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Racism and Revival

June 14, 2012

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a white guy in a brown world – an American missionary in the Philippines. After twenty-four years living in Manila, I now split time between Manila and Nashville. One of the more shocking experiences as I have re-engaged American church culture is that so many churches are still basically all white or all black or all Latino. And that’s not a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in the Lausanne Strategic Working Group in Orlando. I learned a lot from the forty brilliant strategists, theologians and missiologists in the room. The meeting ended with an evaluation question: “what was missing that could have made this meeting more effective?” My answer required no deep thought or prayer. Seemed obvious to me that the missing ingredient was color. A room full of middle-aged highly educated white men (plus one Nigerian, three Latinos, an Indian and a Lebanese) can create good strategy, but add more diversity and the ideas go from good to great.

“The color line was washed away by the blood.” That’s how Frank Bartleman described the early days of the Azuza Street revival a century ago.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for good religious people to re-draw color lines.

But not everyone was drawing lines. During one of the most racist periods of American history (1890-1925) most early Pentecostal churches were bold exceptions to the culture of racism and segregation.

In 1897, several years before the Azusa revival, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) became the first legally chartered Pentecostal church in America. COGIC founder CH Mason grew up hearing about the vibrant faith of southern slaves from his parents who had recently been freed when he was born. He would build COGIC on the foundation of prayer, the power of the Holy Spirit and racial unity.

For many years COGIC had as many white ministers as black. (Read that sentence again, and remember we are talking about one of the most racially divided periods in American history.) This unity and diversity effectively ended in 1914 when most of the white COGIC pastors broke off to establish the Assembly of God. Undaunted, Mason continued to work on both sides of the racial divide, often speaking at AG conferences for many years.

My favorite Mason quote is as true today as 100 years ago: “The church is like the eye. It has a little black in it and a little white in it, and without both, we cannot see.”

Without ethnic diversity, the church cannot see. That explains a lot about the blindness in the church today.

If we want correct vision and fresh revival, maybe we should look at the Azusa Street playbook and embrace unity with diversity.

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