After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The apostle John, isolated on the Greek island of Patmos, had been given a vision of the future—a revelation—of what was to come. Before his mind a picture of phenomenal magnitude was unfolding; a gathering in heaven in which the multitudes of humanity (from every people group) stood together as one unified body worshiping Jesus Christ, their Lord and their Savior:
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; NKJV).
Through one blood (the sacrifice of Christ), God is calling people from every tribe and language and people and nation to create a new family by grace to the praise of His glory. In heaven, the celestial city will be a cosmopolitan society void of the sin of the first Adam. There will be no night, for the Lord himself will be their light. Every tear will be wiped away, and the grace of God and the Lord Jesus Christ will reign.
This is our future. This is the destiny of the Church—and the Church today can be an earthly preview of this heavenly reality.
Do we dare to dream that the Church can move beyond divisions of Darwinian “race” relations to the unity of grace relations? Loving relationships united by the Cross and governed by the Bible lead to reconciliation. Such relationships among Christians across cultural and ethnic backgrounds are like a neon sign publicizing that grace has transformed and identified us as followers of Christ (John 13:34–35).
A multicultural congregation is a group of Christians in which “no one people group accounts for 80 percent or more of the membership.”1 Far from being a preview of the heavenly reality, however, less than 6 percent of the churches in the United States can be classified as multicultural. These statistics can bind one in the dark prison of discouragement, despair, or denial. We seem bound by a tainted history of dysfunctional relationships. Does the church dare dream of the dawning of a new day? Must the present statistics be the concluding chapter of Church history? I don’t believe so. God desires through grace to paint a far more colorful picture than the present statistics suggest!
History is still being written by the hand of God through His people. The defining image of the Church of the 21st century is yet to be determined. Grace can loose the chains of dysfunctional relations and weave a beautiful tapestry of multicultural churches. Grace can make the 21st century the generation of reconciliation.
It is critical that the Church pursue grace relations rather than “race” relations. Grace (God’s Reconciliation at Christ’s Expense) offers a healthy foundation for dealing with the sins of the past and the alienation of the present as well. Grace relations are built upon forgiveness and the intentional pursuit of peace, trust, unity, and loving relationships because of Christ. The Church must move beyond society’s blame and shame game. The anger, distrust, and polarization of such a philosophy are very apparent today—but it need not remain so.
Just as John saw a heavenly vision of the Church, I’m calling for the pursuit of a new biblical dream: an earthly Church community of a diverse and once-divided people now growing in trusting and loving relationships (Romans 15:1–7). It is a dream that God’s grace can make a reality. We must be courageous enough to dream that the wisdom and love of God can be manifested and recognized through the Church (Ephesians 3; John 13:34–35). This is the dream of grace relations.
The grace relations D.R.E.A.M. consists of:
- Dreams inspired by Scripture
- Reality check-ups
- Expectations of challenges
- Applications within local context
- Measurable subsequent steps.
It is a dream of a journey that begins on earth and ends in heaven. In this chapter we will try to capture that dream of the future while making a realistic assessment of our current situations and counting the costs of expected obstacles and challenges. Then, in the final chapter, we will again seek to be “doers of the word” as God calls us to specific applications and measurable steps.
Dreams Inspired by Scripture
The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor stands as a powerful symbol of the United States of America’s desire for oneness with diversity. Even more powerful are the words inscribed on it:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!2
These are powerful words, but the symbol and words of grace are more powerful than those of the Statue of Liberty. The cross of Christ is grace’s symbol and the words inscribed on the page of Scripture state, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Heaven will be a diverse community. Citizens of heaven will include representatives from different ethnic, gender, cultural, economic, educational, social, geographic, and national backgrounds. Heaven will be a diverse but peaceful society with loving relationships created through Christ. Grace to forgive through the Cross and transformation through the truth reunites and heals those whose relationships were broken by sin (Ephesians 2:14–22). The Cross reminds us that such unity did not come easily or cheaply.
