in the United States is more vast than any other people groups, and since in the post-Civil Rights area, that expanse has only grown.

Our white brothers and sisters tend to view the deaths of black men like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police as isolated incidences. While whites tend to believe that racism is a product of fractured, individual relationships and sin, blacks, on the other hand, see these incidences as a large overarching effect of systemic racism.[1]

Systemic racism describes forms of racism that are structured into political and social institutions; therefore, race matters profoundly for differences in life experience, life opportunities, and social relationships.[2] In other words, “we live in a society that allocates differential economic, political, and social, and even psychological rewards to groups based along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.” [3]

This institution results in hostility between blacks and whites; unequal treatment, conflict, and compromised life opportunities for people of color. The effects of systemic racism are seen in wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, incarceration, and other portions of our society.

For example, a 2010 study showed that while blacks comprise 13% of the population, they only posses 2.7% of the wealth, and while the median white family has a net worth of $134,000, blacks are typically worth $11,000.[4]

This disparity can be seen largely in the employment of blacks and whites, as well. On average, black unemployment is about twice that of whites and when African-Americans graduate with college degrees, they are twice as likely to be unemployed as compared to their white counterparts.[5]

Housing discrimination has also been prevalent in the history of this country. Because of redlining, racial steering, restrictive covenants, and zoning restrictions that prevented blacks from purchasing property, we were unable to accumulate wealth at the same rate as whites, causing further economic dissonance.

Policing is not excluded from the institutional racism equation. According to the Racial Profiling Prohibition Project and US Dept. of Justice’s “Police Behavior During Traffic and Street Stops” report of 2011, blacks are two times as likely to be pulled over as whites, and although statistics show that blacks and whites use marijuana at a relatively equal rate, the ACLU’s “War on Marijuana Report in Black and White” reports that blacks are 4x more likely to be arrested than whites.[6]

Institutional racism occurs in other sectors, such as healthcare, media reaction to controversial music, as well. Ultimately, such prejudice has become interwoven into the fabric of our daily operations, and because it avoids using direct racial terminology, it is largely invisible to whites.

Therefore, it’s incumbent upon urban church planter to inform supporters of such systemic issues and be able to express opinions from an informed position.

3. Remind Them That Addressing Social Issues is a Gospel Issue.

For many conservative evangelicals, preaching Christ from our pulpit is sufficient to rectify society’s ills. It’s not. Preaching Christ in the comfortable pulpit of homogenous churches without the practice of justice is not the Gospel at all. Preaching Christ without challenging sinful societal norms is an oxymoron (Ps. 89:14; Pro. 21:3).

Our knowledge of Jesus should illicit sincere concern and a genuine cry for even-handedness in the face of oppression, especially for black and Latinos who have struggled for respect and equality in America.[7]

According to Dr. Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, the most basic meaning of justice is to treat people with equity and impartiality regardless of race or social status. [8]

It’s described as taking up the care and cause of the poor, marginalized, immigrants, orphans, and widows, who’ve sadly been most taken advantage of at an institutional level.

Jesus embodies these principles. He stresses the sanctity of life, the importance of evangelism, and being born again, which is a hallmark of right-wing politics, and says that Jews and modern Gentiles should stay in community together to serve the poor because it was central to his mission, which is more progressive. 

Jesus’ mission is the personification of preaching and practicing the gospel.

So, why should we fight against issues of social injustice? Because it’s what Jesus did when he pushed for the upheaval of the Pharisaic system that neglected the poor (Matthew 23:23).

Furthermore, from an institutional vantage point, these issues stem from evil, fallen hearts and a healthy understanding of the Gospel forces Christians dealing with them from a systemic level no matter how entrenched those systems may be.[9]

Takeaway

Urban church planter, do not punk out! Don’t shrink back on issues of race and systemic injustice by prostituting your morals for money.

If supporters decide to withdraw funds from you because of your biblical stance you can be assured that it wasn’t Gospel partnership but penance to soothe their conscience for forsaking your context for so long.

That’s all I got for now. Talk to you soon.

Grace and peace.

 

[1] Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000, 7.
[2] Ibn, 7.
[3] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, unfinished manuscript.
[4] http://www.demos.org/blog/11/5/13/racial-wealth-gap
[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/african-americans-with-college-degrees-are-twice-as-likely-to-be-unemployed-as-other-graduates/430971/
[6] https://www.aclu.org/report/war-marijuana-black-and-white
[7] Brooks, Christopher W. Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel Is Good News for the City, 2014, 131.
[8] Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010.
[9] Loritts, Bryan C. A Cross-shaped Gospel: Reconciling Heaven and Earth. Chicago: Moody, 2011, (Kindle: Loc 703)

Ernest Cleo Grant, II

Ernest Cleo Grant, II (@ernestcleogrant) is the Lead Pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church of Camden, a graduate of Reformed Seminary (D.C.), and is currently completing his Doctorate of Education from Stockton University. He and his wife Sarah have been married for almost a decade and have two children( Amaela and Chancellor). He's an avid reader, a community advocate, and has bylines in The Witness, Christianity Today, The Star-Ledger, Desiring God, and other publications

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