A CHURCH WITHOUT WALLS
Rev. Dr. Keith Cowart
Beyond These Walls Conference (ILI)
The Woodlands: Houston, Texas
Dr. Keith Coward is a candidate for bishop. To see his introduction click here. To hear his interview click here.
Speaking of Jews and Gentiles, the Apostle Paul declares in Ephesians 2:14:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…
When I was 6 years old my parents made a decision that would shape my life in ways I never could have imagined. They decided to send me to the newly integrated public school instead of the brand new private school that most of my friends would be attending. As a result, I was one of the first in our county to attend twelve years in a fully integrated school. Most of my new friends were black. We went to class together. We were in the same clubs. We played sports together. That’s me circled in red – the kid with the great hair. (The Lord gives and the Lord takes away!) Now, there were some interesting policies in our school, especially in high school. We had separate proms. We had a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen. There were four of us who received honors at graduation. My wife still reminds me on occasion that I wasn’t actually “best all around,” just “best all- around white boy.” But I can honestly say I don’t have a single memory of a racially-motivated conflict in 12 years. We got along great and if you had asked me at the time, I would have said, “There is no wall in my life around the issue of race.”
But a few years later for an ethics class at Asbury Seminary, I read John Perkins book, “Let Justice Roll Down,” and my eyes were opened to the fact that I was completely oblivious to a story that many of my black friends knew all too well. As I reflected on my school days, I realized that though we got along well at school, I never entered the home of a black friend and no black friend ever entered mine. Nor was it lost on me that the only time I ever worshipped with black Christians was at the funeral of Louise, our long-time housekeeper. I was beginning to understand that “getting along” is not the same as knowing and loving a brother or sister of a different race. And with more than a little help from the Holy Spirit, I was also coming under conviction that I just might have more of a wall in my life than I ever knew.
A year later, I was fresh out of seminary and headed to my first appointment in the United Methodist Church. It was a one traffic-light town in the middle of Georgia with a parsonage 20 feet from the fellowship hall of the church that had been there for 100 years. There wasn’t a single teenager in the congregation, so I decided to volunteer as a little league baseball coach to get to know some of the kids in town. After baseball season, they started showing up at the church to play basketball on the court behind the fellowship hall. One day during a break I went into the church office to make a phone call. When I returned the kids were skulking off the court and my board chair and finance chair were on the other end, red-faced with anger. When I asked, “Why?”, I was told, “Preacher, you’ve got to tell these kids they’re no longer welcome on this property.”
You see, some of the white kids had started inviting some of their black friends to join them and that was a game-changer for the church. At a board meeting a few nights later with three times the usual attendance, they told me how much they loved me and that they respected my desire to help those kids, but I couldn’t do it on church property. I asked them what would happen if some of the black kids decided to follow Jesus. “Can I bring them to our church?” Their response: “You should take them to their church.” I told them I understood this was a challenging issue for them and I was willing to work with them if they would simply keep their hearts open. Their response was an official policy that stated: Only our members and their invited guests are allowed on church property.
When I brought my message the following Sunday, entitled, “Whose Church is It?”, the handwriting was on the wall that I wouldn’t be around much longer. If you had asked me after my departure if I had a wall in my life around the issue of race, I think I would have said, “I just took a stand that cost me my first appointment. Isn’t that proof the wall is gone?”
So, when Pam and I planted Christ Community Free Methodist Church in 1997, one of our original core values was, “Unity in Diversity” and we dreamed of being a church without walls. Now, you should know it took a while for our dream to gain much momentum. We had so much to learn because doing life together as brothers and sisters is not the same as getting along, having convictions, or even taking a stand. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful. But we stayed the course, and we did learn along the way. And in 2018, when the time came for me to transition out, I literally passed the torch to my African-American brother, Derrick Shields, as the new lead pastor of Christ Community Church.
Pam and I left grateful for the many ways we had seen God move in our church over those 21 years, but especially that we left a church that appeared to be relatively free of walls. And then 2020 and 2021 happened and we grieved as we watched tens of thousand’s of people all over the country – including many in our beloved Christ Community – leave their churches in search of a church with clearly defined walls. Somehow political walls, racial walls, mask or no-mask walls provided a sense of affinity, comfort, and even security that was just too enticing in a world gone mad.
Edwin Friedman calls it the “herd mentality” and identifies it as one of the symptoms of an anxious system, along with reactionary behavior, blame displacement, and a quick-fix mentality.
- – Reactionary behavior involves taking everything personally, being quick to speak but slow to listen, and responding more out of emotion than reason.
- – Herding involves closing ranks, demanding unquestioned loyalty to the herd, and viewing outsiders as a threat.
