Neighborliness | Book Review


Neighborliness is a beautifully written book that is difficult to categorize in terms of genre. Part memoir, part social analysis, part plan of action, the book explores what happens when Christians reach across the dividing lines of race and economic class. In that sense, it is one man’s journey representing a potential destination for American churches.

David Docusen, the book’s author, is by turns a church planter, founder of a community development organization, and itinerant minister who wants to focus the American church’s attention on racism and economic inequality.

The book opens, as all good odysseys do, in the middle of the story. “We all look alike,” he said to himself tearfully as he surveyed his congregation gathered for worship one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. Same race. Same economic status. Same stage of life.

Charlotte is a diverse city, however. Desiring to see that beautiful diversity reflected in the church that started in his living room, Docusen began a personal journey of building relationships across neighborhoods, which also meant across the lines of race and economic status.

Along the way, Docusen learned a lot about the way racism and income inequality have shaped our communities, separating us from one another. Out of a desire to help people holistically, he started a community development organization called Freedom Communities, whose motto is “Disrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty one family at a time.”

The book’s greatest strengths are Docusen’s graceful way of telling stories that illuminate complex social and economic trends. This is where the book shines. Pastors who read the book can learn much from following Docusen’s example of building relationships with other pastors throughout the city, of listening to the needs of the poor from their own mouths, of realizing that no community — however poor it may be — lacks resources, and many other lessons.

There’s also a smack in the face to churches that want to send volunteers to city-center churches but who don’t first ask those churches what they actually need. There’s nothing worse than a church more concerned with a public pledge of volunteer hours than in helping others in terms that they understand as actually helping them.

One lacuna in the book, at least for this minister, was evangelism. Docusen is quite right that the gospel extends to all of life. Gospel-minded Christians thus must be concerned about race and income inequality. However, there’s a transformative power to evangelism that I am sure Docusen recognizes — he is a minister, after all — but doesn’t highlight in this book.

That aside, Neighborliness got me thinking that there are holes in the Christianity I practice related to race and income inequality. And these holes also exist in local churches throughout America. We should proclaim the gospel, and then demonstrate it through how we relate to others, especially those whose color and financial status are different than our own.

Book Review
David Docusen, Neighborliness: Finding the Beauty of God Across Dividing Lines (Austin, TX: Fedd Books, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Weep with Me | Book Review


On June 4, North Central University hosted the funeral for George Floyd. NCU is an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the days that followed the funeral, my Facebook timeline was filled with Christian folk weighing in on whether this was a good idea. The vast majority thought it was, but a vocal few — all but one of them white — were angry about aspects of the school’s action.

While perusing the back-and-forth on Facebook, I received an out-of-the-blue call from a minister friend in the Church of God in Christ. COGIC is a historically black church and the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination. My friend expressed incredible joy at NCU’s action, and he shared with me that other COGIC leaders also were happy at this unexpected action on NCU’s part.

The difference between the angry comments I read on Facebook and the joy in my friend’s phone call — anger and joy about the same event! — was (and is) jarring. Scripture enjoins believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). And yet, on June 4, the emotions of Christians I personally observed were out of sync.

In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop shows “how lament opens a door for racial reconciliation.” A lament is “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” It is a common form of prayer in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Lamentations. It usually contains four elements: 1) turning to God, 2) complaining about one’s situation, 3) asking for relief, and 4) trusting in God for deliverance. Vroegop’s previous book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, discusses these four elements in greater detail.

Lament is largely absent from white Christian spirituality in America. It is the native tongue of black Christian spirituality, however, the essence of African American spirituals. “These songs of sorrow expressed the emotional trauma of slavery and segregation,” Vroegop writes. “They protested exile created by the sins of partiality and abuse.” Ironically, when white American Christians look for mournful songs to use in Good Friday services, for example, they often turn to spirituals such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

So, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? To articulate the answer, Vroegop sketches out a path to reconciliation that consists of five movements.

First, love. “The church should be involved in racial reconciliation because of what we believe,” namely, that “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV).

Second, listen. “Too often the tone of the conversation [about racial reconciliation] is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes.” Progress requires “a posture of listening.”

Third, lament. More on this in a moment, but for now, just keep in mind that lament “supplies a biblical voice that allows us to talk to God and one another about the pain we feel and see.”

