Preaching in Living Color
To minister effectively in the 21st century, we need to move beyond colorblind preaching.
When I see people, I don’t see color.”
Maybe you’ve heard this said, or you’ve spoken these words yourself.
This statement means well by trying to convey that all people are the same, regardless of the color of their skin. Yet there are at least three problems with these words — even when uttered with good intentions:
- God created all people with distinct races and ethnicities for His pleasure.
- Those in the majority can choose not to see color, because the systems of power and privilege in the U.S. benefit them.
- People of color do not have the freedom to choose colorblindness, because society constantly reminds them of their minority status and expects them to assimilate to the ways of the majority culture.
Candidly speaking, we in the Church are often no different from society as a whole. To put it more bluntly, we have a problem with race in American Christianity. We can choose to be blind to it or simply fail to talk about it in the context of the local church. But, we cannot deny it. It’s embedded in our communities, workplaces, schools and churches. This is a pervasive issue for all people, regardless of racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
I cannot solve our race problem in America or in the Church with this article, but I want to show us that so-called colorblindness is a fallacy. It goes against God’s plan and pleasure to create diverse people. To minister effectively in the 21st century, we need to preach God’s Word in living color. This article seeks to help preachers start to understand and to preach to the living colors and experiences of their listeners, to the glory of God.
Are You Living With Colorblindness?
In medical terms, colorblindness is the inability either to see certain colors or to distinguish between them (especially reds and greens). Not being able to distinguish between, for example, blues and greens may not be all that consequential. However, the inability to differentiate between green and red could have life-and-death consequences for drivers. Despite the danger, a colorblind person might go an entire lifetime without a diagnosis unless someone points it out during an eye exam.
Likewise, many Christians live with unperceived spiritual colorblindness. I want to point out in a loving way that many pastors minister and preach with this kind of colorblindness. They interact with everyone the same way, with little consideration of racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic and other differences.
You may ask, “What’s the problem?” The truth is, colorblindness is a failure to love our neighbors as God created them, with their various differences. Instead, colorblind ministers expect everyone else to live, think and act like they do, and on their terms. Colorblindness often stems from being part of the majority culture, where everyone looks like we do. Some might call this a form of privilege.
When Christians live with a sense of privilege, we don’t allow ourselves to see and empathize with the pain of others, because their misfortunes and plight do not directly affect us. The call for the Christian, however, is to love others as Jesus loves us — both uniquely and sensitively. The irony behind the phrase, “I don’t see color,” is that color and gender are normally the first things we notice about an individual. Things like hairstyles, attire and height are usually secondary features. There’s a clear difference between not seeing color and not wanting to hear about, identity with, feel badly about, or help alleviate the pain, suffering and problems many people of color face.
Please don’t get me wrong! This is not a problem for one culture only. All people live with some form of colorblindness.
Beyond Universality to Particularity
Part of the problem in the American church is what we might call our “identity hierarchy.” In her book, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey, Sarah Shin describes a person named Eddy, an Armenian-American who said, “Ethnicity doesn’t matter to me because Jesus matters more.”
When thinking about these matters, we like to quote verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
These wonderful passages speak of our standing in Christ, but they don’t end the discussion regarding our individual experiences. Of course, Jesus matters more than our ethnicities. And we are all one in Christ Jesus, so there are no ultimate distinctions. However, just because there are universalities doesn’t mean that particularities are insignificant.
The gospel transcends all cultures, but cultures still have meaning, purpose and worth. To minister and preach to those who are different from ourselves, we want to value their universal identity in Christ and also their particular identities (ethnicity, culture, gender, etc.) enough to learn about them and love them toward Christlikeness.
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of seeing the color around us, and consider ways to remove colorblindness from our preaching. To begin the process of bringing color into the 21st-century pulpit and pew, I want to unpack a Scripture passage and see how preaching in living color impacts our understanding of the biblical text and how we can apply it to our listeners’ lives.
Interpret the Text in Living Color
It’s Monday or Tuesday morning, and you’re preaching on 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 next Sunday. There are several major themes in these verses. First, Paul tells us that in Christ we are new creations who should no longer live according to the flesh. Second, God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ. Third, He has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation and the message of reconciliation to share this good news with others. Fourth, God has called us to be ambassadors for Christ.
Depending on your ethnic/racial/cultural context, you may interpret the passage differently from another preacher. A standard reading of the text means we will read the passage from our own limited, particular, cultural background (even though our aspiration is to read it from the perspective of a Corinthian). We’ll also assume everyone should read and interpret a passage just like us. While we would agree that new life in Christ is possible with the aid of the Holy Spirit and everyone must be reconciled to God, the second two themes in this text present nuanced interpretations.
Colorblindness is a failure to love our neighbors as God created them, with their various differences.
One way we can interpret the passage in living color is to consider how someone in our church from a different ethnicity, race or culture might interpret the phrase “the ministry of reconciliation.” Is this reconciliation only vertical (i.e., our reconciliation with God) or is it also horizontal (i.e., our reconciliation with people)?
