The day after a jury in Sanford, Fla., found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin on February 12, 2012, USA Today's front page story headline asked "After verdict, can racial rift be healed?"
So, let's ask the question again. After the verdict, can America's racial rift(s) be healed?
In a word: perhaps. But not unless local church pastors, planters and denominational leaders, throughout this country take seriously the need to address systemic segregation within their own local congregations.
Stated another way, racism is ultimately a spiritual problem. Consequently, systemic racial inequities in society cannot be righted until they are first righted in the American Church.
That said, ask yourself: why were evangelical leaders so glaringly absent from T.V. and cable news networks talking about the Zimmerman trial, both prior to and after the verdict was delivered? Why were we not included as part of panels and focus groups designed specifically to discuss the case, issues of race, and lingering cultural divides in America? Where was our collective voice; our faith-filled response; our invitation to become a bright light in the public square pointing the way forward beyond tolerance to love, beyond conversation to committed action and intentionality? Who among us was called upon to share the stories of diverse men and women finding genuine faith, hope, and love for one another in Christ; those now walking, working, and worshipping God together as one in and through healthy multi-ethnic churches?
The fact is, evangelical leaders were not sought out for such interaction or even considered for a seat at the table. Let me explain why.
The credibility of the American Church is virtually non-existent in the eyes of society when it comes to addressing racial rifts, systemic inequities, or cultural divides deeply affecting this country. In this regard, our absence from the discussion cannot be blamed on the Media. Rather, our lack of credibility and collective irrelevance is the result of our own faults and failures when it comes to building cross-cultural relationships, pursuing cross-cultural competence, and promoting a spirit of inclusion within the local church.
For far too long we have turned a blind eye to the lack of diversity within our congregations; proudly championed homogeneity in church planting; celebrated numeric growth and attendance more than community revitalization and transformation; encouraged the purchase of land and built new buildings instead of repurposing abandoned space in the community as a physical manifestation of the power and message of redemption; refused to empower minority leadership or to share authoritative responsibility in otherwise all-White churches; and the list goes on.
More than this, while the American Church continues to fawn over all things missional America remains polarized over all things racial. And since nearly 90 percent of churches in the United States today fail to have at least 20 percent diversity among their attending members, the American Church not only lacks credibility when it comes to issues of race but due to its own segregation unintentionally undermines the core of its message, the very Gospel itself. Worse yet, this remains a fact too many among us seem content to ignore.
Make no mistake: an increasingly diverse and cynical society is no longer finding credible the message of God's love for all people as proclaimed from otherwise segregated pulpits and pews.
Legislation and education, together with the efforts of countless individuals, groups, and agencies, have long sought to eliminate prejudice and the disparaging consequences of institutional racism still deeply embedded within society. Nevertheless, now is the moment to recognize that such a dream cannot be realized apart from the establishment of healthy multi-ethnic churches that intentionally and joyfully reflect the passion of Christ beyond race and class distinctions. For it is not the institutions of government or of education that have been ordained by God to this task. Rather it is the local church, the bride of Christ-we His people.1
To this end, we must will and commit ourselves: not so much for the sake of racial reconciliation, but more significantly for the sake of the Gospel; in order to present a credible witness of God's love for all people whereby diverse men and women are reconciled to God (and consequently to one another) through faith in Jesus Christ.
Concerning the movement of American Christianity toward racial reconciliation in the 1990s, author Chris Rice wrote the following profound words:
Yes, deep reconciliation will produce justice, and new relationships between the races. Yes this will lead Christians to become a bright light in the public square. But I have become convinced that God is not very interested in the church healing the race problem. I believe it is more true that God is using race to heal the church.2
For these and other reasons, the American Church dare not overlook this moment in history; a time when racial divides are so front and center, past and present pain so prevalent that even President Barack Obama weighed in spontaneously this week, arguing "…that the larger discussion of race belongs not with lawmakers in Washington but in living rooms, houses of worship, and workplaces."3 The time, then, is now to embrace the biblical mandate of the multi-ethnic church and pursue it for the sake of the Gospel.
Indeed it is Christ's will that we become one with believers different from ourselves in and through the local church, so that the world would know God's love and believe (John 17:20-23). As a by-product, racial rifts can be healed; systemic inequities dismantled; and cultural divides bridged. Only in so doing can Christ be lifted up in a demographically polarized and changing society. Only in so doing can the American Church be restored to a place of prominence in the minds and hearts of those outside its walls.
This is the power of unity.
This is the Gospel of Christ.