The Church needs to live up to the symbols and words of grace. God has called individuals to lead His Church to pursue the heavenly reality of a diverse grace community on earth—and it will not come easily or cheaply. But the fact that the grace relations dream began in the mind of God and that He implants it in the hearts of His people through the Bible should encourage dreamers. God revealed the dream to the apostle Paul who was given the ministry of reconciliation and grace relations (Ephesians 2–3). God is still saving and calling people by grace to a ministry that takes the racially alienated and creates families of grace. Grace transformed a separated believing Jew into a humble messenger of the gospel to a household of Gentiles (Acts 10–11), and grace continues to move this way.
People who will intentionally cross the boundaries of racial solidarity and reunite the family of God are needed today. Christians from diverse backgrounds must be brought into social relationship with each other. That’s an essential part of our dream at Crossroads Bible College.3 We envision that as leaders are trained in a biblically diverse environment, many will catch the dream and become agents of God in creating and/or serving in a grace relations movement. At the time of this writing, the college is 52.5 percent “white,” 47.4 percent “black,” and .02 percent “other.” The college also has a diversity of generations and gender: 2 students under age 19; 10 students age 19–25; 35 students age 26–40; 45 students age 41 and over; 62 percent male and 38 percent female. Additionally, both the staff and board of trustees model diversity.
The dream is becoming a reality. Jeremy Crowe, for example, came to Crossroads Bible College from Purdue University. Jeremy grew up in a rural “white” community. While at Crossroads, the dream was stirred in Jeremy for multicultural urban ministry. Jeremy served as an intern with Armitage Baptist Church, a multi-ethnic urban work in Chicago. After graduation from Crossroads, he became a part of the Armitage staff, led an urban church plant, and married a godly sister from the Philippines. God’s grace transformed Jeremy into a grace relations agent.
God’s dream is born when the seed of the Word of God is conceived in the heart of a believer. Those seeds are powerful things. When the dream is nurtured in a diverse body that pursues love, grace relations flourish—and a new type of garden is established. While Darwin’s garden was planted in the thin soil of preconceived racist thoughts and incomplete scientific observations, Grace relations are a dream rooted deeply in the heavenly dream as recorded in the Bible. But there is still much to do.
It still can be said without refutation that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday is the most culturally and ethnically segregated time of the week. For many believers, multicultural churches are not a priority. Some see such a pursuit as distracting, impractical, and simply a mimicking of society’s misinterpreted concept of tolerance. Therefore, a multicultural church movement is for some, at best, distracting and, at worst, a deception that unravels the moral fabric of the church. Nevertheless the rapidly changing demographics within communities are challenging churches to relocate, die, or seek to live out the biblical dream of a diverse church.
Another reality is that many “white” believers who share the dream are confused and/or ignorant of how to begin or transition into a multicultural church. For the last 36 years I have been engaged with the issue of reconciliation in a variety of ways: speaking, writing, consulting, etc. I have observed numerous misconceptions of well-meaning believers seeking to promote multicultural churches (see appendix B for a list of my observations). Although the motivations are often pure, a lack of understanding has led to plans that failed.
One pastor facing the reality of his lack of understanding sought the necessary wisdom for transitioning his church into a multicultural congregation. Near Fort Wayne, Indiana, Chris Norman has been leading Grace Gathering Church through a transition from a monocultural congregation to a multicultural church. His doctoral dissertation is designed to help him discover practical wisdom concerning the transitional process. After discussing the need for intentionality and the development of a multicultural environment, Norman developed the following ten traits of a multicultural church:
- Fueled by theological and demographic need
- Owned by leadership and embraced by the people
- Representative leadership
- Understanding unity, not uniformity
- Inclusive worship
- Reconciliation and otherness
- Developing lasting relationships
- Communicating cross-culturally
- Overcoming opposition and counting the cost
- Persevering for the long haul
These ten traits explore some of the areas that others have not understood, with the consequence of broken dreams. The reality is that God’s grace can restore broken dreams . . . and for those who are willing to try again, God is still in the business of making dreams a reality.
