Does a Black Pastor Have to Plant a Black Church?
It seems more and more African-Americans are planting churches. These men, their spouses, and the teams that join them are endeavoring to make disciples by starting new congregations through various networks, denominations, and even independently. For this we should rightly celebrate and praise God.
But the common assumption for a black church planter is that he will plant a black or multi-ethnic church. On one level, this is an understandable expectation because in some senses, it is easier for a racial or ethnic minority to attract other racial and ethnic minorities. This is not to say that white church planters and their teams cannot engage a diverse array of peoples, but they may face bigger cultural gaps — whether perceived or actual.
But what if a black church planter doesn’t plant a black church? What if his church isn’t multi-ethnic? What if he pastors a majority white or an all-white congregation? Is this black church planter a failure?
I have often contemplated the idea of church planting. If I’m honest, though, one of my biggest hesitations is the pressure I feel to plant an “ethnic” church. If the Lord blesses this hypothetical church with growth, what if it is the “wrong kind” of growth? What if only white people come? What if there are minorities but it is still an overwhelmingly white church?
One African-American church planter summarized these concerns well. In an interview for a dissertation on African-American church planters, the man said, “It is a struggle to not feel guilty about not being where other people think you should be, especially if you think that it is simply because of your skin tone…This is a struggle for me to always feel like I have to reach certain people. It is a major source of shame for me.”
Another African-American church planter said, “I wish I had more young black men in the church, but I don’t…White brothers don’t get second guessed when they have a church full of whites, so why do we have to be looked at as failures because we don’t have enough of this or that color in the sanctuary?”
Is it acceptable for a black man to plant a majority white church in an age with increasing and vocal calls for more African-American and multi-ethnic churches, especially in the Reformed tradition? The culture may say “yes” or “no,” but current cultural trends are not the ultimate answer. A church planter, and indeed every Christian, must define effectiveness according to calling and not the culture.
The Bible presents a unified and clear message that the gospel is to be preached to all nations (Acts 1:8). In the final heavenly assembly, men and women from all tribes and tongues will be represented in the assembly of the elect (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). This message needs to be trumpeted in the racially segregated reality of the United States. We absolutely need more churches that serve diverse and historically under-represented people groups, particularly African-Americans, in the Reformed tradition.
But the need for African-American and multi-ethnic churches should not be used to place undue pressure on black church planters to plant such churches. What if a man and his wife feel called to lower-income whites in the Appalachian region? What if he seeks to plant churches among the predominantly Buddhist peoples of Bhutan? What if he wants to plant in his hometown where the majority is white or Hispanic?
The Bible demonstrates that Christians should be intentional about proclaiming Christ to
people from all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Mt. 28:18-20). But it is better to yield oneself to God’s calling than to the expectations of other men and women. While the Great Commission to make disciples from every nation is the responsibility of every Christian, calling must ultimately determine how individual church planters fulfill this Commission.
If a black church planter is called to plant a congregation that is all or mostly white and he does so, then He is being obedient to God. His conscience should be clear. If, however, this black church planter endeavors to plant an all or mostly black or multi-ethnic church without a clear internal and external sense of calling to such a work, then he risks shipwrecking his faith and his ministry.
The multi-ethnic implications of the gospel should compel every church planter and church member to critically analyze their practice to see if they are putting up unnecessary barriers to diversity. Every Christian should desire congregations that closely resemble the diversity present in their local communities. Black church planters, too, should make every effort to be inclusive in their worship without compromising the gospel.
But black church planters should not be pressured to plant black or multi-ethnic churches. Instead these men, their spouses, and teams should be encouraged to carefully and prayerfully discern God’s particular calling for them. The primary concern should be for these men to find the distinct ministry they and their communities of faith believe God has set them apart to fulfill.
Church planting is a difficult enough venture by itself. In our desire for a more diverse body of believers, we must be careful not to make church planting even more difficult on church planters by pressuring them to start congregations of a particular composition. God will build his church. If we each just obey the calling He has for us to the people He has placed around us, we will see the diversity for which we long.
To hear more about church planting in African-American contexts, attend the first annual African American Church Planting Initiative (AACPI [http://www.cvent.com/events/african-american-church-planting-initiative/event-summary-f37c536f78a64793b4594d42aac231a0.aspx]) conference in Nashville, TN, on August 7-8, 2014.