Trusting Eric's discernment, I've probably reached the point where I need to get past lament and offer some thoughts aimed more clearly at solution. And to do that, I want to be as "bare-bones" about it as I can. And to do that... let me simply ask and answer the question, "Ideally, what kind of church would I really, really like to belong to or pastor?"
Here are my answers in descending importance. "I would really, really like to belong to or pastor a church where":
1. The gospel of Jesus Christ is faithfully preached each Lord's Day and consistently applied to the Christian and non-Christian. I would love to belong to a church or pastor a church where the teachers "bring da Word," rightly divided, in season and out of season, where the Gospel is proclaimed and protected by leaders and members who search the Scripture.
2. People love radically. Across class, ethnic, language, political, citizenship status, gender, generational and every other natural division. A church of deep and wide fellowship between members, not just on Sundays but daily from house to house and in the workplace. Rejoicing together, mourning together, bearing with one another, receiving the weaker brothers, laying down liberties. A church where the watching world says, "Yep... those folks must be Jesus followers. Surely God sent Jesus to save the world. Look at how they love!"
3. The saints are called up into heaven or call heaven down in prayer. Put me in a church where the people of God call on the God of the people day and night with fervency, expectation, and joy.
4. People are growing and are concerned to help others grow. The fruit of the Spirit are evident and lasting. The brances are abiding in the True Vine. Bible knowledge increases, but so too does obedience to what the Bible teaches, and all without arrogance or being puffed up.
5. Clear, healthy, loving distinctions are kept between those professing faith in Christ and those not professing faith. I'd love to belong to a church that owns its responsibility for knowing the spiritual state of its members and for calling its members to live holy lives depending upon God's gracious aid.
6. Members are zealous in doing good. A church where members are first focused on the needs of the body and secondly the community. Where there are no limits to their generosity, compassion, and commitment to serving others. And the one good they do at all times is spread the Good News to every creature.
7. Family worship is modeled and practiced by all with families. Where Christianity is not a solo sport and nor is it a public, pay-per-view event but is practiced in homes when no one is watching but the children and the Lord. Where seeds are planted and watered by fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and God gives abundant increase in the conversion and discipleship of young people.
8. Missions is a high priority budgetarily and in individual personal decisions.
Okay... this is the church I'd love to join or pastor. Right about now, the old joke is ringing in my head. "If you find a perfect church, don't join it. Because if you do, it won't be perfect anymore." There are probably other things I'd consider in some measure, but I think this is the meat. And I think this would be a bare-bones, Christ-centered corporate body. Now, to return to Eric's question....
Nothing is said in this list about culture or ethnicity. How much of our cultural identity (black, white, Asian, etc.) needs to be put aside and how much retained? We need put aside everything that hinders the 8 items above, in my opinion. If these 8 things are more or less indicative of the agenda of Jesus in the Church, His body, and if anything associated with our identity hinders any of these eight things, then our "identity" has crossed a very wide and important line.
I receive a fair amount of email from good white brothers in the Lord asking, "How much should I be willing to do to accomodate non-white attenders and members in the church?" And I get an equal amount of mail from good black brothers in the Lord asking, "How much of my culture should I give up in order to join predominantly white churches?" (Notice how both questions arc in the same direction... blacks joining white churches. I almost never get these same questions from the vantage point of whites joining black churches).
The answer in both cases is the same, I think. Accomodate or give up as much as is necessary to live like Jesus in the church, as much as is necessary to live out these eight things (or some similar but better defined list).
Make no mistake. The cost of doing this is quite high--especially for ethnic minorities joining predominantly white churches (again, that's the direction most of this conversation takes. I assume there may be similar costs for white brethren joining predominantly black churches; I just don't have any real data). We might measure the costs on an increasing scale that looks something like this:
- Mild discomfort at being "the only one."
- A sense of alienation triggered by "foreign" or "white" music styles, sermon illustrations, or jokes
- Loss of genuine fellowship and friendship with other Christians at the "white church"
- Family mildly, half-jokingly questions your racial identity or loyalty to the community
- Family and "friends" reject you as "too white"; loss of significant friendships and relationships in your native community and your "white church"
- Troubled self-perception; internalized self-hatred as an ethnic minority
- Isolation, misunderstanding, fear and in some cases depression
- Parents watch their children experience pains of confused ethnic identity
My white brethren need to understand that these are real costs experienced by the brave who would live, love and labor together across ethnic lines, and that a staunch, uncritical adherence to "white" (misread, "neutral") cultural styles is inflicting unnecessary harm on their brown brethren. My black brethren need to trust God that the potential costs will be met (if not in this life time, then in glory) with staggering rewards and crowns of rejoicing. More of my white brethren need to experience these costs and take these risks of faith by joining predominantly black churches instead of driving by half a dozen to find the nice suburban white church. More of my black brethren need to actively seek non-blacks to be a part of their spiritual family. All of us need to risk as much as we can for a vision of a reformed church where all nations are welcomed and loved.
The cost is high, but great are the rewards if we by God's grace can live this way.
I've stayed away from discussing corporate worship (music styles and singing) in pretty much all the posts I've written on race and culture and the church. Eric politely called me on it :-) I've stayed away from it because (a) it's emotional and explosive for many, often leading to unproductive conversations, and (b) I don't think it's really the issue that matters most. In other words, if we really wanted to live like Jesus would have us live in the church, we'd figure something out. We wouldn't mind singing something from 16th century Europe or Latin America or a hymn in Swahili from East Africa (groups ranging from Selah to Donnie McClurkin have figured out how to do this) as long as it celebrated and exalted our one Jesus.
I'm musically illiterate, but I sing just about everything except that rock stuff (I don't get it... where's the beauty?). I've learned to enjoy most classical. Hymns of the Reformation are cool. Mahalia Jackson is still the queen. Fairfield Four... Gaithers... Mercy Me... Budy Jewell... Peter Tosh... Dinah Washington... Marian Anderson... Kathy Trocolli... Phillips, Craig and Dean... Albertina Walker... Kurt Carr. This is a partial list of the artists I'm looking at in my bookshelf right now. Half the folks aren't "native" to me, culturally speaking. But there's much I've learned to appreciate. And learning to appreciate is another way of saying learning to love. And perhaps that's what's missing in our churches when it comes to Christ-centered reform and questions of culture... we've not yet learned to love the way Jesus loves.
At the end of the day, my hunch is that our churches are not integrated--not because our cultural heritages are so intractable and music styles so divergent--but because we're not even trying. We have all the omnipotent aid of heaven to sustain us in our efforts and an omniscient wisdom to guide us in our thinking. There's really no excuse; we're complacent in our cultural enclaves. It's to the church's shame that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball before the church has integrated. It's to our shame that Brown v. Board integrated public schools before the churches have integrated. It's to our shame that the military beat us to it by several decades. It's to our shame that unregenerate men have made more progress on at least co-existing in the same space than the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ has made on loving across boundaries.
I want to join a church so deeply marked by those eight things above that cultural reforms in the church, if not easy, are at least considered an essential part of what it means to be the body of Christ. What parts of the imago dei in darker hue will remain? I suspect the parts that have nothing to do with hue... but with love, peace, reconciliation, and union with Jesus. I also suspect that will be costly.