Expectations of Challenges
Greg Enas shared the following account of his personal journey in becoming an agent of grace relations:
I was born and grew up through age 16 in Berkeley, California. This time period included all of the 60s and the early 70s—a time of cataclysmic change in America, and it seemed all eyes were fixed on the Berkeley/Oakland nexus for radical change and social disruption. I lived in a racially integrated neighborhood that was a buffer zone between the predominately African-American sector west of “the tracks” and the University of California neighborhood up in the hills.
I did not know I was a white kid until that fateful day in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I will never forget the schools emptying out early that day upon receiving that news. The black kids went on a rampage, running through the streets and inciting violence and mayhem. From that day on, many of my black friends began to distance themselves from me and started acting and dressing like the upstart Black Panther Party that was headquartered nearby.
The few black friends that stuck by me took abuse from their friends for hanging with that “[expletive] white [expletive].” I would look out of our front window each day before school making sure the coast was clear of roaming gangs and then take off running toward the relative safety of school (compared to that being found on the street!). I and many of the white kids in school were threatened regularly. Whites began to leave the neighborhood. My family could not flee to the suburbs, so we stuck it out. I remember pointing to the darkest freckles I could find on my arms and asking God, “Why didn’t you make me that color?”
God answered that prayer by showing me His grace was sufficient for me in my weakness. I learned to pour my heart out to God as a junior high student, crying out the prayers of David in the Psalms to the Lord. God gave me a soft heart towards my oppressors, for in Christ I saw the answer. Berkeley was the first major American school system to use buses to achieve racial integration. All it did was bring groups to the same school who would immediately go their own segregated ways. All else that the system tried to do to achieve societal harmony failed. While man tried to solve the “skin” problem and failed, I truly saw that only Christ could solve the “sin” problem and succeed.
A few of my black friends and I were involved with Boys Brigade at our urban church and we experienced the sweet fellowship of knowing Christ. God allowed me to forgive my tormenters and gave me a heart for the poor and oppressed. I have had the privilege of serving Christ in the inner city . . . helping to start up and lead an urban, Christ-centered school that provides a classical education to kids from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Though the road has been very hard, the fear and anger pronounced, and the heartbreak real, I simply say with Joseph that what “you meant for evil, God meant for good,” for it is all about the saving grace of Christ, the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings that confounds the wise, ransoms the captives, and sets them free.4
Those who don’t expect challenges often face disillusionment. One might reason that if the dream is from God, attested by His Word, and the victory is by grace, then grace relations should be easily established. The truth is that one should expect the path to victory to be impeded by opposition rooted in confusion, confrontation, and personal comfort.
Confusion can cloud the mind, especially during times of failure or defeat. Many dreamers during lonely moments question the biblical accuracy of the dream:
- What is wrong with people desiring to befriend and worship with people from their own ethnic and cultural background?
- Why did so many fundamental/evangelical leaders believe that the Bible supported racial segregation?
- Why are my parents so opposed to integrated churches?
- Why have my attempts to find a friend from another ethnic group failed?
- Why do members of my people group consider me a sellout or a traitor simply because I seek to build friendships with those of another background?
- Why am I being blamed for attitudes and actions of which I had no part?
- Will promotion of diverse churches lead to moral confusion within the Church?
- Will “my people” be taken advantage of through integration?
- Why are there so many people who look like me in my church?
Grace victories are often preceded by periods of confusion and setbacks. Celestin is a Hutu from Rwanda. In 1994, Tutsis killed 7 members of his family and 70 members of his church. As a Christian, Celestin, who married a Tutsi, was confused by the call of grace to seek out members of the Tutsi tribe to offer forgiveness. At his first attempt to offer forgiveness, Tutsis beat him and Hutus imprisoned him a traitor. Celestin is completing his doctrinal dissertation for Dallas Theological Seminary on forgiveness! He leads a ministry in war-torn African nations teaching leadership and reconciliation. Grace relations often call us to overcome the natural confusion of the circumstances that would naturally lead us to segregation!
Confrontation is another thing that the dreamer should expect. Some people will openly confront any attempts to unite the family of God across cultural and ethnic boundaries. One can expect, even in Bible-believing churches, that some people have an aversion to multicultural churches. I was told by an older gentleman that Ken Ham should not have invited me, a black man promoting reconciliation, to be part of the Answers in Genesis conferences.
