Lesslie Newbigin was a British missionary who spent three decades ministering cross-culturally in India. When he “retired” to Britain, he saw his homeland with new eyes—the eyes of a missionary. When he looked around at Great Britain, he recognized the great need for the gospel. Newbigin devoted his retirement years to this fresh missionary encounter between the gospel and western culture. Today, America needs much of the same thing. Where I live in New York City, this need has become increasingly self-evident.
However, as I consider this city and the rest of America, one thing is clear: our gospel witness is taking place amid a racially divided society. Anti-immigrant sentiment has led to inflammatory rhetoric against those who look or act different than us. This past week, someone mistakenly assumed that I was Jewish, followed me into a store, and proceeded to insult and harass me. When a Hispanic store employee intervened on my behalf, he was told to “Go back to Mexico.” In El Paso, such sentiments led one person to commit mass murder. Unfortunately, these are only a few of countless examples.
As Christians, we seek to bear witness to the Risen Lord amid this racially divided society. Yet our racial divisions complicate our efforts. How can we faithfully bear witness to Jesus in such a divided culture? In this article, I’d like to offer up three suggestions, based in part upon what I’ve learned while planting a church in the international city of New York. None of these suggestions are meant to be the last word. Instead, think of them as conversation starters.
STUDYING OUR HISTORY
First, we need to study our own history. Many of us can fall into the trap of only considering what’s happening right now. However, as Mark Twain allegedly declared, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” The racial divisions of today are the result of the racial divisions of yesterday. In order to be effective witnesses to Jesus, we should be sensitive to the scars on our nation’s soul. We should study our history with a desire to seek and know truth, especially the less favorable parts. We should grow in our knowledge and understanding of realities such as slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws, the massacre of Natives and the theft of their lands, the mistreatment of past immigrants, such as my Irish ancestors, and the many other injustices committed throughout America’s history.
When doing street evangelism in NYC, I meet many who are angry at the church, primarily due to issues of racial injustice. I usually begin by apologizing, and this tends to disarm those with whom I am speaking. When Christians know the racial backstory of our country (and our churches), we can be better equipped to engage those we encounter. So, pick up a history book. Talk to an older person of color. Befriend an immigrant or refugee. What you learn might shock you, but it will also enable you to be a more effective witness to Jesus.
EMBRACING DIASPORA MISSIONS
Second, we should embrace the opportunity of diaspora missions. The nations have come to America. In New York, hundreds of languages are spoken. Countless unreached people groups (UPGs) reside here in significant numbers. Sometimes, the presence of these individuals in our country can become controversial. When this happens, my neighbors become a political football. What if we instead viewed them as our Lord does — as men, women and children created in the image of God who desperately need to be reconciled to him? We cannot let disputes over immigration deter us from our obedience to Christ and the mission of the church. We cannot allow ourselves to vilify those who are culturally “other.” If we do that, we will almost certainly fail to reach them with the gospel.
Bearing witness to Jesus in our society should involve a commitment to diaspora missions. So, sign up to teach Muslim immigrants at your church’s ESL class. Adopt a refugee family. Take a short-term mission trip to serve among unreached people groups who reside within the United States. As we minister to and with those who are not like us, our prejudices and biases might just be exposed, and that’s a good thing! Mission is not simply about what God does through us, but also about what he does in us.
CONSIDERING MULTICULTURAL CHURCHES
Third, we should, when possible, plant multicultural churches. In the last twenty years, the number of multiracial evangelical churches has doubled. Although not every church in every setting should be multicultural, such churches do play a unique role in helping us bear witness. When our neighbors see a polarized city or country, they should be able to look at a church and see a foretaste of God’s kingdom. It’s like a movie trailer; the trailer whets your appetite and motivates you to see the movie. Similarly, a diverse group of people within the church can be united through the gospel, thereby providing a sneak peak of the kingdom of God.
In places that prize tolerance and diversity, such as New York, this will enhance the credibility of our gospel witness. With that in mind, seek out opportunities to partner with multicultural churches. Pray for their leaders. Join a launch team. Multicultural churches are not the answer to every community’s missional need, but in many cases, they can help facilitate a fresh missionary encounter with the gospel amid a racially divided society.
Lesslie Newbigin understood that the West needed a renewed gospel vision. He didn’t fret about the cultural changes occurring in his homeland. Instead, he spent time pastoring a multicultural inner-city congregation outside of Birmingham, where he led a bi-cultural pastoral team to engage that community with the hope of the gospel. In our day, we need to recover Newbigin’s commitment to bearing witness to Jesus even when our society is deeply divided. There is hope, and it is rooted in the body and blood of a Galilean carpenter who gave his life as a ransom for all.