How Your Church Can Begin Making a Strategy for Racial Justice

How Your Church Can Begin Making a Strategy for Racial Justice

“Most churches and Christian organizations have all kinds of strategies: a strategy for evangelism, a strategy for crisis planning, a strategy for staffing, or a strategy for how to manage your building. But how many have a solid strategy to ensure that they are fighting against racial injustice?”

–Brandon Watts, Lead Pastor, Epiphany Church Brooklyn

Racial Justice and Our Church Planting Mission

Integral to Orchard Group’s mission of establishing churches in cities is working with leaders who have the vision to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Without concern for justice, there can be no honest or effective planting of churches in cities: places of population density, ethnic diversity, economic disparity, and spiritual difficulty.

This definition of city shows that the nature of cities is one of difference: different people from different places with different backgrounds and of different means. Incredibly, in this way the nature of cities is also like the nature of the church, people of all “ethnos” gathered together under one banner (Revelation 5:9). The Christian gospel announces the reparations Jesus has made to reconcile people to God, and in turn, to reconcile people across myriad differences.

The Bible's concern for and action toward racial justice is pervasive, demonstrated through events like the liberation of the Hebrew people, the Old Testament law's concern for the ethnic outsider (Leviticus 19:33-34), and the New Testament church's mandate to transcend ethnic biases and segregation (Acts 10). Being an organization born in New York City means that we have inherited the profound injustices against people of color in the U.S. – namely African and Native Americans. As we now serve with leaders in other places around the world, we can see that the principle of Biblical justice extends far beyond present and historical sins in America. The Christian good news confronts apartheid in South Africa, blood feud in Ireland, Armenophobia in Turkey, and the caste system in India, to name but a few examples.

Indeed, while ministering in a period of pronounced ethnic and economic injustice, the prophet Jeremiah voiced the problem sharply: “The human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9) Jeremiah didn’t say, “some hearts.” He said, “the human heart.” All people carry prejudice against others, even when it may seem to be hidden.

How You and Your Church Can Begin

Serving with leaders in churches in global cities has benefitted us in numerous ways. One of those ways is the continual learning that we are able to receive. Below, you’ll find some steps that we’ve picked up along the way to help churches begin to get serious about the Christian idea of “doing justice,” especially in the area of race and ethnicity. The ideas that follow have been practiced for years in some of the churches that Orchard Group is helping to establish. Even before racial injustice resurfaced in the national consciousness this year, our team had begun consolidating some of the best practices in order to share them with new church leaders in our pipeline. Now, we are bringing them to a wider audience here with this brief introduction.

While preparing this introduction, we continually ran into the challenge of wanting to add more: another quote, another practice, another recommendation, etc. But we also knew that we needed to strike the balance between depth and accessibility. We had to remember that no article series can do it all or speak to everyone. We will miss some important points. We will inadequately cover nuanced subjects. We will address one audience or another with less-than-ideal relevance. But remembering that the perfect is the enemy of the good, we pressed on. We pared down long lists of quality content in order to provide just one pertinent quote, one practical example, one resource to engage, and one step to take for each section. Our intention is to provide a starting place for ongoing learning and repentance.

So with humility we offer the following introduction, with the ultimate goal of helping to bring the Christian gospel to bear on the perennial issue of racial injustices in the U.S. and the world.

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Making It Personal

Start With Yourself

Main idea: Rushing to solutions without noticing and accounting for your own inward bias will result in superficial, misguided, or even harmful results.

“When Jesus saw him lying there and realized he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6)

Jesus went out of his way to visit an uncomfortable and “unclean” place where the sick congregated. There he found a paralytic, helpless man. Jesus asked him a simple question that anyone who seriously wants to fight against sin must hear: “Do you want to get well?” The man’s response is revealing. Instead of answering the question, the man gave his gloomy testimony and his perception of how God works. He was hopeless.

As you discover how racist thoughts, ideologies, and patterns have been nurtured in you, it is vital that you trust in a Jesus who does not avoid the things about you that might make us or others recoil in disgust. If you fail to trust Jesus in this way, then you’re likely to minimize both the truth about where you are in your journey and the radical nature of God’s loving grace for you. The good news is not only that Jesus does not recoil from you in your sin, but also that Jesus goes out of his way to meet you right where you are – not where you think you should be. Be honest, commit to the long journey ahead of you, and trust in our gracious savior, Jesus.

–Jordan Rice, lead pastor of Renaissance Church1

Example: This former prison camp guard asking for forgiveness from Corrie Ten Boom. Read this twice: first putting yourself in the place of the forgiver. Read it a second time, this time putting yourself in the place of the one needing forgiveness.

