You probably know that cliché definition of insanity: doing the same old same old time after time and hoping for a different result. After several years of trying hard to lead our church to a place where we more resembled heaven in all its beautiful diversity, I knew that if our church was ever going to become the one I believe God had called us to be, we were going to have to shake things up.
The best form of advertisement for a church is not television, radio or even social media. It is word of mouth. That’s how around 80 percent of people come to a church, according to research: they are simply invited by a friend. What makes word of mouth tricky is that most people’s sphere of influence is their family and close friends, who tend to share the same racial background. We had to break out of this somehow. Specifically, if we were going to become the body of believers I had in mind, we would have to change our face—in other words, what we looked like to others.
That is why I recruited my team to help refashion the way our church appeared to the people we were trying to reach. People might assume this was kind of fleshly or disingenuous. I don’t agree; I think that it was an exercise in both strategic and prophetic branding. Strategic because sometimes you have to force change, otherwise it will never happen; we all tend to follow the path of least resistance. Prophetic because we were making a statement about who we believed God had called us to be. It was an expression of faith—something as yet unseen, but which we believed in.
So we instituted the 50/50 rule: for every black person in a visible space in the church, I wanted to see a white person alongside. For every Hispanic person, I wanted to see someone of another ethnicity—on all our literature and our website, out in the parking lot and at the front doors—so that any visitors saw from the get-go what we were about. That philosophy carried over onto the platform. I didn’t want just the congregation to resemble heaven, but the leadership and ministry teams, as well.
It wasn’t just the outward makeup of our church that needed to change, however. We also had to adjust its internal manner—the way we were as a church, from our dress to our music. I led the way by hanging up my more dressy suits and substituting something more casual.
However, I came to recognize that this more formal style wasn’t appealing to everyone. So I traded my custom threads for something a little more business casual. In time, that trickled down into the congregation, and others began to follow my lead and dress down a bit. It wasn’t about outlawing dressing up; it was about creating an environment in which everyone felt comfortable coming as they were—which is why, to this day, you’ll find both denim and designer labels, church hats and cowboy hats, on Sunday mornings.
We also had to adjust our service style. Depending on their cultural background, people can connect with God differently than others. We were undeniably a “black church”—choir, gospel music and longer services. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it was limiting our reach. So we changed things up. We cut down the length of the service, we switched from a choir to a more informal worship/music team, and we traded some of our gospel hymns for more contemporary worship that would appeal to all.
This change was harder for folks than the dress one, and I understand why. Music is so powerful; it sets the atmosphere for a room. It can touch our spirits in a powerful way. We had to let go of some of what moved us to make room for others. We put some of our favorite songs on the altar of sacrifice for a bigger picture. We chose to pick songs and develop a worship expression that could provide an opportunity for all nations, people groups and tribes to come together in one accord without feeling out of place or that this was not for them.
The point of all our tweaks and changes was not to renounce anything black, but simply to make room for other people of diverse backgrounds. The 50/50 principle continues to this day: we also have a campus in Orlando where the population is not what it is in Gainesville. We are blessed with members who speak Spanish, Portuguese and so on. It’s not a literal one-for-one thing; instead, it’s more a reminder that we want anyone who doesn’t know us to visit or see something about us and think, OK, I could fit in here.
DON’T GET WEIRD!
Over the past few years, some other churches around the country have started along a similar multiracial journey; but when I first set out, I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing the same kind of thing, so there was a lot of trial and error.
Some things worked and some didn’t. It took a lot of energy to do two things at the same time—hold to the clear vision that I had while also being open to revising and changing up the way we did things. When I first started sharing the vision with the church, I suggested that we stop calling people black or white. The point I was making was that color was not our main identity—it was the what, not the who. But things started to get a little out there as people tried to avoid being black and white (literally) about things. You’d hear conversations like this:
Member 1: “Hey, do you know Sue?”
Member 2: “I don’t think so. Should I?”
Member 1: “Yeah, she was here at church last Sunday.”
Member 2: “Okay, what does she look like?”
Member 1: “Well (big pause) she’s about 5’ 9”. She has manicured nails. She was wearing red pants.”
Member 2: “No, don’t recall her.”
Member 1: “And she’s very light-skinned.” (wink wink)
Talk about walking on eggshells! Looking back, it was pretty funny, really—people were tying themselves in knots like pretzels as they tried to avoid using the words “black” or “white.” We had to learn to lighten up a little and accept that, sure, there are differences that may help describe us, but they don’t define us. “Don’t get weird!” I told people.
Making external changes like the racial makeup of our ministry teams and our style of worship were crucial, but I knew that we needed to go deeper than just the way people experienced church on the campus. We needed to see the vision spill out of the church building into people’s lives when they were being the church out in the world the rest of the week. We had to go beyond just the Sunday service—or Sunday surface, you might say.
Real diversity means more than just sitting in the same church building for a couple of hours a week with someone of another race. You have to be willing to welcome into your home people who are different than you are.
You have to be interested in them, wanting to learn about their different backgrounds and experiences—maybe even experimenting with some of their food. Getting to know someone else means asking more questions and making fewer statements. Be careful, though: there is a difference between being curious about someone and cross-examining them!
