Spiritual Formation: The Way Forward on Race & Reconciliation

They say Leadership is the great “both/and.” Leaders are not afforded the privilege to focus on one thing at any one time. You’ve heard the metaphor again and again—“She can’t see the forest for the trees.” The meaning is this. Too often leaders miss reaching for their vision because of the perplexity of today’s problems. They never see the beauty of the forest because they are often blinded by the mundanity of the trees.  

But any leader reading this right now, especially the Christian leader, has a valid argument. It goes something like this, “I don’t get to do either/or I’m called to do both/and. Rick, the only way I’ll see that forest is to talk these stubborn trees into realizing they are each a part of a bigger vision Jesus has for us.” You’re absolutely right. Leadership is the great “both/and.” Ours is the responsibility to tow the tension between today’s issues and tomorrow’s opportunities. That said, as our nation continues to grapple with the recent flash points surrounding racism and injustice, I’d like to posit at least one path for the way forward—Spiritual Formation.

I’ll get there in a minute. But any argument has to present the problem before the solution right? So here goes. 

We’re in a pandemic. And we’re largely at home. That means many of us have consumed more content in the last 5 months than we have the last 2 years. Articles. News shows. Talking heads. Podcasts. Webinars. Zoom calls. Our living rooms have become living zooms. And when it comes to conversations on racism I should hope that most of us Bible believing folks have experienced increasing frustration. Our rightful place as witnesses who should be shouting the gospel way forward for the world to hear has been eclipsed by slacktivist talking points that keep us immersed in division and thus a burgeoning tendency to not have these conversations at all. Sheesh! 

For 6 weeks now all I see is Screwtape writing to his nephew and fellow demon Wormwood with a devilish grin on his face. Because he knew that if we as Christ followers can get distracted we’ll never get determined. One of Lewis’s quotes come to mind as Screwtape, a senior demon, educates his young pupil on that time proven tactic of distraction, 

“…to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.” 

The point? Distracting us from the real conversation and the true way forward is the enemy’s most viable weapon. 

Here’s how distraction is playing out now in my opinion. There’s more debate about whether black lives matter or all lives matter. We’re rushing ahead with the politicized traps that have been set for us—like defunding the police and confederate flags. Don’t get me wrong. These discussions must be had.

But shouldn’t the real conversation go something like this? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about racism? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about systemic sin? What do Jesus and Scripture have to say about civil religion vs Kingdom Ethics? It’s astonishing that many of us are approaching what has to be a spiritual issue with secular rhetoric. If you start a gospel conversation with talking points and frameworks handed down to you by Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, trust me, you’re gonna be caught dead in the trees and never see the forest. The church is supposed to be the last institution that’s still fighting for people to pursue real, meaningful engagement between Christian brothers and sisters across a dinner table—or at least across a zoom screen. We’re feasting on the bread instead of the meat that makes this sandwich a fulfilling and transformative meal.

What then, in my humble opinion, breaks us free from this quagmire? Spiritual Formation. Spiritual Formation. One more time for the Holy Ghost—the way FORWARD is spiritual formation. 

I’ve served in the mostly white, evangelical space, on some level, for over 15 years. And one thing that’s stuck out to me with respect to issues of race and racism is this—the conversation has always struck me as one that is entirely reactive. I’ve watched evangelical churches “react” to issues of racism instead of “proactively” presenting God’s word on race and racism in their normative formational enterprise. Boy that’s way too many words. So trust me I’ll explain myself. Here’s what I’m saying. We’ve been largely reactive to flash points in recent history that were fueled, explicitly, by racism. 

When the Charleston Church Shooting with Dylann Roof occurred back in 2015, my sense is that the evangelical church was reactive. We all lamented that madness. When 5 police officers were massacred (and 9 others injured) back in Dallas in 2016. We all lamented that madness. The list goes on. Ahmaud Arbury. Philando Castile. And so on I’m afraid. We reacted. And rightly so! Every Christian heart should’ve broken on every one of these incidents. But what they’ve exposed is a lack of competency we have to talk about the way forward. What they’ve exposed is our tendency to lean more quickly towards our political talking points instead of our gospel talking points to process these things. What they’ve exposed is a comfortablity with the status quo instead of a righteous indignation to at least try and figure out how to make a difference with our greatest asset—our day to day lives. 

