Having attended every General Assembly of the PCA, I believe that our 2015 Assembly was a watershed, evinced by at least three actions. First, Dr. Lloyd Kim was elected as Mission to the World coordinator, the first non-Anglo to lead an Assembly-level ministry. Second, the seminar on “How to Advance Ethnic Outreach and Ministry” in the PCA provided a healthy discussion and valuable insights. The panel comprised Dr. Thurman Williams, pastor Al Guerra, Dr. Alexander Jun, and pastor Tom Anderson, and was moderated by Dr. Bryan Chapell. Third, the Personal Resolution on Civil Rights Remembrance offered by Drs. Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan III prompted earnest prayers and expressions of Christian love. The question remains, “How can we move forward on racial, ethnic, and cultural issues?” Sessions and presbyteries during the coming year will offer ideas on racial reconciliation. In this article I want to stimulate conversation and actions that will help the PCA move toward the goal of becoming a branch of the church on earth that more closely resembles the church in heaven, composed of ransomed people “from every tribe, language, people, and nation.”
Within a few years, according to predictions, there will be no ethnic majority in North America. Already some formerly majority Anglo metropolitan areas are “majority minority.” How can we regard that as a Gospel opportunity?
The challenge is complex and lifelong. We all have ethnic-cultural blinders. Every culture has an us-and-them mentality. When we migrate from one part of the globe to another, we take with us our cultural preferences (food, music, art, education, customs, sense of time, use of money, etc.) and prejudices (uneasiness with or even disdain for others different from us). Culture affects much of our worship, in the ways we sing, pray, preach, and the format or length of our services. Many cultural differences are just that, differences — they have no moral or theological bases. The problem is that we tend to elevate cultural practices or personal preferences to the level of theological orthodoxy without warrant. The issue is further complicated by the sin factor. Even though we are born again to become Christians, our spiritual maturity is imperfect in this life. Sin blinds us to personal sins or to the sins of our group and prompts us to focus on the sins of others. We delight in dwelling on the faults of other people or groups and overlook or justify our personal or collective shortcomings.
The solution is also manifold and long-term. Racial prejudice is not just a white problem; it is a human problem, a problem for people of all races, because of sin. Total depravity is not just a theological issue debated by academics. It is the tragic daily reality that both original sin and our personal sins affect the entire human personality — that is, how we think, how we decide, and how we emote or feel. Part of the expression of our depravity is racial prejudice. Part of our humanity is that we prefer to be with people who are most like us. Regeneration (being born again) affects the entire person (emotions, will, and intellect), but not perfectly. Though conversion is instantaneous, Christian growth is a lifelong process that is not perfect until we are glorified after death. A step toward a solution will involve repentance as individual Christians and groups of Christians with regard to any of our perspectives, attitudes, relationships, and actions that are sinful toward people of different ethnic-cultural backgrounds and also specific steps to bring about reconciliation. Prejudices are not easily or irretrievably overcome. Peter, an Apostle no less, and Barnabas, Paul’s fellow missionary, backslid into refusing to eat with Gentile fellow Christians, and Paul rebuked them for it (Galatians 2:11-14). So we will have to re-examine ourselves often to be sure our old prejudices do not control us.
The church is to be a mosaic of redeemed and transformed people from many cultures and ethnicities.
We need to become more aware of the cultural lenses through which we view life. Some preferences, perspectives, attitudes, relationships, and actions are not necessarily sinful, just different. At a General Assembly breakfast meeting for Korean pastors, both a Korean delicacy, kimchi, (pickled cabbage seasoned with garlic, ginger, and red pepper) and a Southern delicacy, cheese grits, were served. As an Anglo-Southerner I was able to explain the origins of hominy grits and why Southerners consider cheese grits a delicacy. The Korean brothers extolled the virtues of kimchi. Yet, due to our cultural preferences, the Korean brothers still like kimchi, and I still prefer cheese grits. Culture affects much more than just food. Culture shapes the way we look at all of life and relationships, including our lives in the church. Part of the solution is to realize that all of us come from cultures that have both positives and negatives. I could list some aspects of my English and German ethnic heritage and my Southern cultural heritage of which I am proud and other aspects for which I am embarrassed and even ashamed. A person of any ethnicity or culture could do the same.
Though there is a sense in which the confusion of languages was a providential judgment after Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), we recognize that in God’s Providence throughout history distinctive cultures have developed over time. The Great Commission requires the church to make disciples of all “the nations” (i.e., people groups, Matthew 28:18-20) that have populated this earth. The church is to be a mosaic of redeemed and transformed people from many cultures and ethnicities. Moreover, it appears that part of our redeemed humanity will have some ethnic-cultural aspects in the life to come (Isaiah 25:6-12; Luke 13:29-30; Revelation 5:9-10).