Pastors have been shocked by leaders and church members who ultimately made it clear that they did not want people different from themselves in their churches. A new pastor was elated in the transition of a white suburban church and Christian school that was well known for its past racist attitudes. There was evidence of change both in their marketing literature as well as the growing diversity of the congregation. A year after rejoicing over these evident victories I sought to contact the pastor only to hear that he was asked to resign—the leadership did not agree with the direction the church was going. Another pastor invited me to speak at the dedication of the church’s new building. This pastor’s dream to build a multiethnic church was being realized. Many elements of a multiethnic church (committed leadership, clear vision, located in a diverse community, with a diverse staff, etc.) were all present. However, shortly after I spoke at the building dedication, the pastor was dismissed and the church split. Many in the church simply did not share the dream, and to some it seemed like a nightmare.
Confrontations from those who oppose the dream may take many forms. People may withhold their tithes or leave the church. Some individuals may seek to gather a group to resist change. Others make known the impracticality of the dream. Some leaders of a biblical multicultural dream have been publicly labeled and equated to those promoting secular tolerance, which lacks moral discernment.
The expectation of such confrontation can cause many to simply forsake the dream of grace relations or wait to get to heaven to realize it. The true dreamer, however, knows that confrontation is to be expected and they move ahead anyway.
“Comfort” is another barrier that should be expected. Most humans resist change, and some dreamers have the false expectation that Americans will quickly give up their personal peace and pleasure. Our differences threaten our comfort. Differing perspectives on education, economics, politics, and musical taste tend to create a tension in the church community. The rich and the poor, the suburban and the urban, the old and the young, the “black” and the “white,” all struggle to worship Christ together. In a politically polarized society, it can be uncomfortable, even in the Church, to be associated with people from the opposing political party. Music or so-called “worship wars” have resulted in everything from separated churches to churches with a variety of services (traditional, contemporary, etc.) within the same local body. It’s like learning to dance all over again—at first it feels awkward and toes get stepped on.
Those who dream of multicultural churches must be honest about these tensions. Diversity often pushes us outside of our “comfort zones.” But this should be embraced rather than avoided! By pushing our boundaries and stretching in new ways, we grow in areas that we never would have expected; we enjoy the pleasures and a richness in our expressions of faith that we never could have imagined in a mono-cultural experience.
Grace relations cannot be built on the foundation of self and group comforts. A grace relations perspective seeks to place the welfare of others above our personal comfort. Grace exercises the commitment and deference that mark healthy families. How often have parents’ schedules been filled with sports events, musical performances, etc., that were both inconvenient and boring except for the fact that their child was involved! Love for family members motivates us to sacrifice personal comfort and pleasure for others in the family.
Yes, there will be tension, and our faith will be stretched. But who knows what blessings await us if we place our trust in God’s grace? I know of a pastor whose faith was challenged when a member told him she believed God wanted her to reunite with her ex-husband—after being divorced for 16 years! After contacting her ex-husband, he told her that he was engaged, the wedding invitations had been mailed, and the honeymoon spot had been chosen! But to the amazement of all, the marriage was called off. In time, the pastor had the privilege of remarrying this African American couple. This remarriage was separated only by the death of the wife 16 years later.
What makes this such a “grace” story is that for years the husband attended atheistic meetings rather than church meetings. He harbored negative feelings and attitudes toward “whites” . . . but the love shown to the wife and her husband during the final days of her life by a predominantly “white” church resulted in a “white” man leading the husband to a profession of faith in Christ.
A believing wife sacrificed personal comfort in an effort to sanctify her unbelieving husband (1 Corinthians 7:13–16). A church was willing to reach across the so-called “racial barriers” with the genuine love of Christ. The result was a family reunited and a soul saved through grace.
Dreams inspired by Scripture, reality check-ups, expectations of challenges. . . . Grasping these three aspects of the dream prepare us for the road ahead—a road of action and opportunity, where the roots of Darwin’s garden are replaced with seeds of faith and love in the name of Christ.