Fourth, learn. “Our cultural backgrounds, understandings of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. If we take the posture of learning from one another, we create a safe environment for asking questions and working through disagreements.”

Fifth, leverage. “The key is to understand that racial reconciliation requires action,” Vroegop concludes. “Love, listening, lamenting, and learning are designed to lead us here.”

So, again, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? It does so differently depending on whether a Christian belongs to his or her nation’s majority or one of its many minorities. In Part 2, Vroegop addresses America’s white majority; in Part 3, its black minority. (Though Vroegop draws on the history of America’s white-black divide, what he says could apply to white relations with other racial and ethnic minorities too.)

For majority Christians, lament engenders empathy, defined as “the ability or willingness to understand and care.” Empathy is the emotion behind Romans 12:15, which I quoted earlier, the ability to rejoice with or mourn with another. The incident I opened this review with is thus a failure of empathy. By contrast, “Weeping with those who weep emulates the heart of Jesus. It builds a bridge of grace over the chasm of division and injustice. It provides comfort to those who are hurting.”

Lament also offers majority Christians the language with which to speak up. “When it comes to racial injustice, the historical silence of most Christians has been deafening.” Lament both “acknowledges the brokenness of the world” and “refuses to remain silent.” A lament, merely by acknowledging that something is grievously wrong, breaks “the stronghold of the status quo.”

Finally, lament offers majority Christians the language of repentance and remorse. “Repentance is the change of mind, heart, and will that involves confession of specific sin and a change in our affections,” Vroegop writes. “Remorse is the heartfelt response when the weight of sin is understood.” We repent of our own sins. We express remorse for the sins of history that have shaped our present.

For minority Christians, lament offers the language of protest, triumph and faith. “Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering,” writes Soong-Chan Rah. In the Bible, such complaints were often found on the lips of exiles. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1, ESV). The Bible licenses the negative emotions associated with unjust suffering.

And yet, lament also gives minority Christians a language of triumph, as they acknowledge God’s power to redeem them out of their pain. Using Psalm 94, Vroegop draws three lessons about the power of lament. First, lament “validates the concern with injustice.” Second, it “shows us an appeal made not only because of personal wrongs but also because the divinely given system of justice was not working. And third, it “helps us see what to do with our frustrations and deep concern,” namely, turning to God and foreswearing vengeance.

Finally, lament gives minority Christians a language of hope about four things in particular: “God will help you,” “hardship can be transformative,” “people can change,” and “God will make it right.” Black Christians’ experience of suffering has often give them reservoirs of hope unavailable to those who live in comparative ease.

Weep with Me doesn’t claim to be the be-all, end-all of racial reconciliation. Much more has to be done than simply lamenting the current state of race relations in America, even among American Christians. And yet, the more I ponder the disparate responses to George Floyd’s funeral I mentioned at the top of this review, the more I wonder whether lament is a crucial missing step in contemporary reconciliation efforts.

Perhaps black and white Christians in America cannot move in step until our hearts are in sync, mourning together … and rejoicing too.

Book Reviewed
Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 | Book Review


The Bible begins with a family and ends with a multitude. Its narrative arc thus includes unity and diversity. Because of creation, all who bear the image of God are also children of Adam and Eve. Because of the new creation, the “great multitude” gathered before God’s throne in adoration encompasses “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

We do not live at either the beginning or end of the biblical story, however. We live in the middle, in a world divided by sin from God and from one another. The reason Jesus Christ entered the world was to overcome both divisions.

The apostle Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 2:15–16, where he writes: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” The Cross, in other words, is the place where Christ reconciles us both to God and to one another.

The Church’s mission, following in Christ’s steps, is to advance the work of this twofold reconciliation in both word (the gospel we proclaim) and deed (the gospel we practice). In my opinion, American Christians are better at the former than the latter. We have well-developed systems of evangelism but underdeveloped systems of racial reconciliation.

Brenda Salter McNeil’s Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 helps rectify that problem by outlining how Christians can pursue racial reconciliation personally, in their churches, and in their communities.

