Race in Ministry

One thing this class has made clear to me is that race is real.  I’m not saying it’s real in any scientific or biological way, but real in the sense that people have different experiences in the United States, on account of their race.  Thus, when thinking about effective and biblical ministry, it needs to confront and deal with the reality of race.  Throughout this paper, I want to reflect on why we must be conscientious of race in ministry and how much we should focus on race.

I first want to reflect on why Christians should consider race when doing ministry.  I think one reason is because culture demands it of us right now.  Some Christians get weary of Christians getting too involved in cultural conversations and forgetting about the gospel.  Julie Park writes about how some IVCF students were afraid IVCF was getting swept up in the politically correct movement that was on their campus.  I understand the worry, but we can’t let fear paralyze us.  We must engage with culture without being consumed by it.  It’s important to call out culture when it’s wrong, but we should also affirm it when it’s right.  Throughout history, Christian leaders have engaged with culture with the intent to share and display the gospel.  The power of the gospel comes not from holding it as this disembodied concept, but when we show how it interacts and speaks to all peoples at all times.

Ministry needs to consider race because ministry is in the business of engaging with people and people are affected by culture; and talk about race is constant in our culture.  There’s also something to be said about when you care about what someone else cares about, it’s a way of letting them know you care about them.  So, engaging with conversations about race is a way to show the people who care deeply about these matters that you care for them, by stepping into their domain and interacting with them on their turf.  This is important because of the message of love that Christ preached.  If we love someone we will care for them and be interested in who they are, and a very clear way to show this to someone is to meet them where they are at.

The main motivating factor for being race conscious is the bible.  God shows his focus and delight in diversity with the miracle of Pentecost.  He could have chosen for the people to prophesy in one language and given the hearers the ability to understand that language.  Instead, the Holy Spirit chose to prophesy through them in multiple languages letting the people know that their language, i.e. culture and ethnicity, is welcomed in communion with God.

From Genesis to Revelations, God is declaring his care and love for all people groups.  In Revelations 7:9, we see all peoples worshiping God in their own tongues.  God cares about all peoples and their culture’s.  He doesn’t want to erase their differences, he wants to affirm them.  We find in Pentecost and Revelations 7 that God fosters and encourages diversity, and Galatians 3:28 reminds us that this diversity is not to cause division, for in Christ we are brought into unity amongst our diversity.

I’m convinced that there are many reasons, most importantly biblical reasons, to be actively aware of race when doing ministry.  That being said, how much should we pay attention to race?  How much focus is too much focus and how much is not enough?  I think an insightful way to approach these questions is thinking about the role race should play in our identity.  How should I see race in comparison to other aspects of my identity like gender, socio-economic location, age, sexual orientation, personality, and lastly as a child of God?  I think it’s the relationship between how race plays into your identity against how being a child of God plays into your identity that brings the largest sense of tension.

Should we see one as more important or more fundamental than the other?  Is one superior or primary over the other? Or, are they somehow equal, somehow related in a way that doesn’t require us to view one as subordinating the other? Truthfully, I don’t want to see my identity in Christ as being in competition with my racial identity.  Rather, I would prefer to see them as being in cooperation and intertwined together.  Unfortunately, I do think there are some verses that would challenge that and suggest a subordination of other aspects of my identity to the primacy of my identity in Christ.

If we read the two verses before Galatians 3:28 and read them all together, Paul is talking about how we are now children of God and clothed in Christ, and thus one in Christ.  I think there’s a real way that this passage is saying that all other parts of your identity come second to your identity in Christ.  In Philippians 3:1-14, we see Paul talking about the futility of having confidence in your flesh over what Christ has done for us.  One thing he brings up is his racial and ethnic background as a Jew, a “Hebrew of Hebrews”.  Now this verse is soteriological in the way it is speaking about righteousness, but I do think there is something to be recognized by the way being in Christ is held above his ethnicity.

I also feel this pull to subordinate my race and ethnicity to my “child of God” identity because of the creation story and the ascension.  In the creation story, God makes humanity in his image.  In the ascension, Christ’s ascension brings all of humanity into communion with the divine.  In the way I understand these concepts, they push me into seeing a strong emphasis on my generic human identity since they relate to humanity in general.  Thus, I would be a human first, then biracial (black and white).  But I must admit I’m plagued with the nagging question, maybe my race and ethnicity are infused in my humanity?  So, I can’t really be a human first and then biracial, but can just only be a biracial human.  The reality is that apart from surgery or a crazy disease, my humanity will always and has always been tied up with my biracialness.

Some think we need to pay attention to race so much that we should foster racial specific ministries and will point to verses like Galatians 2:8 for support.  In honoring the generations, the authors display disappointment in Christian resistance to ethnic and race specific congregations.  In When Diversity Drops, Julie Park shows the value that comes from ministries like BSM that allow racial groups to feel at home and not always like a spokesperson. To others though, racial specific ministries are over board and just reverse racism.

Where does all of this leave us? Honestly, I don’t know.  I do think it is undeniable that people have different life experiences specifically because of race.  This requires at least some attention to race when doing ministries.  If we don’t pay attention to people’s experiences, and the causes, we will never understand them.  But beyond that, I’m still trying to figure things out.  I think you can obviously focus too much on race and make race into an idol.  This shouldn’t scare us away from putting significant emphasis on race though just because there’s a possibility we may go overboard.  Our identity in Christ is top priority, but we may be doing harm if we try to disembody that concept and forget how our identity in Christ still includes the uniqueness of who we are, which I would argue also includes our race.

Bibliography

Park, Julie J. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Park, M. Sydney., Soong-Chan Rah, and Al Tizon. Honoring the Generations: Learning with Asian North American Congregations. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2012.

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