The first evening worship service at this year’s Assembly was rather Anglo, with traditional hymns sung in Germanic precision, accompanied by an organ and orchestral instruments. The second night we had more spontaneous African-American music. Thursday night we had Celtic-Bluegrass music (also known as Appalachian soul music, such as “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand”). The ethnic-cultural variety was refreshing. I recall a visit to Chile several years ago in which some churches I attended sang Psalms to the accompaniment of a mariachi band. Worship that is biblical and God-centered may be expressed through many cultural settings. Recognizing and appreciating the validity and value of other cultures and ethnic groups is essential to living, worshipping, and ministering together as Christians, especially as North America becomes “majority minority.” When we go on mission trips abroad, or when Christians from abroad minister in our churches here, we open up to other cultural expressions of worship and are more attuned to and accepting of our cultural differences. We are able to do that by realizing that the grace of Christ, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit that unite us are stronger than the human distinctions of race, culture, income, gender, or education that separate us. In our increasingly multiethnic society we will have to learn to live with a constant openness to ethnic-cultural differences.
The Apostle Paul became “all things to all men . . . to save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In order to do cross-cultural or multiethnic evangelism we will need to relate in culturally appropriate ways. In the approximately 14 years from Paul’s conversion to his first missionary journey, he not only spent three years in the desert being mentored by the Holy Spirit, he also returned to Tarsus where most likely he prepared in depth to do cross-cultural ministry to the Gentiles. Learning to love and minister to people who are different from us can be a painstaking process. It takes effort and persistence. The encouraging factor is that it is a skill that can be learned and an attitude that can be acquired. The motivating factor is to “save some,” to reach people with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We need to realize that there are special challenges in developing multiethnic/cultural relationships and ministry. My German ancestors assimilated into the dominant English culture of colonial America primarily by learning to speak English. They did not look any different from the British settlers. In our present culture we do not look the same. Moreover, not everyone wants to or has to jettison his or her ancestral language, traditions, and culture. The melting pot of America, where assimilation was the goal, is now a stewpot, where understanding and appreciation are paramount. It is appropriate that on a given Lord’s Day PCA churches will worship in Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Creole French, and other languages, not just in English. Some churches offer services in several languages. Some offer services in varying worship styles. Some groups of people have to deal more with lasting effects of their historical experience than other groups. Anglos do not automatically appreciate the long-term effects of the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that our African-American brothers and sisters face.
As this works out in the PCA, I think we will have some congregations that are monoethnic/cultural, and some will be multiethnic/cultural. But none should be exclusionary, and all churches will need to be deliberately and consistently Gospel-centered. Some towns and communities are and will remain monoethnic/cultural for various reasons. So the churches that serve those communities will continue to be composed of people who have similar ethnic heritage, speak the same language, etc. One of our largest churches is the Sa-Rang Community Church in Anaheim, California, of Korean Southwest Presbytery. The vast majority of its members are of Asian heritage. They minister in both Korean and English. Other churches will be much more multiethnic/cultural. Redeemer Church in New York City has an Anglo pastor (Dr. Tim Keller). The majority of the congregation is of Asian heritage. Dr. Stephen Um, pastor of Citylife Church in Boston, is of Asian heritage, but a large segment of his congregation is not. Pastor Michael Campbell, an African-American, served Redeemer Church, an ethnically diverse congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, and has recently become pastor of Old Cutler Presbyterian Church (Miami, Florida), which is even more diverse. Pastor Tom Anderson, an Anglo, is pastor of Strong Tower Fellowship, an African-American congregation in a generationally poor community in Macon, Georgia.
No church, whether mono- or multiethnic/cultural, should be exclusionary. Though I do not know of any church in 2015 that has a formal policy of excluding people of other races and cultures, many churches do so unconsciously. There are churches of many denominations that are “The Church of the Weekly Family Reunion,” where kinship is major. They are composed of several extended families. There are only two ways of becoming a welcomed part of such churches: being born into the church or marrying into the church. Outsiders are not officially shunned but are practically frozen out. Even if we do not have a Church of the Weekly Family Reunion, churches can unconsciously exclude people in many other ways so that newcomers do not feel they fit in and eventually drift away … unnoticed.
To be deliberately and consistently Gospel-centered is more than just having an open-door policy. A Gospel-centered church is a church where the Great Commission is a chosen lifestyle, not just a motto on the website; a church in which Christian fellowship, not family kinship, is the basis of community; a church that is outwardly focused, not ingrown; a church in which biblical worship is vital, not perfunctory; a church that is not a museum, but a hospital; a church that speaks the truth in love; a church in which Christians who lapse into Gospel-denying attitudes and practices as Peter and Barnabas did are challenged by other believers; a church in which people of other ethnic and cultural heritage, other political perspectives, and various income levels are not simply tolerated or allowed but sought out, welcomed, and involved.
May the Lord guide and enable the PCA to become a branch of the church on earth now that more closely resembles the church of the future in heaven.
Roy Taylor is stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly.