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Against the Wind: Creating a Church of Diversity Through Authentic Love

Taking bold steps of inclusion and equality to change your church’s culture can be challenging. The following five principles will guide you during the process.

By J. Don George


iStockphoto/Lifesize/Thinkstock

HARD BUT NECESSARY LESSONS

I was frustrated and confused. For years our church had not grown. We produced magnificent pageants, conducted powerful outreaches, and invited gifted speakers. Each time we experienced brief spikes in attendance and then settled back to the status quo. Nothing seemed to get us out of our stagnant condition. I prayed fervently for God to break the impenetrable barrier to our church’s growth. For years, however, the heavens were silent.

In 1995, while attending the biannual General Council of the Assemblies of God in Indianapolis, God gave me clear insight. In one service the speaker asked us to look around the auditorium. He then made a poignant observation: “Do you see many people of color?1 No, this denomination — this church — is too white.”

I then realized I saw a sea of white faces at our church every Sunday. It felt as if a dagger pierced my heart. The Holy Spirit whispered, “Your church is too white.”

The truth was undeniable. I thought, How could I have missed this? What was I thinking? I answered God with a simple prayer, “Yes, Sir. When I get home, I’ll do something about it.”

The concept of inclusion was not new. From my earliest days at Calvary Church, I told our congregation, “This church must be greater than a single denomination, race, creed, color, culture, or socioeconomic group. We must go beyond the narrow practices of the past.” I had been actively engaged in addressing every aspect of exclusion in the church — with one exception. I had avoided the issue of race.

Inclusion is high on the list of God’s priorities. Before we explore pursuing racial diversity, let me share some experiences that shaped my life and role as a pastor.

My Dad’s Example

My father, Roy F. George, was an itinerant church planter who pastored from east Texas to northern California. Almost every year he either planted a new church or revitalized one that was floundering. He would build a church to a point it could financially support a pastor, and then the Lord would lead him to do it again in another town.

Sociologically, my dad was ahead of his time. Even in fiercely segregated, small Southern towns, he loved and reached out to people of color. He became close friends with black pastors. He often preached at their churches and invited them to preach in his.

My father’s warm relationships with black church leaders stood in stark contrast to the prevailing mood. For many years, a sign across the major street in a neighboring town proudly proclaimed, “Greenville, Texas: Home of the Blackest Land and the Whitest People.”

My father’s positive example showed me the evils of segregation. I saw a clear difference between his warm acceptance of black people and the angry, superior stares of other white people in our community and church. My dad was a pioneer in race relations.

Pushing Too Hard

After a decade of pastoring in Plainview, Texas, I accepted the call to pastor Central Assembly of God in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. During the years in west Texas, God gave me a vision to build a dynamic, growing church in a city.

Pride and arrogance became the twin culprits that kept me from fulfilling my vision. Rather than leading confidently with the passion and skill of a loving shepherd, I pushed and drove my plan with relentless abandon. The result was chaos. My pastoral tenure in Baton Rouge lasted just under 1 year.

In spite of the difficulties, I learned a lot. I learned that good leaders don’t run over those who are reluctant to embrace their vision. I also learned that wise leaders do not resort to power plays to get their way. At this critical juncture, conflict and failure became two of my most effective teachers, although it caused me much pain to learn in this manner. Still, God used failure to make me a better pastor.

Even Harder Lessons

One year later, a small church in Ft. Worth, Texas, asked me to be their pastor.

Things were going well until I got a call that our 7-year-old daughter had been rushed to the hospital. When my wife, Gwen, and I arrived, the doctors told us Vanessa had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at school.

For 30 days, Vanessa lay in a coma. During those weeks, we poured out our hearts to God and trusted Him for a miracle. Vanessa died on February 19, 1972. Gwen and I were devastated. Where was God when we needed Him most?

Conflict and failure in Baton Rouge. Now death and despair in Ft. Worth. Gwen and I believed that surely God would use these difficulties to accomplish something good … to soften our hearts and deepen our trust in Him. Surely He wouldn’t waste our pain.

Six months after Vanessa’s death, the door of ministry opened at Calvary Temple in Irving, Texas. I was ready to leave Fort Worth and make a fresh start. God gave me a sense that He was going to use me in a significant way.

