Interview by Lindy Lowry and Scott Marshall
Since childhood, Efrem Smith has experienced churches separated largely along racial lines and churches in which races unite to worship God together. The former never made sense to him, and he is passionate about overcoming those divisions. The founder and pastor of a multiethnic congregation that has grown to more than 1,100 attendees in six years, Smith shares his assessment of race in the Church today and what lies ahead.
Q: Where do you think we are today? What is the current state of reconciliation in the Church?
A: My experience tells me that there are a large number of ministry leaders, pastors and Christian consultants and trainers out there that have strong passion for reconciliation.
The other thing that I’ve realized is that there are a lot of people that have a passion for it but just don’t know what to do. So they are hungry for resources, for practical steps.
I’ve also realized that reconciliation has to take on not just issues of race and ethnicity; it’s got to take on issues in your marriage, in your family, in your job. It’s got to be intergenerational. It’s got to be across class. It’s got to—and this comes from Scripture—start with being reconciled to God, and then it has to have relevance in your life in terms of relationships.
Q: What do you believe are some of the biggest barriers or challenges for churches that want to be intentional about reconciliation? Where do they start?
A: I think people are just looking for practical steps around preaching and theology and practical steps strategically. So those are the kinds of conversations I try to have with pastors and ministry leaders.
Most of the time, it starts with the pastoral leader. Are they going to preach it and teach it? And then it comes down to, where are you relationally? Do you have authentic interracial relationships? And do those relationships run deep? Those relationships and the ability to preach it and teach it are the starting points.
The main thing I try to help ministry leaders see is that you don’t have to water down the Gospel or rewrite Scripture to do this.
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Q: What, if anything, do you think the election of President Obama signifies to society as a whole or the Church?
A: Regardless of where somebody is politically, President Obama’s election does something to the sense that the highest levels of power in our government are reserved for white males, no question. But when I look at the body of Christ, black churches are led by black people; white churches are led by white people; Latino churches are led by Latinos. Last time I checked, just about every major evangelical organization in our country is headed by a European-American male. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing a great job. It doesn’t mean they’re not qualified. It doesn’t mean that God has not gifted them for their call. But in evangelicalism we are not ready to admit that a nonwhite person can lead a predominantly white organization.
When it comes to the United States, we, right now, have a “person of color” leading a predominantly white nation. Could something similar to that happen in Christendom? What I’m trying to say is that we have not experienced the same kind of multicultural diversity in places of leadership and power in the body of Christ as the United States of America has in its government structure.
Q: How do we get there?
A: What I’m suggesting is that leaders, especially in our evangelical churches and organizations, need to look at the future of their organizations and ask, “How can I create succession plans and strategic plans that lead to my church, my parachurch, my Christian university looking more like the kingdom of God?”
When I look at churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek, I am very, very optimistic about the future because they are becoming more and more multicultural. I believe we will surpass what is going on in our government because what we’re doing is about advancing the kingdom of God; it’s not limited to some political ideology. What we’re doing and what we’re called to do is to build a Church—to ignite a movement that gives the nation and the world a sneak preview of what heaven is going to look like.
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