By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Nearly 25 years ago when a Mississippi church called Terry Long as its pastor, he asked them this question — are you open to welcoming anybody who comes through the door, no matter what race they are?
They told him yes.
But Long said he eventually found out that wasn’t exactly true.
“They meant more that they had welcomed people of different races into their church for funerals, weddings and special occasions, but when it came to regular services, they felt differently,” he said.
After he had been at the church for two and a half years, an African-American teenager visited on a Sunday morning.
The young man began to attend services regularly, and Long watched as his heart softened to the gospel.
“My daughter showed him how to follow the verses in the hymnal,” Long said. “He kept coming back Sunday after Sunday. That infuriated some people.”
And the war that ensued nearly broke Long’s heart. A few vocal leaders in the church didn’t like the situation. They pressured Long for several months to do something about it or leave. So he prepared a sermon on the sin of racism, delivered it and then was told he had to go.
“The young man never knew there was a raging controversy,” Long said. “I went and talked with him, and he wept. I hugged him and told him God was using him in a great way to uncover an ugly cancer in that church.”
Some of the people from that church left with Long, and through God’s miraculous financial provision, he was able to start a new church in the town — a multiracial congregation. The young man who had sparked the other church’s battle got saved at the very first service.
And a decade later, when Long was interviewing for a pastorate in Tuscaloosa, the pastor search committee reached out to that first embattled church in Mississippi to hear their side of what had happened.
“They talked to the chairman of the deacons,” Long said, “and he told them, ‘The only problem with Bro. Terry is that he was colorblind and we weren’t. If you call him as a pastor, a lot of us will want to come hear him preach.’”
And the chairman of deacons asked the search committee to let Long know that God had done a great work in their church since Long had left — their congregation was now 40 percent black.
“There’s much more openness now than there used to be,” he said.
And Long, now director of missions for Choctaw Baptist Association, says he sees that same kind of openness growing more and more in his current area all the time.
“We are in the Black Belt area, which has been racially charged for quite some time,” he said. “But things are changing for the good, and I believe that Choctaw Association is leading the way.”
That kind of hope fills the heart of many pastors in the U.S., according to a new study released by LifeWay Research in March.
Of the pastors surveyed, 91 percent said they believed a church should reflect the racial makeup of its community. A large majority of the group said churches should strive for that.
And 9 out of 10 said they agreed that racial reconciliation was mandated by the gospel.
It’s a sentiment that’s been growing over the past several years, the study showed.
In 2017, 80 percent of pastors said they strongly agreed churches should strive for that sort of diversity. That’s up from 66 percent in 2013. And at least half are regularly putting intentional feet to that belief. Forty-four percent of pastors said they had eaten a meal within the last week with someone of another race. Forty percent said they meet regularly with pastors of other ethnicities.
But even though that sentiment is growing, the reality is still that only 13 percent of pastors reported having more than one predominant racial group in their church.
About 63 percent say they preach on the topic of racial reconciliation several times a year or more, but it seems it’s difficult to get the church body as a whole to latch onto a passion for reconciliation, the data shows.
Only 3 out of 10 pastors have had leaders in their church encourage them to preach on racial reconciliation. And when pastors have addressed the topic, 5 percent reported having negative feedback.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said there are still some “persistent problems” in the race conversation in churches.
Christians sometimes take “an unbiblical view, which is to say that these issues can be done away with by progress,” he said, noting that he often hears people say things like, “It’s 2017, we should be beyond this.”
It’s “as though time and history itself does away with injustice or does away with human sin,” he said.
The only thing that will bring racial reconciliation is intentional effort and love, Moore said. But he said he’s encouraged to see that happening more and more.
“Even when I see a church often now that isn’t where they want to be or where God would want them to be, I still see a difference,” he said.
A few years ago, when Moore would speak in churches and talk about how believers needed to be united as one body, often the reaction — regardless of race — was that it is fine for Christians to worship separately. The sentiment then was that all that mattered was that believers were “united more abstractly in the gospel.”
Now Moore said he finds in all of those contexts there is at least recognition that “we want our church to show to the world the reconciliation of God’s kingdom, and we’re not there yet, and maybe we don’t know how to get there, but we’re going to ask for that and seek that.”
Moore said he thinks that’s a good, encouraging step.