- – In blame displacement, the herd becomes fixated on the failures of others while refusing to consider any possibility of personal responsibility.
- – A quick-fix mentality is seen in soundbite solutions to complex problems and a preference for surface change over doing the hard work of getting to the roots of the issue.
Sound familiar? Together, they are the bricks and mortar of an almost impenetrable wall.
But let’s be honest. When it comes to being a church without walls (especially walls that divide along racial lines), we weren’t exactly knocking it out of the park before the pandemic. Martin Luther King famously called the church “the most segregated institution in America” – 60 years ago – and I think we could all agree we haven’t seen the needle move substantially since.
To be sure, things like racism, fear, and our insatiable appetite for affinity have played a major role. But there are other factors as well, some of which are admittedly complex. For example:
– Isn’t it a good thing to celebrate racial and cultural distinctives and isn’t that best done in mono- racial and mono-cultural congregations? Isn’t it true that whatever group or groups are in the minority will almost always have to acclimate to the majority culture?
- – And isn’t it misguided to make diversity our aim in the first place? Shouldn’t we just focus on proclaiming the gospel and making disciples and leave the results to God?
- – And what about the homogeneous principle? Isn’t it true that where there is a high degree of affinity, churches really do tend to grow faster and isn’t church growth a worthy goal?
- – And finally, it just seems like really hard work. Why take on that challenge when doing church is already hard enough?
Well, I’m glad you asked. We could start with scripture. From God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), who was “blessed to be a blessing to the whole world”, to Paul’s radically counter-cultural proclamation (Galatians 3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, to John’s glorious glimpse of heavenly worship (Revelation 7:9-10) at the end of days, it is clear God’s plan for humanity from beginning to end has involved his desire to have a people from every tongue, every tribe and every nation – not divided, but one!
We could also talk about the fact that Millennials and Gen Z’ers already get this. When our son, Andrew, went to college he found a church that was alive and serious about being on mission. The pastor was a great guy who really wanted to connect with college kids, so he asked a group of them, “Do any of you see anything that concerns you about our church?” It was a courageous question. Andrew responded, “If just feels really white in here.” He wasn’t being critical. It just seemed odd and unfamiliar to someone who had spent his entire life in multi-racial environments at home, church, and school. And that’s the story of so many in the emerging generations. Diversity is a value they hold dear and will increasingly insist on. Maybe its’ time to let them teach us and lead us on this front.
Dan Allender touches on two more reasons a church without walls is worth the effort when he writes:
Differences are meant to draw out the part of us that is frightened and repulsed by someone alien and to expose God’s delight in the strange and the odd (at least by our estimation). When we are confronted with our ethnocentrism, or more accurately, our egocentrism, and how far both are from being God-centered, we are on the precipice of transformation. God’s plan is to allow us to weave a new and unexpected pattern from threads that are different. It is in the new pattern that God begins to demonstrate his love of variety…God loves wildness, newness and especially one’s influencing another for the sake of the growth of both.”
- – You see, on the one hand, diversity has a way of exposing the darkness within us. Have you ever considered the absurdity of the fact that among Jesus’ hand-picked disciples was a tax-collector who worked for Rome and a Zealot who wanted to kill Romans? And what about a bunch of fishermen trying to eke out a living on their boats with that same tax collector who was eating into their profits? You think Jesus didn’t know what he was doing? I once heard the CEO of a well-known corporation make this statement: We intentionally built diversity into our board because if you’re always hanging around people who look like you, think like you, and come from the same kind of neighborhoods as you, you won’t have anyone to show you your blind spots. Perhaps we are too fond of our blind spots.
- – But on the other hand, diversity also has a way of drawing us into the light of the full spectrum of God’s creative glory. Why do you think God created 18,000 species of birds or 260,000 species of flowering plants when functionally one might have been enough? Surely, it’s because no single created thing could ever reflect the fullness of God’s nature. And isn’t that also true of humanity? Two very different genders, dozens of temperaments, and hundreds of ethnicities. Clearly, God was up to something glorious when He made us different and then called us to be one. That’s why I have come to believe that diversity is not so much something God demands of us, but one of the most beautiful ways God longs to bless us.
So, as we gather at this “Beyond the Walls” conference and celebrate all the ways God is at work in His world and devote ourselves to going into the fields that are white for harvest, it just might be that one of the most missional things your church could do is to ask God for the courage and grace to be a church without walls right in your own city, where people of every race, ethnicity, socio-economic group and generation are not just welcomed, but embraced and celebrated because their very presence and voices can deliver us from the comfort of affinity, expose our blind spots, and draw us into the richness and beauty of the full spectrum of God’s creative glory.
To see the video of this sermon click here.