If we’re approaching the text as a person from any dominant church culture, we might think the reconciliation Paul requires is only vertical. We might think, Why would I need to try to reconcile myself with others? If they have a problem with me, they need to come to me first. Depending on how we view ourselves, we may not sense the need to be ministers of reconciliation. The act of pursuing reconciliation takes self-awareness and humility.
A second interpretive question is: What does it mean that we are ambassadors for Christ? “Ambassador” can mean different things to different cultures. Some might read the word and think of ambassadors in the U.N. keeping and promoting harmony around the world. They may interpret “ambassador” as being the savior of other people and other cultures. Even further, some cultures may think this passage is advocating colonialism, depending on their cultural histories. “Ambassador” can take on a variety of meanings.
Interpreting the text in living color means not settling for the first interpretation based on our limited perspectives and experiences. The goal for preachers is to come to the same interpretation of a given passage based on what we believe the original author intended. This requires thorough exegesis (historical, grammatical, literary and cultural analysis) and prayerful submission to the Holy Spirit.
However, every person is a cultural being. We interpret the text through our own unique cultural lenses. That being said, we want to interact with those from other cultural backgrounds, asking them what this text means to them. They may have a slightly or completely different interpretation we would never be aware of if we didn’t take the time to ask. We cannot assume everyone interprets the passage exactly as we do. Interpret the text in living color.
Apply the Text in Living Color
In addition to interpretation, we want to apply the text in living color. Reconciliation in Christ extends beyond simply sitting next to people from different ethnicities and cultures in the pews during Sunday morning worship services. Racial and ethnic reconciliation, in particular, is manifested by unrelenting and conscientious acts of metanoia — seeking repentance, asking forgiveness and experiencing changed attitudes toward others.
Racial and ethnic prejudices do not escape us completely. Rather, like dormant viruses, they break out in moments of fleshly weakness. True reconciliation requires us to do uncomfortable things.
For instance, as a Korean-American, born and raised in the United States, what does it mean for me to be reconciled to God and to my neighbor? What kinds of questions does this text raise for me as an ethnic minority person? To whom must I be reconciled?
Three years ago, our family experienced unspeakable tragedy as my younger brother, Tim, was brutally murdered in the Philippines just after his 36th birthday. This tragedy colors the unique lens through which I now see the world. In my heart, I harbor at times unforgiveness and resentment toward Filipinos. In my pain, I have struggled with bringing the ministry and message of reconciliation to Filipinos because of what happened on their soil.
Similarly, white Americans may read this text and say they need God’s help to be a messenger of reconciliation to Muslims in America or those of other racial/ethnic groups with whom there is a rift in relationship. And so on. Being an ambassador for Christ can similarly apply to different cultures in diverse ways.
Does being an ambassador for Christ necessitate moving overseas as a full-time missionary? To whom does God call me to be His ambassador? These are some of the applicational questions I want to ask myself as I minister and preach in living color.
When we speak them from the heart, the phrases “I’m sorry” and “forgive me” are among the most powerful in the English language. In our culture of entitlement, we seldom speak apologies to one another, even when our actions and words have splintered relationships.
Even in the pulpit, preachers veer away from saying “sorry” or asking for forgiveness, in fear that these rueful phrases might somehow diminish their capacity for leadership. Yet when it comes to ethnic and cultural differences, overcoming misunderstandings, misplaced uses of humor and attempts toward reconciliation, no words may possess greater weight or build more trust.
Racism is a systemic problem. Every person struggles at certain points with racist thoughts and prejudiced actions, and that includes preachers. What would it mean for our listeners to hear a heartfelt apology from their preacher who has in some tangible or subconscious way revealed a racist heart?
Living with colorblindness is not really an option in the 21st century — especially for Christians. By some estimates, humans are capable of seeing more than a million different colors and shades of color. Why would we, then, settle for seeing a world without color?
God has similarly created a world consisting of people from a wide range of colors and cultures. They live in our communities and worship in our churches — sometimes with great regularity. We can continue to preach, teach, minister to them and disciple them as if their races, ethnicities, cultures and distinctions don’t exist or don’t matter. Or, we can embrace and celebrate who they are, as God has created them to be.
Preaching in the 21st century means preaching in living color. This is just the beginning of a conversation that I hope will continue and grow in our churches, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and other places where people gather. Preaching in living color means acknowledging how we, and others, read and apply the text.
As we learn what it means to see and live in color, we will make mistakes. We will be awkward. We will stare. We will offend. We will cry. We will feel frustrated. We will want to give up.
But Jesus never said it would be easy to follow Him. He calls us to the ministry and message of reconciliation. I believe He even calls us to — dare I say it — enjoy one another’s differences. May we smile, laugh, embrace and become curious enough to learn new things.
As you sit in your study this coming week, ask the Holy Spirit to show you practical ways to see and preach in living color. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish with His help.
As we attempt to live out this reality in our congregations, we may get a foretaste of heaven as depicted in Revelation 7:9 — to God be the glory!
Portions of this article were excerpted and adapted (with permission) from Chapter 6 of Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons (Baker Academic, 2017). The article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Influence magazine