The travesties that have taken place over the last several weeks have been horrific and unjust. As a Christian, any amount of reflection on the matter should lead to a broken and contrite heart. Our fundamental identity is as a member of the one body of Christ. As a member of that one body, when a member hurts, we all hurt. In a conversation in early May, one of the members of our FXUS team relayed how much pain the Black church was experiencing right now, and that was even before the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent and justified outcry.
When one part of the body of Christ hurts more substantially and more acutely than others, just like the human body, the Christian body ought to mobilize it’s healing and restorative focus to that part. Just like our own bodies, we would not wish to stay in pain, but to both heal the pain and address the underlying causes of the hurt. This is the important work we are called to do at this moment. Difficult as these moments are, I ultimately believe God is at work – making something new – for all of us.
Fault Lines & Fractures
A few weeks after our country went into lockdown as a result of the pandemic, I was on a Zoom call with Rev. Dr. Linda Gorham, a pastor and psychologist near Baltimore, MD. Linda and her husband, James, are pioneers and are exemplars of the kind of Christian witness we need in this moment. As Black leaders they stepped away from years of more traditional ministry in order to start a multi-ethnic dinner church and several other community engagement ministries near Baltimore.
The conversation our group was having was around “what is God doing during this season.” Linda shared on that day what I believe amounted to a prophetic word. She believed that in the next few months we would see the fault lines and fractures in our current systems exposed, that those fractures would have the chance to be healed and that new systems would be built as the current ones were challenged and crumbled.
In the last few months we have seen more clearly those fault lines and fractures in many spheres. The limitations and inequities of our public health system have been exposed and we now have a better understanding of what kind of system we need for the future. Similarly, we have a greater window into our current system of education, where it might be strong and where it might be lacking. Parents certainly have a greater appreciation for teachers now than they did before and everyone understands in new ways the importance of how we educate our children. We have witnessed the stark ways that technological advances have greatly benefited some but not all. Beyond this, major portions of our economic system are disappearing and other significant portions will be transformed in the days ahead. Large companies like Starbucks are already making sweeping changes, surely to unleash a ripple effect upon many other companies. The way people interact with their community of faith has been turned upside down, and it is unlikely that congregations will ever return to exactly the way it was before. Of course, above all, in the last few weeks we have clearly seen how deeply ensconced the long-standing system of racism is within our society and it feels like – finally – that this most entrenched system is being exposed for what it is and is transforming us all in the process.
Crossing the Critical Chasm
A friend asked me this past week, why I felt that we might finally turn the corner into a new future regarding race in America and even further, why I am expecting such a period of wide-spread change. First, and foremost, historically, social and cultural changes tend to come in waves. Whether we’re talking about a period like the 1500s Reformation-Renaissance or the American civil rights reforms of the 1960’s, lots of changes took place in a relatively short period of time. All signs indicate that we are in one of those epic moments today. Second, we have been in a unique moment where, for a few months, the world stopped. This has meant that everyday people have been far more attentive to what is happening around them. So, when the world witnessed the horrific and unjust deaths of our fellow Black citizens, it finally took notice.
In our Fresh Expressions work, one of the tools we talk about regularly is the diffusion of innovation continuum. This continuum helps us understand how when something enters the market and a “tipping point” is reached so that it is adopted by the majority. The key is crossing the chasm between innovators and early adopters and the early majority. Our collective attention to the problems and challenges that our brothers and sisters of color have faced is a chasm that is finally being crossed. There are a number of reasons for this, of course, one being the coming of age of a generation who has been raised with a higher level of exposure to the problem of race.
How We Engage
Given that we are likely in a period of sweeping change that could last multiple years, if not decades, how should the Church and her leaders engage? If you are older than 40, there is a good chance the rest of your ministry career will be moving through these changes and the ensuing implications. And if you are younger than 40, your voice and leadership is going to be crucial in this movement in a new way.Given that we are likely in a period of sweeping change that could last multiple years, if not decades, how should the Church and her leaders engage? - National Director Chris Backert Click To Tweet
First, we need to keep in mind that the pandemic accelerated many changes. What would have taken five years is now taking five weeks. Take Starbucks for example. The press release related to their recent strategy shift to close hundreds of traditional stores, in exchange for opening hundreds of mobile pick-up locations, noted that they were looking at changes to their business model even two years ago. Yet, it was at this moment they decided to make the change. They read the signs of the times ahead of many others and were in a position to know what to do when the pandemic accelerated the change that would have happened anyway.
