The Color of Church

Preston Sprinkle —  January 13, 2012 — 10 Comments

In my previous post (“racial reconciliation”), I looked at two passages (Eph 2 and Gal 2) that place a high value on breaking down the walls of ethnic division within the church. This is especially important since in many churches, people don’t seem to care whether it’s ethnically diverse or not. But biblically,  God places a high premium on local churches being a visible representation of His presence (Eph 1:22-23), and this representation is skewed if it doesn’t reflect God’s love for, and power to save, people of all ethnicities. Something is especially wrong if your local church (i.e., the visible representation of God’s presence) exists in a diverse area and yet doesn’t reflect this diversity. Many outsiders already think the church is segregated at best, racist at worst. Let’s stop giving them so much material to work with.

But diversity for diversity’s sake is not what I’m arguing for. There are theological reasons why our local churches should pursue racial reconciliation and diversity. So let’s dig in to the Scriptures.

For this post, I want to look at the two bookends of the Spirit’s new covenant work, beginning in Acts 2. The very birthday of the church was a multicultural gathering. Visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost were Jews, Europeans, Africans, and Arabs, all who received the Spirit of God; all who bowed the knee to king Jesus (Acts 2:9-11). And God broke down ethnic barriers by allowing each to understand the message in his own language (Acts 2:6-9). In some ways, Pentecost undid the sin of Babel, where through sin, people spread out, segregated, and separated in terms of ethnicity, geography, and language. But at Pentecost, all of this is reversed. Unity among ethnic diversity—all created by the miraculous power of God.

And I believe this was intentional. The surprising beauty of God’s new work through the Spirit comes in pulling ethnically diverse people together under the banner of King Jesus. Satan wants to put an end to God’s mission, and it looks like he’s succeeding in some segregated churches, but ultimately God’s power will prevail. This is the point of Ephesians 3:10, which says that the purpose of God unifying Jews and Gentiles (and by implication all ethnic groups) together into one body is to broadcast “the manifold wisdom of God…to the rulers and authorities (read: demons) in the heavenly places.” Ethnically diverse, spiritually unified, Christ-exalting churches declare to Satan and his minions: You lost!

And this declaration will be fully disclosed when Christ comes back. I love that scene in Revelation 7, where John sees “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before Jesus saying ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne’.” What an amazing worship celebration it will be when Christ comes back and people from every tribe and tongue and nation bow down to sing praises to Jesus—the One whose blood shatters the boundaries we create.

It will be amazing, but it may be a little shocking too. We may be a little uneasy at the worship celebration Christ puts on. Those expecting seven stanzas of Be Thou My Vision, a good white hymn, may be disappointed to see an angelic Mariachi band rocking the stage. You may think something is insanely wrong when Michael the archangel starts rapping, Gabriel busts out a tribal beat on the bongos, and Thomas the apostle maestros an ensemble of Indian sitars.

The second coming will give us a real taste of what it means to be a global community.

We may be even more shocked when we look around and see that English is the minority tongue and that white people are greatly outnumbered (the statistics are clear). We may be beside ourselves when we see that Jesus doesn’t have blond hair and blue eyes, but looks like a Middle-Eastern blue-collar peasant, with dark skin and dark hair.

Some of us have been so steeped in our own cultures that we have mistaken white, middle-class, American Christianity for Christianity itself. But the gospel puts an end to any sort of ethnic superiority among the people of God (Eph 2:11-18). Pentecost gave us a foretaste of what will be consummated when Jesus comes back—a unity among diverse believers, held together by the blood of Christ.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

Posts

I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • http://antiochhp.wordpress.com/ Josh Buck

    Preston: I have many thoughts and they are slowly forming into something. I will wait for your next post on the issue and then proceed :)

    Yvonne: I hear what your saying. There is always a language barrier, even within a single ethnic group. I am talking about the situation where it is not worth being an obstacle. But that is the golden question, when should language separate believers on a Sunday morning?

  • http://antiochhp.wordpress.com/ Josh Buck

    Hey Preston! What do you think of anglo churches that have “spanish” or “korean” services? Assume there is no language barrier (pretty much everyone from every group speaks English) but rather both the anglo church and other service just like doing church segregated for the sake of cultural convention, practicality, or tradition.

    Love to hear your thoughts.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Great question, Josh! I’m actually going to bring that up in a forthcoming post. But I really haven’t worked out my thoughts on that too much. What do you think?

      My initial thought is that it’s a good start, but I’d love to explore creative avenues to take it further. But before I would even pursue this, I’d want to spend a bunch of time hanging out with pastors of these sorts of ministries to glean some wisdom on how best to go about it. We whites have to remember, Spanish services often contain tons of different cultures/ethnicities that have their own internal issues. Some people in their ignorance think they’re all Mexican (I wish that was a joke, but if I had a nickel for every time I heard this…)

      • Yvonne Wilber

        I interviewed a Catholic priest about this (by default Catholic parishes are multicultural). He said that while they do have a Spanish Service and a Filipino service in their respective languages, they strive to bring everyone together for all-parish events, for example multilingual Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Where he saw an problem was some of the more affluent Catholics in town driving over to the next town’s more affluent (and mostly Anglo) parish.

        • Yvonne Wilber

          Oh, and Josh: I have a Chinese friend who just got her MDiv and serves in a Chinese church in San Francisco. She is second generation American (and 3rd generation pastor, her 90 year old grandmother was the first); Chinese is her native tongue. Although her spoken English is excellent, she says it is very difficult to preach in English, English does not carry the sorts of idioms that come naturally in her native tongue. So to assume there is no language barrier may be a false assumption.

          • Dave Denney

            I agree with you Yvonne. My father-in-law is a 84 year old Filipino pastor who speaks four different dialects from the Philippines as well as English. He tells me that he can express his thoughts better using his native tongue (Tagalog)than he can in English. He explained that American English has an abundance of idioms and slang which make it more difficult to communicate to his second and third generation Filipino members. The pastors and elders who serve there where born in the Philippines, so they can relate better to that culture.

  • Chris Hay

    Years ago I heard a statistic that by the year 2000 the Church would be 90% non-Western non-white. That rocked my world and led to several overseas trips to see what the majority of the Church was like. I wonder what that stat is now? We in the West who speak English are truly a tiny percentage of the Bride of Christ!

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      I’ve heard similar statistics, though not quite as drastic. The one that comes to mind is that the church will be 80% non-Western non-White by the year 2050. In the same year, there’ll also be 1 billion Pentecostals of all stripes, making it the most successful social/religious organization in history.

  • David McGladdery

    Never saw Pentecost as the undoing of Babel. Awesome insight.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      I can’t claim it as my own. Most recent commentaries on Acts draw this parallel, and there’s been a few specialized articles that point out various conceptual and linguistic parallels. It makes good sense, and can be easily verified from the text.