“If we’re going to stand eternally at the throne, we ought to be able to sit now at the table.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Albert Tate talks about his vision for a multiethnic church, how we can bridge our social and cultural divides with love, some of the challenges he faced establishing Fellowship Church.
In your book, you share your experience that a multiethnic community can typically only be as diverse as the comfort of its white members, and how one of the first challenges in even leading these conversations is keeping your white siblings at the table. How do you lead through that?
Oh man—the number of times where I feel like I would enjoy life better if I pastored a very monocultural church right now. I feel like everything would be easier. Then, of course, I talk to my friends who are leading at monocultural, homogeneous churches, and they’re saying, “Yeah bro, it ain’t easier over here” [laughs].
But I think one of the big things is modeling that having hard conversations is OK. Korie Edwards has studied multiethnic churches and described that statistically. The multiethnicity of a church is usually limited and conditional, depending on the comfort level of white people, because once they get uncomfortable they typically just leave.
That broke my heart to hear it. My vision is not of a church that caters to anyone, but that calls us all to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, to the fullness God is calling us all to, where we will all sit together in the eternal reign of God—every tongue, every tribe, every nation declaring, “Worthy is the Lamb.”
I’m convinced that if we’re going to stand eternally at the throne, we ought to be able to sit now at the table. And in the centerpiece of the table can’t be the assumption that “white” is normative, as the standard of operation—which in America, whiteness has been.
So as a Black man growing up in this country, I had to understand whiteness because if I was going to have any upward mobility, I had to know how to make white people comfortable. T.D. Jakes has a famous line that goes something like this: “I can’t get a GED without understanding white culture. But a white person can get a Ph.D. and never opt in to understanding Black culture.”
“Before you have a conversation about race, have a conversation about empathy.”
We must learn to operate out of what 1 Corinthians describes as love, to operate out of what the book of Galatians describes as the fruit of the Spirit. I’m just inviting us all to bring fruit and not fight to the conversation, bring love as defined by God and his Word. And if we do that, it changes how we even respond to some of the things that I just said. It automatically changes that response.
It’s hard work. There are those who have gotten up from the table and left, and gone to other churches: minorities who are frustrated, saying we’re going too slow. White people who feel like we’re going too fast. As a pastor it takes a lot of discerning and asking, Lord, how do I stay in love, truth and grace, and continue to call everyone to a posture of sacrifice, to a commitment of justice, and to an openness of grace, so that we might love one another well?
One of the things I appreciate about your book is a combination of honesty and optimism. You believe this kind of love can be more than simply an ideal. Is there a story that illustrates some of the reasons you have such hope for this conversation?
At our church we started a center for racial reconciliation as a discipleship tool that we use to help move this conversation to a more robust posture and spiritual vision in the body of Christ. We help people work through this. We have what we call Table Talks, where people come together at a table and discuss books, podcasts and movies. One of them is intergenerational, but just for white men. To talk about white privilege. Because it’s one thing for me to talk about white privilege, and another thing for a white guy to sit and try and navigate where he sits in it. We just said, let’s create a safe space for white men to be honest about their journey. And we use a book that is a good setup for the conversation.
The first night, an older white gentleman, a brother in Christ who we all love, says, “I just don’t believe in this stuff. I think it’s divisive.” He was of the understanding that even the conversation creates division, which is just not true, because the division is already there, and the conversation just makes us aware of it. But he said, “Yeah, I don’t believe race is real. I believe this is an agenda of the radical left, and it’s ridiculous.”
Well, they hadn’t even read the first chapter of the book yet. The first chapter of the book talks about how privilege shows up in white men, and everything that the book describes as the go-to arguments of white men, described completely this guy’s talking points. So when they read that next chapter, the same guy comes back to the same group the next week. Now at that point one might expect some embarrassment or defensiveness. Maybe for him to check out altogether. But instead, he said, “I’m so sorry. I hadn’t read that far ahead in the book. I didn’t realize what I was saying or what I was doing. I didn’t try to understand anyone else’s narrative but my own.”
“It really is a big deal to God how we treat one another. We are all called to love people who don’t look like us, live like us or vote like us.”
Now, I don’t think that he changed his mind on everything he thought, but then that was not the goal. He showed up at the table. He had the conversation. That was the goal. And over the subsequent weeks, and their time together, they listened and opened themselves to see themselves in a way where God might be inviting them to change, and they were yielding to that surrender and inviting God to move.
I’ve just seen story after story of Christians having these kinds of honest conversations, then leaving looking more Christian, sounding more Christian and acting more Christian. And do you know what that tells me? That the Word of God still works.