It means not keeping people at arm’s length, which it is so easy to do at church on a Sunday morning, in a coffee shop, or even in a formal small group setting. Rather than keep them in the outer courts, you let them into your more personal spaces.
I believe that much of the racial fear and prejudice we are experiencing is because of ignorance. I’m not using the word “ignorance” in a judgmental sense, just literally—lack of knowledge or information. The more we get to know each other, the more we realize we aren’t that different after all.
DISCOMFORT AS DISCIPLESHIP
The thing about swimming against the tide is that you can never stop your strokes, because guess what happens if you do? You end up getting carried back downstream. The current doesn’t stop just because you get tired. That’s as true in the world as it is in the water. And it has always been a challenge for the church to remain relevant.
Most of us get comfortable with what we know. It’s part of our human nature—we hold on to what is familiar. We remember the songs we sang and what was preached when we first had an encounter with God, and we look for Him to do the same thing again. We can end up making rules that God never intended. He is always doing new things to reach new people. Think about Jesus’ ministry—He dealt with people differently all the time, from how He interacted with them to how He healed them. He did not have a set playbook.
As His followers, we have to be willing to adapt to new styles, new songs, new buildings and new ways of doing things. That is not being disrespectful of the past. We can and should celebrate our history; but at the same time, we need to be ready and willing to move into our futures.
This requires a willingness to let go of personal preferences, to be open to seeing that some things don’t have to be a certain way—we just prefer them to be. It may mean that we sacrifice something for the bigger picture.
In some ways, pursuing the vision of a multiracial church can become something God uses to do a deeper work in individuals, because they are constantly being forced to address issues that don’t come to the surface as much in congregations where most people share a similar sort of background. When you are all very different, there is more room for misunderstanding to occur and previously unrecognized prejudices and attitudes to come to the surface. It’s easy to say, “I’m not racist” when you are not in a position where racial differences are a factor. It’s like telling everyone that you are not afraid of heights while your feet are firmly on the ground. Would you feel the same standing on a ledge at the top of a 100-foot building?
This practice of sacrifice is often tied directly to discipleship in a multiracial church. In order for others to be lifted up, we often have to become loving servants, setting aside our own agendas and personal desires.
When there is pushback, this response tells me something about their character and how they are growing in Christ. Do they see and support the intentionality of what we are doing, are they getting the big picture, or do they feel they have been slighted or overlooked? Have they arrived at the space and place in their walk with Christ where they can truly walk in the selflessness that we are called to—to serve the body and one another?
Getting all bent out of shape because you’re not given the opportunity to exercise whatever gift you may feel God has given you right now is a self-focused and shortsighted reaction. If you are overlooked at any point in your life, know that all promotion comes from the Lord and never from man. His timing is just, and I am a firm believer that your gift will make room for you—at some stage. It just may not be according to your timetable. Being willing to set aside your own preferences and desires to be part of a bigger vision is a sign of maturity to me.
The truth is, most of us like permission—when we are allowed to do something—more than submission. But I see more in the Bible about laying our lives down in the service of others than I do about getting to do all the things we want to do, just when we want to do them.
I think about how, at the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples that the world would know they were His followers by the way they loved each other. Why? Because they were as unlikely a group of like-minded people as you could find, if ever there was one. They may not have been racially mixed, but they were just about as varied as they could be otherwise.
Several of them were blue-collar guys, fishermen. One of those, Peter, was a Zealot, a radical who wanted to overthrow the Roman rulers. He and his brother Andrew were also followers of John the Baptist before he pointed them to Jesus. James and John, the other two fishermen, were hotheads, wanting to call down fire from heaven on a village that didn’t welcome Jesus (Luke 9:54). They also wanted the best positions on Jesus’ team. Not only did they ask Him if they could sit on either side of Him in His glory (Mark 10:35-45), their mom made the same request for them (Matthew 20:20-28). That didn’t go down too well with the others, naturally. Then there was Matthew, a tax collector who would have been widely despised for working for the Roman authorities. And let’s not forget about Judas, who not only betrayed Jesus but took advantage of his task as the group’s treasurer to dip into the money bag whenever he wanted (John 12:6).
Surely only a shared love for God, a desire to make Him known above personal ambitions, and God’s love shared among them could turn such a mixed group into a family.
Resembling heaven isn’t a one-and-done thing. There is not a special class on the topic you get to go through and then check off your list, along with biblical stewardship and learning to pray. It’s more of an ongoing way of life. I share the vision regularly in my sermons, and I talk more about it in our Growth Track sessions for newcomers, but most of it is worked out in just doing life together—hanging out, worshiping, studying the Bible, and serving the community. I believe that’s how life-change—real discipleship—occurs: in relationship. And because we are always having new people join us, it’s a never-ending process. Typically, it seems to take people about two years of being part of our church to really “get” what we are about.
It can be hard work. To be honest, there are times when, for a moment, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I have come to accept that Alive Church could be much bigger by now if I dropped the whole multiracial focus. Why keep pushing this thing uphill? For someone like me who is wired to make a difference, who likes to “achieve,” it can be tempting to take the easier path. However, I know that, at the end of the day, success cannot be measured in numbers alone, and church growth and the spread of the gospel are not necessarily the same thing.
Therefore, I have determined that I don’t just want to draw a crowd. I want to draw a clearer picture of heaven.
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