You wanna know why?

Racism. Injustice. And racial reconciliation is largely NOT a part of our spiritual formation process. Spiritual formation is hard to define. But if you’ve been in any church for at least a year or two you’ve experienced how your church does spiritual formation. In other words, spiritual formation is the church’s answer to how your growth in your walk with Christ is facilitated. My guess for the average church today that means the sermons you hear, the passages you study, the small groups you gather in, and the classes you sign up for. Different strokes for different folks. But my point is this, if your church has yet to mention race and racism OUTSIDE of a reactive flash point in culture like the above incidents, you may soundly conclude that racial reconciliation is NOT a part of your church’s spiritual formation! And if it’s not a part of your spiritual formation then it will never be on your spiritual radar for how you understand the gospel and your part God has called you to play in it concerning racial injustice.

Let me go further. Is racism a sin? I’m assuming most would say yes. Jesus I pray that this argument is not up for debate! But insofar that racism is sin and God HATES it and God has called us to side with His heart on the issue, shouldn’t that be brought up every now and then? And not just because something happened in culture, but because, since it is sin, it’s happening on some level ALL the time? So should that not mean I should hear my preacher talk about it here and again? Shouldn’t we engage that in our small group every so often? Shouldn’t that be part of the meal plan in my church? Shouldn’t I have, as a member of a bible believing church, a certain skill level with which to process this issue let alone talk about it competently in my relationships? I think that’s missing today. 

We have faithful, extraordinarily gifted teachers and leaders in the evangelical space. And every year you can expect to be spiritually formed in the issues of marriage, stewardship, parenting, discipleship, evangelism, outreach, sex, and addiction. I do not think the same is true on the issue of racism in the same space. And if it happens regularly that church is usually “known” for doing so. In other words that church tends to be the exception. Never the norm.

Here’s my solution: What if, from NOW on, people who attend churches that believe in the Bible, whereby issues of race and reconciliation are dang near on every other page, heard God’s heart for reconciliation every year for the rest of their lives? What if every Christian from now on had to contend with the hard truths of racism and its Satanic ploys from the preacher, the Sunday school teacher, the small group leader, and the VBS teacher they know and trust at least once a year just like they hear about marriage, finances, family life, and so on? You guessed it—there’d be some change. 

We’re asking great “tree” questions today. But we’ve gotta be “both/and” leaders who are also immersed by the loftier vision of the “forest” that celebrates the Revelation 7:9 promise of a diversified eternity. Our questions today are right and noble: Is there a such thing as systemic racism? If so how do we talk about it? Is there a racial problem in our nation? If so, what do we do about it? What should our church say about this? What is the right way to say it? ALL GOOD QUESTIONS. 

But we’re “Both/And” leaders. We also need to ask, “What does JESUS want our church to look like in 5 years? 10? 20? What does JESUS want to celebrate in 20 years concerning race and reconciliation for our church? What kind of church does JESUS want my kids to grow up in? What does JESUS want my grandkids to say about me after I’m gone concerning this conversation? If Jesus were here with us right now, what would he tell us to do and be?” You see these questions are “forest” questions. They are questions of vision and dreams. Answer these questions that shape your tomorrow and you’ll have a much clearer picture about what God is calling us to do today. 

There will be those, especially pastors and leaders, who’ll want to hear some suggestions of applying this. So for my true fellow nerders here goes:

  1. Preach Biblical Truth About God’s Heart for Racial Diversity and Reconciliation at Least Every Two Years From Now On: Yes. It took everything for me to stretch it to two years. But a start is a start. This frees you from reactionary culture and starts a lifelong process of becoming competent, and eventually confident about this conversation. And guess what, your congregation will walk with you because they trust you, they know you, and more so, they will see God’s truth presented to them in the Word. For those that would say, “But this is uncomfortable no? I mean most of our folks aren’t racists.” Of course it is uncomfortable. And of course most of our people are not racists! But discomfort is not a biblical excuse to not talk about truth. We largely don’t face this pushback on other conversations. Every time we preach a 6 wk series on gospel marriage there is a sea of divorcees on our pews who are uncomfortable for 6 weeks. And we have learned to encourage them and love them along the way. We can do it again. You’ll get pushback. But a great survey was done some years ago that begged the question, “What do you want more than anything else from your church?” The answer was: “Challenge Me.” 
  2. Increase Biblical Competency on Racial Diversity and Reconciliation: We don’t get to be uneducated on this conversation. Listen north of 40 folks. Our kids are NOT going to put this issue down. It is NOT going away. And I refuse to try to explain to my kids what I didn’t do about this. What’s more I REFUSE to allow my kids to be shaped by the ‘official’ BLM organization and the NRA on what is a GOSPEL SUBJECT MATTER! So Sharpen your pencil. And learn what Jesus has said about this issue. Not only immerse yourself in what Scripture says but immerse yourself in research and literature that helps you more clearly see why we must present the Bible’s authority on the subject. No substitute for the Bible. But there are books that that help us pursue biblical truth on this subject. We read countless books on marriage, stewardship, parenting, etc. Why oh why then should we even scoff at doing the same for the conversation on race? Do this and share the experience and the material, where appropriate with the church. Our lead team at Southwest is in the process of this right now. And I’m grateful to those studs and studettes for journeying with me. You see I love them and I refuse to not make sure we’re all on the same page before we lead our people. 
  3. Take Your Time: I love Southwest Church more than I love talking about racial reconciliation. Did you hear that? I love my people more than I love this conversation. I hope you get this. I am a shepherd. I love my people. As tears now well up in my eyes I want 20 years by their side faithfully serving them and celebrating their wins and lamenting their losses. We don’t need professors. We need pastors. We need long haul guys who are not trying to ‘become something’ by next summer. Many of our people are ready to engage this. Many are not. And most have thanked me for not being blind to it and saying something. But saying it in a way that they can eat the meal we’re serving. My hope is to retire in about 20 years, 22 to be exact, and hand down a more reconciled church to my children and our members’ children. I dream of being an old man with yet and still a hot and beautiful wife (Love you April). We’re sitting on the back pew so as to stay out of the way. I get so excited about this cane I plan to have. I mean even if I don’t need one I still think when I hit 75 I’ll buy a cane. Like a hand-carved, totally vintage, tribal, wicked cool cane. Pray for me. Back to the hope: My dream is to watch our children lead our church. Sing. Preach. Pray. Do outreach. Do life together at their dinner tables. They are hispanic and latino. They are white and black. They are rich and poor. They are Asian and African and European. And they don’t care that they’re different. Because they actually know in their souls that they are not. Because they heard that grandma and grandad wrestled with that stuff well and took the bruises for them so they wouldn’t have to. And they saw mom and dad live it out as best they could. So they’ll enjoy that they are free to pursue other avenues of reconciliation because those old folks on the back pew did what they were supposed to do. We’re old by then. So we largely hate their music and what not. But we’ll love their hearts. And no way we’re leaving because we will have built a great monument there for Christ’s fame in the earth. HALLELUJAH! It’s a marathon. Not a sprint. This may mean, fellow pastor, that you’ll be labeled as being ‘slow’ and ‘blind’ on the issue for the next couple of years but you’ll be a leader in the conversation for the next 20. We don’t do this quick. We do this right. Put oil in your lamp and prepare the road for a generation not for a news cycle. 
  4. Equip Your Leaders: We won’t go where leaders won’t take us. There are no solo acts in the church. When it comes to the conversation on race and reconciliation I get that the church I serve is new to it. And that’s okay. So I’ll take a couple more years to equip our leaders. Have safe spaces for us to figure this out. Then lovingly we’ll walk our people through it. But leaders deserve to be equipped and educated and loved into this. In fact, for me, this is the sweetest part of it all. You want your small group leaders to do this work in living rooms. Because that’s where it really happens. Equip them as best you can. 
  5. Get Used to Being Tired: If you think pastoring is hard, wait until you answer God’s call to racial reconciliation in your leadership. It’s tiring. Exhausting. And you’ll wanna give up. There’s one particular reason why most churches are still segregated—it’s easier. But fight the good fight. If our lives are too comfortable and our instagram followers are too many I fear we will risk having taken the road of celebrity and not the role of service. Jeremiah was tired. Elijah was tired. Moses was tired. Paul was tired. Yet the Spirit of God fueled them to finish the good fight. Let’s discontinue a theology that gives too much value on comfort. It’s just not a lot of greatness that happened in Scripture because leaders were comfortable.