By Michael Benson
On January 19, Wayne Stapleton and a group of more than thirty-five pastors and leaders from the NorCal Association gathered at First Baptist Church in Lodi, California, to discuss the pursuit of Christian unity in a multicultural world. Much of the time was spent in dialogue, where Wayne, the VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement and Emerging Leader Engagement, responded to questions brought forth by the pastors and leaders.
Wayne challenged those who were attended to engage with people of different ethnicities who think differently, who won’t necessarily agree with them or have the same viewpoint or perspective. This means sitting down with people to hear their story and let them dictate what that story is rather than trying to put our own spin on it. He expressed that key to these conversations is to be humble and to listen with a heart consistent with the sentiment in Philippians 2:3–4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Wayne also encouraged those churches present who are eager to reach the ethnic minorities in their communities to be intentional neighbors. Part of this means working alongside those groups rather than simply trying to reach out to them. The challenge is to join with them in mutual community rather than seek to assimilate them into the majority community.
In addition to the gathering on January 19, there were a handful of other gatherings Regional Minister Kent Carlson and his team arranged for Wayne to take part in, including two house meetings where Wayne and others dialogued about race and ethnic engagement. Two meetings were over meals, and one took place after the Sunday service at Oak Hills Church in Folsom. That Sunday Wayne preached from John 17 on the significance Christ places on church oneness; afterward, Pastor Mike Lueken, Elder Sharon Richards, and Wayne led a discussion with over sixty church members.
“I had great conversations during a weekend of meetings in Northern California as we discussed cross-cultural engagement in the church,” Wayne said. In particular, he noted the January 19 cluster of church leaders from across NorCal in which “candid questions were asked and answered in a spirit of grace as we navigated what is challenging territory for the evangelical church.”
Some of the conversation with the cluster of church leaders turned to the difference between race and ethnicity, how the former is a social construct designed to stratify people into a hierarchy and the latter is a result of God forming us all as people into different people groups. Wayne said, “I think God has built ethnic reconciliation into the Gospel. For example, the mystery of the Gospel is that one people is united in Christ, coming from all nations, grafted into one vine.”
“We have to work through it,” he said. “The church has had to work through it for 2,000 years. But it is good work; it’s God’s work.”
Other times, the conversation dipped its toe into the topic of how our cultural perspective shapes our biblical interpretation. For instance, much of the Western church views Scripture through the lens of the individual and many other parts of the world understand Scripture from the perspective of the larger group. It is not that either are entirely wrong, just that the culture of each influences Scriptural understanding. (You can still sign up for the webinar with Wayne, Dr. Larry Caldwell, Lyndell Campbell-Réquia, and Bethany Kaposhi that covers this very topic, taking place February 16, 10:00–11:30 am PST.)
There were certainly different viewpoints regarding how to discuss or tackle issues of race and ethnicity within the Church, but the conversation remained centered around the Gospel. Additionally, some of the leaders shared their personal testimonies and stories from their churches and ministries as examples of the kinds of positive change that can happen through cross-cultural engagement.
Ultimately, whether it was at the larger cluster of leaders, the smaller gatherings over dinner, or the Sunday service at Oak Hills, Wayne talked about how we can build the unity Jesus prayed over us in John 17. “We have to sit down with humility to listen to people of different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences from ourselves,” he said. Only then will we truly understand our neighbors and the issues they care about.
“Awareness is only going to happen when we move out of our comfortable spaces,” Wayne said. “We cannot be the churches Jesus Christ envisioned if we do not move out of those comfortable spaces.”