the shape of leadership

Four Ways Church Leaders Can Inspire Racial Healing

Ministering Christ’s love to hurting communities

It is clear to pastors and faith leaders that social conditions in the United States have reached a critical point. Numerous factors are coalescing that have led to a rapid escalation of national turmoil.

In medicine, this phenomenon is called co-morbidity, where multiple diseases or variables combine to catalyze an eruption of sorts.

We are five months away from a consequential presidential election, which means the toxicity infusing our partisan political environment is intensifying. What’s more, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100,000 Americans have died and millions have lost their jobs.

Surveys from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate more than one-third of people are wrestling with clinical anxiety and depression.

Meanwhile, churches are struggling with the pressures and logistics related to regathering for live worship services.

Tension is mounting daily as protesters continue to march in U.S. cities from New York to Los Angeles and in global cities from London to Sydney. In recent weeks, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have brought us to an undeniable reckoning and national/global inflection point.

How can pastors respond in a way that is faithful to the gospel and speaks to these circumstances in our various contexts and communities? We are proposing four things ministers can do. This list is not exhaustive, but it may act as a plausible start for some.

1. Acknowledge

First, we urge clergy and churches to be honest and acknowledge our present reality. Americans are hurting. Your congregants are suffering. In fact, everyone, regardless of skin color, is hurting in some way, shape or form — and some are grappling with unimaginable trauma and despair.

Floyd’s death is particularly jarring because it strikes multiple, deep chords. It highlights the nagging systemic inequities that plague visible minorities in too many of our cities and communities.

We don’t claim here to comprehend the pain and suffering of black and brown communities in America. Yet one thing is clear: All Christians (including white Christians) must come to terms with the sins of racism, xenophobia, prejudice and ethnocentrism, which remain strongholds in our nation. Such things break the heart of God and do not reflect His kingdom values.

Churches need to come together to talk, pray and brainstorm ways to fight against racism in our towns and cities.

Viewers watching the video of Floyd’s death experience a similar sense of helplessness and shock that the immediate witnesses appear to feel and express. You can hear the bystanders panicking in disbelief, swearing in anger and agony, and begging the officers to relent.

Yet the officer continues to press his knee into George’s neck while he cries out in pain, pleading for mercy and relief. Horrifyingly, minute after minute ticks by until Floyd’s body goes limp. Let’s pause, breathe, and acknowledge our sadness and righteous anger.

For many, the pain of this tragedy is compounded by a report from Christianity Today that Floyd was a Christian who had served in ministry in Houston. While God values every life equally, the deaths of believers often leave significant craters in our churches and communities.

2. Lament

A second way pastors can respond during this chaotic season is by helping people grieve and lament in a healthy, redemptive and Christ-centered way. In Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, author and professor Soong-Chan Rah writes this:

Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. … Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering … [it] recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against injustices.

We can direct our attention to our Great High Priest — whom Isaiah describes as “a man of suffering and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) — and express our pain, anger and anxiety in a constructive way.

Now, more than ever, let’s make it our priority to invite Christians to gather (online or socially distanced) for united prayer. To be clear, prayer is not for passive people or victims. For example, on May 17, 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. led a prayer pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his words, the purpose was to “arouse the conscience of the nation in favor of racial justice.”

Our ultimate example is Jesus, who practiced lamenting prayer. He lamented the loss of his friend Lazarus (John 11:33-42). He lamented over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus lamented the price He would pay for all of us (Luke 22:39-46).

If we don’t take our angst to God, we may be tempted to vent it upon others in all kinds of unfruitful ways, ranging from ranting on social media to violent confrontation and destruction of property.

This is a moment where God’s people must step into the hole of despair that threatens to swallow our nation.

As Christians, we must remind ourselves this kind of behavior is sinful. It contradicts our identity as God’s “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) who exist to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). It does not contribute to the common good or flourishing of our society.

We should also remember we worship the innocent and sinless Lamb of God, who was slain for our sins. Jesus willingly endured injustice on our behalf, and He alone is worthy to judge and to save (Revelation 5).

3. Challenge

A third way pastors can respond to our divided and chaotic environment is by challenging parishioners to incarnate and proclaim the message, ministry and identity of reconciliation.

This sermon comes straight from 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. Here are some recommended preaching points:

  • We are motivated to persuade others out of respect for the Lord.
  • “Christ’s love compels us” because Jesus “died for all.” God’s redemptive love does not discriminate; Jesus died for every race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and so forth.
  • We reject all forms of sinful bias because “we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
  • The body of Christ, in all its diverse beauty, is one. “The new creation [singular] has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
  • God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” It is the mantle of every Christian and every local congregation to enact this ministry, in the here and the now … especially right now. Churches must get off the sidelines and into the middle of the hurt and live as God’s kingdom people marked by faith, hope and love. Our presence and voice matter.
  • God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” We are stewards of a precious gift entrusted to us by God: the gospel of reconciliation. We must proclaim it and embody it, albeit imperfectly.
  • Perhaps most tangibly, reconciliation becomes a part of our identity. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” We represent the values of our King and His new creation to our present world, a world influenced by “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). God’s kingdom is characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

Simply put, we must be the ones to offer empathic caring, listening and prayer. Then, as the opportunity presents itself, we can speak of how the gospel brings restoration to our fractured lives and communities.

The flip side of 2 Corinthians 5 is that we must gently but firmly confront congregants who inflame racial or ethnic tensions through insensitive comments or behavior.

Case in point: Whenever social media posts are negative, sarcastic, victim-blaming or outright racist, pastors should call it out in a loving manner. It is at the discretion of the leader whether this is done behind the scenes or directly.

Ephesians 4:14-32 is clear the litmus test for our speech is whether it promotes maturity and edification. Conversely, this text prohibits “unwholesome talk,” as well as “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” If that doesn’t describe a large swarth of social media content, we don’t know what does!

4. Engage

A fourth way pastors can address our many dysfunctions — including the death of Floyd — is through peaceful protest and various forms of civic and political engagement.

To be sure, this is a vast spectrum because each congregation must do this prayerfully, discerningly and in accordance with their theological and denominational tradition.

Given our turbulent climate, we strongly recommend churches consider multiethnic and multidenominational prayer gatherings near civic institutions, like city halls. This allows congregations to protest racism in a peaceful way that points our world to the justice, goodness and sovereignty of the triune God.

It also witnesses to the unity and diversity within the body of Christ and acts as a signpost of the new creation, where “every nation, tribe, people and language” worships the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-10).

Speaking prophetically for a moment to the Asian American community, Asian American Christians need to stand with our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are silent, we are equally complicit and perpetuate the very things we despise.

Make no mistake: This is a moment where God’s people must step into the hole of despair that threatens to swallow our nation. Far too many of our governmental and business leaders are MIA or lack the resources to do what’s necessary to foster cohesion and calm. We cannot afford to waste precious time blaming them (or others) or waiting for God to intervene.

Why? The truth is, God has already intervened. Jesus Christ entered our dark, violent and fractious world to communicate the love and healing God desires to bring. And before He departed this lovely but sorry planet, Jesus handed His mantle, His commission, to us. Right before He left, he told us to go. Jesus also promised to be with us and to send the Holy Spirit to empower us.

We have what we need. We just need to follow Jesus’ example and execute His plan.

As the Spirit leads you, with wisdom, seek reconciliation and unity for Jesus. Fight against individual and systemic racism. Do it for His church. And do it to honor the lives of George Floyd and others Jesus died to save.

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