Seeking to build a multiethnic church in one of the most racially divided cities in the world
It wouldn’t be hard to make the case that Cape Town is the most racially divided city on the planet. As a white South African pastor, therefore, I knew diversity needed to be near the top of my agenda when attempting to plant a church here.
Twenty-five years after apartheid formally ended, its geography remains. White neighborhoods are cut off from black neighborhoods by freeways, train lines and the poverty line.
So if there’s one city where the church must prophetically preach God’s gospel promise to create a multinational, multiethnic people for himself, it’s Cape Town (OK, I know almost every planter has such feelings about his city—add me to the list).
Seeing a diverse church planted here poses immense challenges. Gentrification has ravaged our city, forcing poorer black families out of the city center to make room for young white professionals. Language and class barriers only amplify the division. More than that, our fight for diversity is not for the purpose of a manicured picture of black-and-white believers singing songs together. Rather, it’s a fight against centuries-old structures of evil and sin that have harmed and divided image-bearers of God.
By God’s grace, we’ve labored to see the fruit of Matthew 28:19, that all nations might come to love and worship Jesus. We’ve longed for an earthly glimpse of Revelation 7:9, where every nation, tribe, people and tongue will come and worship before the Lamb seated on his throne.
In more than a decade of church planting in Cape Town, we’ve attempted to address racial issues in many ways. We’ve taught seminars on racial and economic justice. We’ve invited black pastors from the city to come preach and share their experience of living within a racialized environment. We’ve ordained black elders and recruited black church planters. We even helped found an organization that deliberately tackles issues of race in a post-apartheid context.
Yet despite all our efforts, I still pastor a largely white congregation. Don’t misunderstand me: I love the people the Lord has brought us. By his grace, he’s allowed us to see some significant fruit in a deeply skeptical culture. These people are my spiritual family. At the same time, together with them, I’m discouraged that our makeup doesn’t better reflect the city we’re in. What can be done in these tough environments?
Many people rightly go to Ephesians 2 to point out the error of racial division, but it’s important to read chapter 2 within the letter’s wider context, which sets forth the church’s grand purpose: to display God’s manifold wisdom to the heavens (Eph. 3:10). Such a task requires the power of him who is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).
So if you’re seeking to pastor or plant a diverse church, don’t neglect four things as you face the seemingly insurmountable challenges involved.
Even a cursory read of Paul’s ministry reveals a simple fact: he prayed. A lot. We church planters should heed his example.
We need to humble ourselves and call out to the God who can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. The apartheid and colonial legacy of racism and segregation here in South Africa is centuries old. Evils that ancient and entrenched don’t vanish through the odd sermon or occasional racial-reconciliation seminar. We need to pray—regularly and desperately.
2. Disciple Into Diversity.
It’s good and necessary to teach and preach on these subjects, but the truths must also be massaged into individual members’ lives. This requires many difficult conversations. It demands time and patience. It takes systematic plans, such as implementing diversity in leadership, worship and curriculum writing. It certainly takes far more than “window dressing” diversity. People should be able to push beneath the surface and find diverse soil feeding the roots of your church.
3. Participate in a Diverse Network and Partner With Different Churches.
A major reason our church joined Acts 29 Southern Africa was that the network in our region comprised largely black-led churches. We wanted to be in a network where we were a minority. Having friends and ministry partners farther down the line on diversity is an enormous encouragement and challenge.
4. Seek Out Diverse Leaders to Mentor and Challenge You.
If you can’t sit at the feet of leaders of color without feeling the need to lead or educate them in your “superior” methodology, then you’re doomed from the start. For those of us coming from cultures that have historically wielded all the power, we need to learn to genuinely submit to the voices of our brothers and sisters who have been on the other end of that spectrum. Apart from such humility, we’ll never have true diversity.
None of this is easy. It won’t magically lead to lots of diverse fruit. Sometimes I wonder if I’m building something only my children will get to enjoy. But the legacy of grace is worth our labor.
Nothing less than God’s omnipotent Spirit bringing the gospel to bear on human hearts, individually and collectively, will bring this hope about. But God holds out such a hope for his church, and his Word concludes with its fulfillment. May we humbly pursue it, with eyes fixed on the gospel, even in the face of the mounting challenge.