It Just Shouldn’t Be This Way

In Plainview, Baton Rouge, and Fort Worth I sensed that someday I would pastor a church that welcomed people of color and treated them as equals. My father’s love for black people was etched in my memory and became part of my ministry DNA. When I was in Fort Worth and in the first years in Irving, I realized I needed help to be an effective pastor for people of color. I did not understand the hopes and fears of black people.

I enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington to study Black History and Culture. I wanted to know what people of color have been through so I could understand how they think, feel, and act.

When I began to understand the distinctions between cultures, I saw that the black community perceived many statements and actions by white people as deeply offensive. People of color look at life through a different lense.

After I took this course, I at least had a road map to show me the way forward.

Few people in predominantly white churches are hardened racists, and few blacks are militant against “white oppression.” But many people are suspicious and feel superior to those who are not like them. Fear and pride are common to human nature, but they are poison to the cause of Christ. When we explore Scripture, we see God’s open, inclusive heart for all people. When we study the Gospels, we find Jesus reaching out to people despised by those around Him. And when we analyze the Early Church, we realize God went to great lengths to welcome outcasts and foreigners into His family. Fear and pride may be common traits in people across the world, but they have no place in the kingdom of God.

Today we have dividing walls in our culture and churches. We feel more comfortable with “people of our own kind,” and we assume people from other cultures would rather be with people like them. We may not hate blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups, but we often tolerate suspicion, division, and distance — we are not actively tearing down walls between others and us.

What are the dividing walls in our churches? How do people of color feel when they walk through our doors? What separates insiders from outsiders? Which of these divisive attitudes are blatantly racist, and which are benign neglect? What does it mean to take the initiative to love, welcome, and accept people of other cultures? These are not comfortable questions, but they are essential if we are going to follow Jesus’ example.

Attitudes of superiority grieve God’s heart. We need to identify barriers, courageously address, and abolish them by the cleansing, compelling love of Christ. People’s culture and skin color do not determine their value. Every person has inherent value to God. Jesus died for everyone. What’s important to God needs to become important to us.

Our love for other believers is the clearest signal to the world that Christ’s presence makes a difference in a person’s life. The world is looking for authentic love. What does “everyone” see when they look at how we love others? Do they see preference and prejudice, or do they see us knocking down barriers to care for people of color and others who feel overlooked or criticized?

For years I had good intentions to reach out to every person in our community, but I didn’t take action. I can find plenty of excuses for my passivity, but none of them impress God. When the Lord spoke to me that night at General Council, I knew it was time to change. At the same time, God gave me a promise that has guided my life and ministry since that day: If I would reach out to the people no one seems to want, God would also bring to our church people all church leaders want. God has fulfilled this promise.

BLINDESS

On my first Sunday as pastor at Calvary, the attendance was 59 people. They were surprised when I declared that I believed God would allow us to build a great church of at least 10,000 in attendance.

My big dreams, however, were coupled with a limited budget. God gave me a simple and inexpensive strategy of reaching people. I committed to visit 500 homes each week. My walks through the neighborhoods of Irving put me in touch with thousands of people.

My days of walking the neighborhoods turned into weeks and then to months. I walked the streets for 3 years, and our church grew because I connected with people and invited them to come.

My strategy wasn’t designed to impress anyone. Visiting door to door was simply the way God led me to touch people in Irving. God had given me the strategy, and I was following His lead.

Gradually, the demographics of Irving and the surrounding area began to change. By the early 90s, a cultural shift had occurred — but I didn’t notice. I was too preoccupied with “bigger and better things.”

Our church was on an expansion trajectory. We built a new building and soon outgrew it. We constructed another building on Airport Freeway.

In 16 years, we grew from 59 to 3,500 members and active attendees.

I was sure I was in the center of God’s will, work, and power, but I failed to realize what was happening around me. When people of color moved into our community, I was so busy doing God’s work that I didn’t notice them.

I can find plenty of excuses for not reaching out to people of color during the years our church grew so fast. But the painful fact is: even when they were there, I didn’t see them. My focus was on growing our church as big and as fast as possible. I simply didn’t need people of color to fulfill the vision I thought God had given me.

