An invitation to ask When our son Johnny was small, “what if…?”...
I continue to be both inspired and overwhelmed by the challenges and opportunities that stand before our movement. There are some obvious issues that include working toward the revitalization of our churches, the ability of our churches to plant vibrant churches, and of course developing a greater quantity and quality of lay and vocational leaders who will be able to lead, plant, and revitalize these congregations. Within these broad issues are some extremely important factors that need to be present.
One of these factors is our need to better reflect the increasingly diverse communities in which we live. We need to address the issue of diversity not only to stay relevant, but most importantly because we see throughout Scripture that the church is the place that brings ultimate unity in Christ.
The most recent demographic information suggests that by 2045 the Caucasian population in the United States will be the minority. Christian colleges and universities who have been predominantly Caucasian are feeling the challenge of the need to diversify even before the church will feel it. Many who are not able to matriculate a more diverse student population are seeing a dramatic decrease in enrollment that could cause their closing.
When ECO began, we were asked with some frequency about the diversity of our denomination. At that point, our demographics could only be based on the congregations that transferred into our denomination. Therefore we actually mirrored the demographics of our previous denomination and our population was 89% Caucasian. In the last three years we have become a little more diverse with our latest numbers indicating that we are now 85% Caucasian. While this small decrease is a step in the right direction, we certainly have a long way to go!
I have recently talked with a few church planters who are not Caucasian. Reformed, but not Presbyterian in background, they are considering putting their plant under ECO’s umbrella. This is exciting and it has caused me to inquire as to why they are considering coming to ECO. The response has been twofold. First, they love the missional and entrepreneurial ethos that we are projecting. They understand that there are still some aspirational aspects to our culture but that we are heading in the right direction. Second, they love the flexibility that ECO congregations have, especially our competency-based approach to ordaining pastors, as well as the flexibility that allows for the commission of officers to celebrate the sacraments in micro-expressions of church, or even to be commissioned to plant a church. The comment has been that ECO is set up well in our environment to have the potential for significant diversity.
As we seek to be more reflective of our local communities, we also wrestle with what part can the denomination (Synod or presbyteries) play, and what part needs to be played by the local congregation. I think there are a few things we can do denominationally. First, we can be an avenue to introduce leaders to different (yet evangelical) voices that can offer various lenses with which to look through the challenge of culture.
One voice and resource that I find very valuable is through www.arrabon.com (LINK), led by David Bailey. One of the things that I appreciate about Arrabon is the way they are full of grace and truth. In a conversation with David, he indicated that many streams of racial reconciliation have either an angry tone so people do not want to participate, or they gloss over true challenges. However, Arrabon seeks to honor individuals for their willingness to grow, learn and connect in a way that is both honest and mutually supportive. You also may find this Barna interview with David LINK – https://www.barna.com/qa-david-bailey/ for their pastor resources helpful, as I did. I hope you will check out their materials and resource offerings as we look forward to utilizing their ministry in the future.
While ECO as a denomination needs to help fuel the conversation and connect with important resources, the local church needs to see itself on the front lines of the racial reconciliation conversation. The measure of the our ethnic diversity is based upon the individual diversity of our local congregations. It is my hope that our churches would seek to do a few things. First, have honest engagement and conversation about issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. I realize how much I tend to look at culture through my own perspective and assume everyone else has that same perspective. I know this can be a very scary proposition, but Paul tells us in Ephesians that Jesus Christ that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility. Isn’t the church the most logical place to have these conversations? Second, can we prayerfully consider ways to grow in our ethnic diversity. I realize that sounds very simplistic, but given the variety of churches and regional locations in ECO, I have to make the question general. Some congregations may be called to intentionally become multi-ethnic. For others, it may be helping to start a missional community or church in the extended community. For others it may be engaging in conversations with other church or leaders in your community.
At our 2016 national gathering, Mark DeYmaz said that legitimacy of the gospel hangs in the balance of our ability to better reflect our communities. He of course was not saying that if we are not more diverse, then the gospel isn’t true, but that one of the tangible expressions of the gospel is seeing God’s people united in Jesus, as opposed to being divided in society. I pray and hope that we will see unification become true within ECO.
PS – For more information and discussion on the topic of racial diversity, join us at our 2019 National Gathering and plan to attend “Multi-ethnic Ministry: Leading in, Through, and Beyond the Boundaries” taught by Rev. Raymond Garcia (Roxborough Church & The Philadelphia Project) during Breakout #2 as well as “Racial Reconciliation and the Local Church” taught by Rev. Jeff Ebert (Presbyterian Church at New Providence, NJ) during Breakout #3.