In 1990 my wife, Karen, and I began an endeavor that would forever change our lives. What began as a church plant became a radical reordering of our personal priorities and approach to ministry. We became painfully aware during our early days as church-planting pastors that we were far off course from God’s heart toward people of different ethnicity than us.
We slowly realized our ignorance of the daily issues that affected people of color. We also became aware that our day-to-day lives were void of any genuine friendships with non-whites. We, of course, “loved everybody.” The problem was you couldn’t tell it by our lifestyle or relationships.
I began to ask, “Why don’t our churches look like heaven?” Out of that question rose a powerful new quest in our lives.
A Miracle of the Heart
What we’ve learned since then is that breaking the ethnicity barrier first requires a “miracle of the heart”—an inner awakening that changes your core attitude and thinking about yourself and those who are culturally different.
In the early church, Peter and Cornelius were the first to experience this miracle of the heart (see Acts 10:34-11:18). It had been 10 years since the day of Pentecost, yet the church was still oddly exclusive. Having never captured that spirit of Jesus which made “whosoever will” feel as though they “belonged,” the church after 10 years primarily was all about converting Jews and few others.
But the Holy Spirit revealed to these two men that something was desperately missing in their lives and in the church. The chasm between the Jew and the Gentile needed healing, and it needed to happen now.
Change by Example
For churches to break the color barrier, we as leaders of the church must model our own personal necessity for multi-ethnic friendships. Otherwise, our congregations will see our attempts as mere token experiments to grow a struggling church.
Unless the Holy Spirit is allowed to perform a personal miracle of love in your heart, then both you and your church will be pulled back toward your comfort zones of including only people just like you. Even after the miracle of the heart that occurred in the house of Cornelius, many in the church went right back to their comfort zones. Today, many of our churches are doing the same, convinced they’re best equipped to reach only people like them. Thankfully, some in the church recognized the need: “But some of them ... spoke to the Hellenists [or Greeks], preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20).
Like the early church, every newly planted church in America today must have a strong sense about its multi-ethnic mission or it will remain unnoticed by its community. Those pastors and leaders who press in and develop strong, healthy multi-ethnic ministries will be the leaders and influencers of this generation.
The Road Through Samaria
Because I now seek to experience God’s completeness for the church, I want next-door neighbors and working relationships with friends of diverse ethnicities. Without those kinds of relationships in my life, I would again feel incomplete, a condition that for me is now totally unacceptable.
As long as we remain insensitive and obstinate in our denial and continue to walk “around” Samaria instead of being like Jesus who walked “through” Samaria (John 4:1-26), then nothing will change. Because they avoided Samaria, it took the Jews three extra days on foot to get from Judea to Galilee. Jesus would have had to go out of His way to not reach the Samaritan woman. It took more effort to avoid than to love. By connecting, He gave her—and her city—a renewed dignity because He carefully chose His road. And that road is still the one worth traveling.
Scott Hagan is a church planter at heart, having planted several churches, including the one he and his wife, Karen, currently lead in Sacramento, Calif. He is a regular columnist for Charisma and Enrichment Journal and author of They Walked With the Savior and They Felt the Spirit’s Touch.