As I look at that time in our church’s history and my leadership, I also realize another flaw: I didn’t pray specifically and diligently that people of color would come to our church. I prayed for growth, and I prayed for many other things, but I didn’t ask God to make our church a kaleidoscope of colors and cultures.

As leaders, we may want to excuse our blindness, but there’s a price to pay. God holds us accountable for our sins of omission as well at those of commission. Apathy erodes compassion and blocks effective action to protect the innocent and help the needy. What would God say to us today about how we neglect our neighbors? It is not enough to say, “I didn’t notice their need,” “I’m too busy,” or “What’s the use?” As leaders, we are supposed to notice the condition of our flocks … and those who might join our flocks. When we fail to do what God has called us to do, we experience His curse to some degree. The teaching of Scripture is clear. Apathy and complacency may seem totally reasonable, but they prevent people from standing strong for God and His cause.

Do we love people of other races and cultures the way Christ loves us? Token attempts aren’t enough. Some pastors and church leaders claim, “We have some black people and Hispanics in our church. We are reaching out. That’s all we can do. That’s plenty.”

Is it enough? Is it a full-throated invitation? Is it sacrificial love? Is there an understanding of these cultures so we tear down barriers and build relationships? It’s easy to say, “It’s enough,” but are we actively, prayerfully, and lovingly entering their world so we can really know them? That’s the measure of our sacrifice and love.

I have talked to many pastors who are content to claim they have done something to reach out to people of color, but I would like to ask people in their community if they feel honored and understood by these pastors and churches. Being val­ued means a lot more than just being welcomed. Welcoming is superficial; understanding and trust are deep, rich, and life-changing — and costly. It takes courage and honesty to admit our preference for our own kind and the fact our barely buried prejudice alienates people for whom Christ died.

If we wait until it feels right to take bold steps of inclusion and equality, we may never take them. Taking bold steps to change your church’s culture can be challenging. The following five principles have guided Calvary Church and me during this change.

Five GUIDING principles

The Power of Prevailing Prayer

Prayer puts us in touch with God. We can go to seminars and conferences, read books, and try the latest strategies. But if we are not intimately connected with God in prayer, all these things are only window dressing — or worse, they are idols we trust instead of God.

Fervent, believing prayer must take place at all levels: in worship, in groups and other events, in staff meetings, and throughout the church’s life. Nothing, however, is more important than the pastor carving out time to fall before the feet of Jesus to ask for wisdom, power, and direction. We can delegate a lot of things, but not this.

There is an enemy who does not want us to reach the community, welcome a diverse population, or create a culture of inclusion in our churches. Satan isn’t too worried as long as we sit self-righteously in our churches feeling superior to the people Jesus died to save. But Satan fights back when Christ captures our hearts, when we change plans, and when we love those we previously saw as unlovely. We simply cannot fight and win the conflict without the power and grace of God through prayer.

The Necessity of the Spirit’s Anointing

During the years of transition toward ethnic, gender, and age diversity at Calvary, every day I came face to face with my deficiencies. I desperately needed the Spirit of God to lead me into uncharted waters. I needed the Spirit’s anointing as I chose new staff and board members. I was aware that I did not have the skills and experience to make this work, but I was equally convinced that God was clearly leading us to reach out to a far wider audience. The anointing of the Holy Spirit is not reserved for 30 or 40 minutes on Sunday morning. I need Him all day, every day to be the preacher, leader, shepherd, husband, father, and friend God wants me to be.

The Requirement of Strategic Planning

For many years, I considered planning to be one of my strengths. Then some young leaders joined our team and gave me new insights regarding strategic planning. They showed me the necessity of planning 3, 5, and 10 years into the future.

The planning process always starts with the mission. What has God called us to be and do? What are the nonnegotiable values and goals the Lord has given us? What is our time-tested mission statement? These don’t change, and they are the benchmark by which we measure every part of the plan.

If a church has been too white, too old, and too male-dominated, the default mode will always cause the leader to drift back to old habits. Strategic planning drives a stake in the ground: God is leading us to go in a different direction. How are we going to get there? Good planning helps us get connected and stay connected to God’s heart.

Embracing diversity took painstaking efforts in strategic planning. We have seen God at work in every step.

