Bob Browning is a Research Structural Engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers. He holds a BS from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a MS from Auburn University, both in civil engineering. He is currently pursuing his MDiv online through Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family live in Clinton, MS and are members of Morrison Heights Baptist Church.
Unless you’re the proverbial ostrich with your head buried in some extremely soundproof sand then you’ll have noticed that our culture is talking about a lot of things. From sex to religious liberty and from state flags to states’ rights, the culture is definitely talking. And this seems all the more necessary in light of recent events. In spite of the multi-ethnic diversity that America proudly boasts, and in spite of the liberation that some thought would come with the election of the country’s first African American President, we are faced with the fact that old habits die hard. White supremacists still shoot black people. Black gangsters still kill each other. Pagans still burn churches. And the moral depravity of our culture isn’t limited to a specific socio-economic class – the evil practices being capitalized upon by Planned Parenthood is an all too painful reminder of this. In the midst of all this carnage though, the church of Jesus Christ is doing some spiritual housecleaning. It’s time to talk.
On July 16-18, 2015, the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) sponsored the Mississippi Black Church Leadership Conference under the theme, “Can We Talk?” My home church, Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, MS, was pleased to host the conference. The conference was much more than just a “black church” conference. Their aim was to address issues related to racial reconciliation, gospel collaboration, and missional discipleship – and I am happy to report that they did just that. The conference included four plenary messages and four breakout sessions covering a variety of topics. With the breakout sessions specializing in pastoral ministry, cross racial ministry, leadership development, and contextual evangelism – just to name a few – the worst part about the conference was having to choose between breakout sessions! The plenary lineup was composed of Dr. Kevin Smith (Teaching Pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY and Assistant Professor of Preaching at SBTS), Dr. T. Vaughn Walker (Senior Pastor of First Gethsemane Baptist Church in Louisville, KY and WMU Professor of Christian Ministries and Professor of Black Church Studies at SBTS), Dr. Kenneth Ellis (Senior Pastor of Northeast Community Church in Norcross, GA and Associate Professor in Christian Ministry and Moral Rehabilitation at NOBTS), and Dr. Jim Futral (Executive Director-Treasurer of MBCB). This Oreo quartet hammered the Word home for three days and I’m pretty sure the only disappointment in the conference was that more folks from around our state weren’t able to be there to enjoy such an awesome reminder of our unity in Christ and to receive such a biblical conviction that there’s still much work to be done. With that in mind, I’d like to share some 10,000-foot takeaways that were especially helpful to me.
Kevin Smith opened our time Thursday night by reminding us that before “we can talk” we have to talk about who the “we” is. And by the way – just for the record – this brother is a preaching machine! That just had to be said. So anyway, referencing Al Mohler’s theological triage, Smith urged broad gospel unity but cautious political activism, especially with respect to pastors. So, for some of us, we need to broaden our “we.” Paraphrasing his words, “Bible-believing Pentecostals are not your enemies!” Some of the “amens” on that were louder than others, but I would say our “amen” was unanimous. For others though, we may need to shrink our “we.” This has implications in so many different areas, such as how we speak out about marriage, gay rights, religious liberty, racial reconciliation, etc., as well as what venues we choose to speak in and what groups we choose to align with. So the next time you’re assessing your ministry and methodology in multi-ethnic communities, consider who the “we” is.
Given the theme of the conference, and being the stereotypical white dude, I spent my time in the breakout sessions on cross racial ministry. These sessions were well attended probably due to both the topic area and the fact that Kevin Smith was one of the teachers. Kevin’s co-teacher was Richard Taylor, an awesome brother doing SBC church planting work in Texas. In this session we dug deeper into issues of contextualization and what it takes to really develop true racial harmony in a church. One key point I took away is that ethnic diversity is not the means nor is it the goal. If we try to make it the means of growing our church then we are going to ultimately compromise something else or we are going to compromise true diversity. One way that true diversity gets compromised is when we replace pursuing ethnic diversity with cultural assimilation. The best way to guard against this is to become a student of the incoming cultures and actively resist any form of paternalism. And while we must guard against cultural assimilation, we must cultivate theological assimilation. However, we must also be careful not to elevate ethnic diversity over theological assimilation. The balance between valuing each distinctive culture and submitting to theological foundations is crucial. Swing the pendulum too far one way and we will force the minority group(s) to give up their cultural distinctions in the name of “theological issues,” which are really just cultural preferences. Swing it too far the other way and we will water down our theology so as not to offend sinful cultural norms. While it should be obvious to most of us that ethnic diversity is not the means for building the church, it is somewhat less obvious that ethnic diversity is not the goal – at least, it is not THE goal in and of itself. Rather, it is a product of the goal when you happen to be ministering in an ethnically diverse context. So if you live in Montana or New Hampshire and your church is all Caucasian that may be perfectly fine. But if you live in Mississippi then you might need to re-read the parable of the good Samaritan. But answering the question of how diverse a congregation should look is not always black and white (pun intended). We need to honestly assess who our neighbors are and ask ourselves if we are seeking to make disciples of all of them, or if there is a racial or socio-economic bias toward a particular subset. This brings us to the actual goal.
The goal of the church is to make disciples of all nations. This is Baptist Identity 101. But I fear it’s so simple that we’ve forgotten how massive this task really is. Sure, we throw around the numbers about unreached people groups when we’re trying to drum up Lottie Moon offerings. And we know how to point to the decline of churches in the U.S. when Annie Armstrong offerings are due. But then the other 363 days of the year we seem content to let our own church grow simply by affinity. Those that like how we do worship can come. Those that don’t – oh well, someone else will take care of that. An honest reading of Matthew 28:18-20 shows that this won’t fly. King Jesus has ALL authority, and he commanded ALL his disciples to make disciples of ALL nations and to teach them to obey ALL that he commanded (which includes the GC) and he assured them he would be with them for ALL time.
Our mission – the means and the goal – have been defined. We’ve been reconciled to God and we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). The assignment is clear. We cannot plead ignorance. When we stand before God to give an account, we will not be able to say, “Well, I would have made disciples of all the people around me, but…” No excuse will cut it. Richard Taylor drove this point home to me by comparing it to doing an assignment for a seminary class. You read the syllabus, you know the expectations, you write your paper, but you don’t fulfill all the expectations. Then you have the audacity to be mad at the professor when you don’t pass. But the failure isn’t the professor’s fault. And it isn’t because you didn’t understand the syllabus. In the end you can only blame yourself. At its core, the reason most of our churches are still segregated is disobedience to Christ’s command. Until we wrestle with this we won’t make any progress. Until we truly commit to doing the assignment as God has specified we don’t have any right to expect God to bless our ministries.
These are painful words to even type. My flesh is tempted to find the “backspace” button as quickly as possible because I know I have failed in much of this and apart from God’s grace I will continue to fail. But I want to repent of this. It won’t be easy. I expect there will be much more repentance to come. But I long to hear the Lord say, “Well done Bob. You’ve completed your assignment.”
May God give us grace in the days ahead to not just talk about these things, but to faithfully fulfill our mission in whatever context God has called us to.