First Step: Prayerfully read through the national survey and study Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

Read, watch, listen: This short clip of author James Baldwin responding to Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss on the Dick Cavett show, circa 1968.

Seek Understanding

Main idea: Until there begins to be empathetic understanding, injustices against other groups will always seem distant or overblown.

“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:3)

“One of the most important parts of my own journey was coming to the recognition that I don’t know what I need to know. I think that the first step for a majority-culture preacher is to admit, ‘I don’t even know what I need to know…’ For a long time I simply preached against the sin of personal racism. I didn’t understand anything about privilege. I didn’t understand anything about systemic or institutional racism. Basically I just took the position: ‘A follower of Jesus should love all people…’

Fast forward to the increased polarization I saw in our nation and the vitriol of the last election: I realized that there was just so much that I didn’t know. I determined that I was going to speak to it at my church. What I had to do is go, and ask people to help me to know what I didn’t know. I met with people who look different from me, and I just sat there and I said, ‘Tell me what I don’t know.’”

–Rick Atchley, Senior Teaching Minister, The Hills Church2

Example: Rick Atchley's sermon, "Why Talk About Race: Because God Has Spoken."

First Step: Make your way through a work about and by black and brown people. For example, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Read, Watch, Listen: Tom Skinner’s message: “U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism” at Urbana 1970

Deal With Shame

Main idea: Confronting and repenting of personal sin will be impossible if the sin is buried in personal shame or hidden behind a façade of invulnerability.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

What if we were to apply Romans 7 to racism? Paul, one of the most disciplined followers of Jesus in history, still had some things in his life that he hated. In my conversations with Christians, I hear statements (which I agree with) like, "Racism has no place in the church/believer.” But neither do sins like porn, divorce, adultery, drunkenness, or selfishness – and our churches are full of those. Until Romans 7 is applied specifically to racism, I don't think people will admit it’s their problem too, because for whatever misguided reason, people think sin is purely volitional.

If we regard sin as existing entirely in our willpower, we will underestimate its power. We will underestimate our need for Christ, for repentance, and for Christian community. Racism is like mercury: almost all people in the world have at least trace amounts of methylmercury in their bodies because of its prevalence in the environment. Similarly, racism is pervasive in the cultural environment, and it's impossible for anyone to be completely free of it. Like mercury, perhaps someone doesn’t have enough of it to affect daily life in an overtly negative way, but it's there.

–Jordan Rice, Lead Pastor, Renaissance Church

Example: Guided prayers of repentance that are a regular part of City Church Lagos' weekly church services.

First Step: Rather than referring obliquely to the racism of the distant past, confess to God a thought or attitude – however fleeting – against someone of another ethnicity from the last years.

Read, Watch, Listen: Take Harvard’s free “Race IAT” implicit bias test.

Part 2: Conditioning the Heart

Practice Deep Learning

Main idea: Consuming hot takes on social media will never produce deep personal growth that comes from comprehensive study.

“Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.” (Hebrews 5:14)

Christians, of all people, should know that evil is held in place not just by the flesh (the sinful self), or even the devil (and associated demonic powers), but also by the world: the structures and systems of human power that perpetuate injustice, idolatry and immorality. It seems clear to me, for instance, that contemporary society is not just comprised of individual men and women who are idolatrous, or sexually immoral; our systems, structures and institutions promote idolatry and sexual immorality, in a way that is often tangential to or independent of deliberate human agency. The same is true of injustices, including racial ones. Christians are not saying this because we have been influenced by Marx. Marxists are saying it because they have been influenced by Christ.

–Andrew Wilson, Teaching Pastor at King's Church London3

Example: The Equal Justice Initiative

First Step: Read at length. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is a good place to start.

Read, Watch, Listen: Phil Vischer’s 18-minute talk: “Race in America

Count the Cost

Main idea: What if pursuing racial justice in your church costs you 25% of your church's attendance and budget?

“And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

“In my experience, too many young activists have rushed into the inner city without regard for the cost. The normal, natural hardships that ensue come as a complete surprise, often leaving them embittered and cynical concerning ministry to the poor. I have often seen disillusioned, hurting activists lash out in pain at co-workers and ministries, for no other reason than, 'Things did not turn out as I expected…' Becoming an effective urban servant is sort of a conversion process that is often ignited by painful confrontations with the people you have come to serve. Through these experiences, God begins to purify our motives, humble us, and bring us face-to-face with our need to grow. As you admit your need for growth, you begin to understand… Several steps of [painful] learning are important in this 'conversion' process of becoming effective urban servants.”

