In Richmond, Virginia, imposing Confederate statues mark the streets of a wealthy section of the city. Stately churches from the early twentieth century still stand tall, replete with beautiful pews and a balcony for others. A trip to the James River reminds visitors that this body of water provided transportation to the largest port on the east coast for enslaved Africans between 1830-1860. Christianity Today reports, “The history [in Richmond] is as thick as the air on a summer evening.”
As much as we may want to diagnose our society with amnesia for this era of history, we cannot. While enslaved Africans are not walking the corridors of our plantations as they did just 150 years ago, the effects of slavery and segregation work much like the Doppler effect. As the source of the sound is more remote, the sound becomes more faint—but it is still heard. We, in this nation, still hear and feel the effects of our sinful past. It may not be as apparent in the workplace nor in the community in which you live, but it is still extremely realized in the church.
According to Dr. Michael Emerson, sociologist at Rice University, only 7% of churches in the United States are multi-racial. Despite the growing diversity in both urban and suburban settings, our churches remain largely segregated. There are both historical and present circumstances for this phenomenon, yet it appears the Bible presents a different image of the church (Gen. 17:4; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 13:1-2; Eph. 2:11-22; Rev. 5:9-10). What, then, can bring us to a biblical image, in our present circumstances, of the church?
While there are many answers to the previously mentioned question, one of the foundational issues is the supernatural means of grace. Why supernatural? The adjective that is normally associated with the phrase “means of grace” is ordinary. In the Reformed or reforming community, we believe the Lord uses ordinary means to conform us more and more into the image of the Son. The preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and prayer are the means the Triune God uses to further strengthen us in Christ (WSC 88). These means are ordinary, but we sometimes forget that they are also supernatural. God is miraculously and invisibly fulfilling his purposes in the lives of his people (John 4:21-24; Matt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:21-23; 3:11; 1 Thess. 4:3). If we are going to see the kind of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural tapestry that reflects the purpose and work of God for his church, God must act supernaturally.
Mere human effort will not produce the biblical picture of the church for which many long (Rev. 5:9-10). Bible studies, conferences, and even articles may help inform us of the need to see our churches represent the demographics of our communities, but this information is often forgotten just days after we learn it. Furthermore, mere human effort is not lasting. We Christians find too many reasons to divide. How we educate our children, which type of Lord’s Day music we prefer, dating versus courting, political allegiance, and a host of other issues draw clear lines of division in God’s church. It is easier, therefore, as Cephalus said to Socrates, to remain with those who are similar (Book I of The Republic by Plato).
Despite our educational choices and the person for whom we vote, the supernatural means of grace put us all on the same playing field. “For all have sinned,” the apostle Paul wrote, “and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Regardless of the debates we have in relation to the meaning of all in other places in the Bible, Paul’s meaning here is clear. All are guilty in Adam and have correspondingly sinned against their creator. All, therefore, require the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness that are solely found in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:6-11). The preaching of the holy Bible places these conscience-piercing facts before us. However, we are also comforted by the words of Scripture, as announced by the minister, that there is “therefore now no condemnation” in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Grace, mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness are not contained by our categories of ethnicity, cultural preferences, and tax brackets. The latter items segregate; the former unites.
The same is true of the Sacraments. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith 27.1, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace… to represent Christ, and his benefits; and… to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world.” The separation that the Sacraments create is not within the church but between those inside the church and those outside. One might not expect that looking at the current landscape of Protestantism; nevertheless, the Confession is accurate. The Sacraments are intended to unite God’s people.
Prayer, which is another supernatural means of grace, also unifies. When you pray, you display your dependence upon the heavenly Father, you express humility by submitting to his commandments, and you demonstrate trust in God’s promise that when we pray according to his will he hears us and answers us (1 John 5:14-15).
Each of these supernatural means of grace are grounded in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, “The glory that you [Father] have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” The Lord prayed for a holy catholic church. Just prior to this petition, Jesus admitted that his prayer is even for those who have yet to believe. It was the Lord’s desire that all his people throughout the ages would be one as he is one with the Father.
The supernatural means of grace must be the bedrock of our churches, especially if we desire them to represent the demographics in our community. The latest church growth tactics will fail. Only the supernatural work of God can meet our common need for his mercy and grace—while not flattening our distinctions—and bring a people together from various ethnicities, cultures, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic standings.
Last February, therefore, I embarked on a journey to plant a cross-cultural, multi-ethnic church—in Richmond, Virginia—whose foundation is the supernatural means of grace. To date, we have been blessed with diversity ethnically, culturally, generationally, socio-economically, and politically. Although we know this road will be difficult, we also recognize our foundation—one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. These supernatural means draw us together at the foot of the cross, seeking mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness that is only found in Christ.
Leon Brown is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church will celebrate its first service on October 26, 2014. For more information, please contact the church at firstname.lastname@example.org.