What are some of the first few steps somebody can take in their church to begin building some meaningful momentum toward that vision of honesty?
The first thing is that we’ve got to declare together that this is the Lord’s work. Honest reconciliation is [in the] Bible. We’ve got to open up the book we love and see how God calls us to love, and see the attributes of love and what love looks like. We must not step into this conversation without allowing the foundation of love to shape the whole thing. If we show up in love, that creates an atmosphere that’s safe, that’s honest and that’s true, where we celebrate the fruit of the Spirit, and not the arguments of the rights of our flesh.
I think that’s the game changer. Then before you have a conversation about race, have a conversation about empathy. What empathy is. What empathy does. Empathy does not fix; empathy does not solve; empathy doesn’t even always agree. Empathy allows those who have burdens to be heard, to be seen and to be supported. And starting with empathy then moves us, naturally, to sacrifice on behalf of others.
Our posture as believers is to become “extra mile” Christians. You know that teaching of Jesus. At the time, a Roman soldier could tell you to carry his heavy bag a mile. That first mile was obligation. It was a fulfillment of a requirement. But the second mile? For which you had no obligation? That could be the change of a relationship. So before I give my opinion or I show how I agree with you, or how I defend myself because I feel like I’m being accused inappropriately, I must ask, Can I carry your burden another mile? Can I sit in your relationships? Your complicated opinions about police? Your journey growing up? Your experience of racial pain, discrimination or division? Can I go another mile in that conversation? That extra mile will open an opportunity for you to serve and love, unlike anything else. Because you didn’t have to do it. That makes all the difference. That’s love.
“Jesus held his convictions, but he did not withhold his compassion, even for those who did not share his convictions.”
And then, after that relationship has been built, then let’s talk about justice. Let’s push back on each other’s assumptions. Let’s argue. Let’s talk about different perspectives. Let’s talk about opinions. Let’s talk about stuff happening that we think is hypocritical. No part of this conversation should be sugar coated. I just think the whole conversation should be coated with compassion as well as our conviction. It has to come in the context of loving, extra-mile relationship. That’s how you know it’s gospel.
I think this conversation is worthy of truth and grace, and Christians should be the leaders in the ability to do that well in culture. But right now, it feels like we’ve fallen the most victim to our culture’s shortcomings.
What does it look like for us to be a community of gospel people who can begin living beyond some of these divides?
My dream is for us as a church to reclaim our witness in our culture. Reclaiming our witness doesn’t mean that we reclaim popularity. But one thing people will know for sure about us is that we are a loving people. We will truly be known by our love, more than our doctrine, more than our political affiliation, more than our racial biases and subset cultures. So much so that the world will stop and say, “What’s wrong with y’all? Y’all carrying an extra mile? Who are you? You love people that don’t look like you, live … you’re not partisan people? You’re not people of the elephant? You’re not people of the donkey? You’re people of the Lamb?”
And with all that in mind, my greatest hope is that my grandchildren will see the work that I’ve done, see this book that I’ve written, the churches we planted, the messages that I’ve preached, and think that they are absolutely ridiculous. I hope that they look at my work like a VHS tape and literally say, “Wow. That was a thing? That was a whole thing, you did a whole book and people were leaving the church because of race?”
I hope that I can say to them, “A world that you’ll never know because it’s not where the church is and it’s not what the church is.” I dream of a future for the church where we have reclaimed our witness. Every tribe, every tongue, every nation, every race, loving all people, a place where those of different views can come to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and experience hospitality, love and grace.
“If we’re going to stand eternally at the throne, we ought to be able to sit now at the table.”
And I think we can do all of that without compromising one iota of our biblical convictions, but our convictions, although strong, don’t ever give us an excuse to eclipse our compassion. Jesus held his convictions, but he did not withhold his compassion, even for those who did not share his convictions.
I think now we’ve got a culture where if you don’t share our convictions, we withhold our love. I pray that this work and the work of so many others in this space will help the church mature into a place where our convictions and our compassions are disseminated in abundance, overwhelmingly, to all who desire to experience and grow in God.
My heart is that we would come to the table, and that this book will create and facilitate a safe space for us all to learn what it is to love our siblings well. And when it’s hard, and when we’re tempted to get up from the table, that we won’t be driven by our offense, we won’t be driven by our lack of agreement, but that we would look at the centerpiece of the table and see that it is blood-stained, and that would overcome all other offenses and opinions and call us to submit to that and then, in turn, cause us to submit to one another. My vision is that we would sit at the family table and do the hard work of racial reconciliation. Because I believe that’s Christ’s vision too.