Second, we need to listen for a while, and then listen again. One of the bedrocks of the Fresh Expressions movement is that we begin with our ear to the ground and to the voice of others. When we do not listen, it becomes almost impossible to be faithful to the Gospel. We have discovered in our work the last 8 years that often our plans and efforts go greatly askew because we haven’t done this patient work. We come up with strategies and action plans based on our perception of what is needed. Often, when we deeply and patiently engage with our ears, we realize we need a different approach. Sometimes that is simply a change of strategy, but often it will also involve repentance.
Our friends at 21st Century Church in Cincinnati, Dele and Oneya Okuwobi, recently released a superb video addressing the systemic ways that race plays into the living out of our society. Dele and Oneya’s ultimate goal is to help churches move toward love and unity across racial divisions and to ground that healing in the kingdom of God. To do this, we must take down the scaffolding that supports systemic racism. And we must realize that this scaffolding is such a part of the way things are that we don’t often know it’s there. One of the three critical barriers to addressing the existence of this scaffolding has to do with a lack of listening. Dele and Oneya, who will be part of the upcoming Resilient Church Academy, call it an “epistemology of ignorance.”
Sometimes our ignorance means we won’t put ourselves in a position to listen and learn and then un-learn what we thought we knew–because we don’t even realize we have something to learn in the first place. The key to this process, of course , is humility. Humility that we may have not done the right things in the past. Humility that we have not done the right things, even when we thought we did! Humility that we participate in systems that need changing.
Third, from this listening, we need to form new relationships. For any kind of personal transformation to ultimately take shape, it must be built on the foundation of relationship. A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop with David Bailey, Executive Director of Arrabon. Arrabon’s mission is to equip and empower the church for reconciliation and they have many helpful ways of bringing this kind of healing to the body of Christ. I remember David encouraging us to simply look at the list of those in our phone contact lists and see how often we call someone who is NOT in our own cultural community. Our phone calls are good examples of where we have relationships and where our relationships may need some work. This is true for this most pressing work of racial healing just as it is for engaging with the many other changes that are afoot.
Fourth, we need to conduct experiments that help us lean into a new reality. Some experiments could be quite small, like reading a book that stretches you. Or, others more substantial, like new ways of participating in community advocacy around public safety or new ways of supporting the education of children in an emerging analog/digital environment. The pandemic has exposed the fault lines. Experiments can help begin to heal the cracks. Church leaders must conduct experiments in order to accurately discern a different future.
Fifth, we must resist the temptation to strive to go “back to normal.” While it is important that we re-gather among our communities of worship, this is also a time to think about alternative ways of being the people of God in the world. The world is crying out in so many ways for this right now. It is as if Romans 8 was written for this exact moment, as the created order seems to be groaning in travail. Our systems need healed, mended, transformed and rebuilt. Surely the church has a role to play, at least among ourselves, in how this may be done.
Romans 8 tells us that the antidote to this groaning is the revealing of the people of God. I’m reminded each time I read this passage that this “people of God” that Paul refers to in Romans 8 is the same “people of God” that John refers to in Revelation 7, “a great multitude of people from every tribe, and people, and language.” I find it fascinating that John envisions this multicultural gathering of people holding palm branches in their hands. The palm branch in this case represents the victory of the Spirit over the flesh. I believe that there is something to the fact that these two images are conjoined. The people of God, of all cultures, together before Christ is a sign of the victory of the Spirit OVER the flesh. Perhaps our systems that are broken and in need of transformation, including what may be our most grievous one, are signs of how the flesh must still be crucified, so that the Spirit of Resurrection can come forth.
As N.T. Wright is fond of saying, “we ought to live in the present [as the church] as God intends the world to be in the future.” The future of our world is clear to the Christian who trusts in the authority of the Bible and it looks quite different than the world we see today. Our task as the Church is to live, by the power of the Spirit, following the ongoing life of Jesus, from this world into the next. May we use this unique opportunity we have been given to build anew for the new creation that is now, is coming, and shall be.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. World without end, Amen!
Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase. ￼