The Need for Cultural Awareness and Relevance

One of my chief concerns is that I might be preaching but no one is listening because they consider what I’m saying to be irrelevant. Relevance, though, doesn’t necessarily imply validation or conformity. Today, some churches are so focused on being relevant they have lost their evangelistic edge. It’s our task to speak God’s truth, hope, and power into the culture so the church impacts the community.

It takes work to become relevant. I took university courses to help me understand a segment of our community, and I spent time getting to know people of other cultures. I had to do the hard work of research and the fulfilling work of making new friends.

Study the demographics of your community, especially a 3-mile radius around your church. Notice patterns and groupings. Ask questions, and listen carefully. Ask people to introduce you to their friends of other races and lifestyles. Be a great listener. If you win their hearts, they will listen to your message. Building relationships is plowing ground. Be a diligent farmer.

Create a comfort zone for the people you plan to invite to your church. Construct an environment — an ethos — where they feel welcomed, comfortable, and valued. Consider the faces of those on your platform, the music you play in the lobby, your worship style, the types of games for kids, and everything else that happens on your campus.

In our transition, we dismantled and reassembled every aspect of Calvary’s culture. We addressed leadership roles and personnel, staff meetings, how we talk, and how we could foster a dynamic, faith-filled atmosphere. We carefully analyzed everything to make sure we connect with the people in our community.

To find out more about the different cultures in your community, go to their stores, eat at their restaurants, walk through their parks, attend their concerts, listen to their radio stations, go to their sporting events, and read their publications. When you preach, use lyrics from their music and lines from their movies to illustrate your points.

Connecting with other cultures is one of the most challenging and demanding tasks I have undertaken in my life, and one of the most rewarding.

Develop an Utter Disdain for the Status Quo

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He didn’t leave the world in its status quo. He stepped out of heaven to make a difference. It cost Him dearly. Are the people in our communities worth the price we have to pay to reach out to them? We must overcome old, suspicious, stiff, self-absorbed, lethargic ways.

Many pastors see a few black or Hispanic faces in their congregations on Sunday and assume they are reaching these cultures. They may be doing a great job of connecting cross-culturally, but they may be doing nothing at all. We need to gauge the effectiveness of our cultural awareness and outreach by the comparison of our church demographics with community demographics. In 1995, Calvary was 98 percent white. Today, we are a clear reflection of Irving and the surrounding community: 30 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian.

Love propels action; but, when love is absent, we withdraw into the safe confines of the status quo. We are glad when someone responds to the gospel, but we seldom invest our time, energy, or reputation in pursuing outcasts, sinners, or foreigners.

We need to ask penetrating questions:

  • Do we see people of other races, cultures, genders, and ages as annoyances that ask too much from us?
  • Do we see them as projects to pursue?
  • Or do we love these people so much that we’re willing to take any risk and pay any price to reach them?

YOUR TURN

If God has touched your heart and you want to build a church of radical love and diverse cultures, get ready for the ride of your life. You will experience God’s blessing, and you will encounter the resistance of the enemy.

You must carefully plan and deliberately implement any new strategy for growth or outreach. You can change the color of your church bulletin in a flash, but changing the culture of an organization takes far more time and attention. Don’t rush the process. Pray diligently, do research, make new friends, invite young leaders to join you, and listen to people all along the way.

One thing you can know for sure: Creating a “big umbrella church” is absolutely in line with God’s heart. Jesus reached far beyond the synagogues and safe Jewish communities, and Paul went to the ends of the earth to touch every life.

In Jesus’ prayer before His arrest, He prayed to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). The Father sent Jesus to die for us; He’s sending us into the world to die to our selfishness, arrogance, and apathy so we can live for Him and be partners in His cause. It’s the heart of the gospel, and it’s the heart of real ministry.

J. DON GEORGE, senior pastor, Calvary Church, Irving, Texas

This article is abridged from Against the Wind (Springfield, Missouri: My Healthy Church, 2012).

NOTE

1. In recent years, people have used different terms to describe ethnic groups. For a while, “African-American” was in vogue, but it left out those whose origins were from other countries or continents. Some have capitalized Blacks, and others leave it in lower case. For our purposes, I often use the broader term “people of color,” though I sometimes refer specifically to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups.

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