–John Perkins4

Example: Lawndale Christian Health

First step: Work with your church’s board or eldership and consider what sacrificial (personal cost) changes can be made to the church budget on behalf of ethnic minorities. Then, make the changes.

Read, Watch, Listen: Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, or The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Practice Lament

Main idea: After the comprehensive work above, you can begin to deeply grieve your own sin and the systemic forces against justice.

“My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?" (Psalm 6:3)

“Lament poems are not unique in the Bible. There are lots of them. These biblical poems of lament do a number of things: 1) They are a form of protest, a way of drawing everybody's attention, including God's attention, to the horrible things that happen in this world that should not be tolerated. 2) They are a way of processing emotions. In these poems God's people vent their anger and dismay at the ruin caused by people's sin and selfishness. 3) They are a place to voice confusion. Suffering makes us ask questions about God's character and promises.

None of this is looked down on in the Bible. Just the opposite: these poems of lament give a sacred dignity to human suffering.”

–Tim Mackie5

Example: National Memorial for Peace and Justice

First Step: Guide your church music/worship team to add songs and prayers of lamentation to their regular repertoire.

Read, Watch, Listen: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Part 3: Putting It into Practice

Back Words With Action

Main idea: Churches that care about justice speak with words and with sacrificial actions.

“Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26b)

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.6

Example: Chicago Delivers

First Step: Familiarize yourself with existing effective justice ministries and outreaches in your neighborhood or city. Make a plan to apply your church’s time, talent, treasure there.

Read, Watch, Listen: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. (Or listen to the audio.)

Teach Proactively

Main idea: Waiting for a crisis to address prejudice misses the Bible’s pervasive claim of the gospel’s power to confront and overcome personal and structural injustice.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14)

As an evangelical, I am tightly tethered to Scripture as my final authority on all matters to which it speaks. And it speaks on all matters. I am committed to the thesis that there are two answers to every question — God’s answer and everyone else’s. And when they contradict each other, everyone else is wrong. As an African-American, my vision was formed in the pragmatic reality of racial disparity that caused me to focus on questions about race, oneness, and justice in church history that many of my white counterparts did not have to address. This dualism forced me to read Scripture to shed light on these issues, leading me to the conclusions that are being put forward in this book. I had to look not only to the theology but also the practical application of that theology within the ‘sitz im laben’ — or situation in life — for how that theology fleshes out.”

–Tony Evans7

Example: Renaissance Church’s teaching series: “The Gospel and Race

First step: Plan regular messages or message series that show how the Bible repeatedly addresses the subjects of mercy and justice.

Read, Watch, Listen: Eric Mason’s message on Matthew 23 at DTS

Expand the Platform

Main idea: People of different ethnicities in positions of leadership provide (among other things) a strong Christian witness to the world.

Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him...” (Acts 10:34-35a)

“The reality is that the best way to do multiethnic evangelism is to be multiethnic. There’s a way in which that’s kind of obvious, but yet, it’s not practiced… You reach the kind of people that you are in a lot of cases. Or through the relationships you already have, and the partnerships that you already have…

Why develop a multiethnic church? Three reasons: 1) a multiethnic church creates curiosity in the community, which can be leveraged for outreach… 2) a multiethnic church conditions its congregation to build bridges in the larger community, because it has already built bridges within the church… 3) a multiethnic church positions itself for substantial results, because a diverse team does multicultural outreach organically.”

–Michelle Sanchez8

Example: Leadership at churches like Restoration (Philly), Renaissance (Harlem), and Renewal (Chicago) reflecting their neighborhoods’ ethnic diversity

First Step: Write down your perception of the racial demographics in close proximity to where your church meets. Then go spend an hour sitting just inside the nearest laundromat, Walmart, or dollar store to see if the diversity you observe there matches your perception.9

Read, Watch, Listen: Right Color, Wrong Culture by Bryan Loritts

  1. Adapted from Renaissance Church’s multi-part study on racism and repentance. ↩︎
  2. From a talk at an online Orchard Group gathering in May 2020 ↩︎
  3. From On Structural Racism on ThinkTheology ↩︎
  4. “Beyond Charity,” pp. 151, 160 ↩︎
  5. The Bible Project, “Lamentations” ↩︎
  6. From “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” ↩︎
  7. “Oneness Embraced,” p. 38 ↩︎
  8. “Multiethnic Evangelism” talk at Church Planting Leadership Fellowship 2017 ↩︎
  9. Adapted from “reMIX” by Mark DeYmaz and Bob Whitesel ↩︎

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Jamie Larson