She defines racial reconciliation as “an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”

She then outlines “five primary landmarks as signs that will produce lasting personal and cultural change in people and groups” committed to such reconciliation:

  1. catalytic events: “painful but necessary experiences that happen to individuals and organizations that serve to jump-start the reconciliation process”;
  2. realization: “a state of awareness that requires a response because it literally changes everything we thought we understood about an experience”;
  3. identification: “where we begin to identify with and relate to other people who are experiencing the same thing”;
  4. preparation: where we move “from the personal and relational to the structural and the transformational, and the gap between the two is huge”; and
  5. activation: where we begin “to repair broken systems together.”

Throughout the book, Salter McNeil roots her counsel in biblical teaching, insights from social science, historical analysis, and long personal experience doing the work of racial reconciliation. The result is theologically rich, thought-provoking and eminently practical.

Salter McNeil argues that efforts at racial reconciliation usually break down in the preparation phase because personal relationships begin to impinge upon powerful structures. “Folks typically tend to gravitate to the first half of the model, engaging in the realization and identification phases with urgency and focus,” she writes.

Building personal relationships across lines of race and ethnicity is comparatively easy. Changing powerful structures is really hard. In the end, though, she writes, “relational connections cannot be sustained without structural intentionality.”

America is at an inflection point, and its churches have been given a kairos moment. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, have reopened the wounds of our nation’s longest injury, and the Church has a gospel capable of healing it through a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness, and a commitment to justice.

At this moment, whether the nation hears that gospel may very well turn on whether it sees Christians putting racial reconciliation into practice first.

 

Book Reviewed
Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

P.S. If you liked this review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the July-August 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here by permission.

What Racial Reconciliation Requires | Influence Podcast


The events of the past week have set America on fire.

It began on Monday, March 25th, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the death of George Floyd, a black man. Video of the event showed the white arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, despite cries from both Floyd and onlookers to relent. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd said. Floyd died soon after, and Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

As the video of Floyd’s death went viral, protestors in Minneapolis and other cities across the nation gathered to protest racism and police brutality. Some of those protests were marred by violence, looting, and arson. But the obvious injustice of George Floyd’s death is forcing Americans to ask, Where do we go from here? And the question the Church needs to ask is this: What does racial reconciliation require?

Those are the questions I ask Alex Bryant in this episode of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Alex Bryant is an ordained Assemblies of God minister, campus pastor at AG Theological Seminary, and an evangelist. Bryant, who is black, and his wife Angela, who is white, are authors of Let’s Start Again: A Biracial Couple’s on Race, Racial Ignorance, and Racial Insensitivity.

Welcoming Justice, 2nd ed. | Book Review


On December 3, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. opened the first annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change in Montgomery, Alabama, with a message titled, “Facing the New Age.” The institute was sponsored by the Montgomery Improvement Association, which King led. Almost a year to the day earlier, Montgomery police had arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a crowded bus to a white man. Her arrest began a yearlong bus boycott that ended with a Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of public transportation throughout Alabama.

King began his address by noting that both around the world and in the United States, people of color were throwing off the chains of imperialism and slavery. In place of that oppression, King proclaimed, “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.” He defined that love in a mashup of Matthew 5:44–45 and Luke 6:27–28: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven.” Love—not violence nor hate nor boycotts—was both the means and end of the movement King sought to lead.

It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform oppressors into friends…. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

King’s speech plays an important role in Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins’ Welcoming Justice. On the one hand, it helps explain the fragmentation of the Civil Rights movement that began in late 1964 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee “moved away from Christian formulations of nonviolence and beloved community,” as Marsh puts it. He continues, “Removed from its home in the church, the work of building beloved community withered and died.”

On the other hand, King’s words provide the setting for Perkins’ life work in completing “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement.” In 1960, Perkins and his wife Vera Mae had returned to their home town of Mendenhall, Mississippi, to teach Bible stories to kids in public school. But the entrenched poverty and racial antagonism he experienced there led him to expand the vision of his ministry and to articulate the “three Rs” of community development, which Marsh defines this way:

  • Relocation: “incarnational evangelism, the lived expression of the great Christological theme that Jesus Christ ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped’ but took on ‘the very nature of a servant’ (Philippians 2).”
  • Redistribution: “sharing talents and resources with the poor,” as well as “observable changes in public policy and voting habits.” More than politics, Marsh explains, Perkins understood the Christian community itself as a “distinctive social order.”
  • Reconciliation: “embodying the message that ‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ and that Christ has ‘destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ in lived social experience.”

Perkins has spent the last six decades of his life in pursuit of this vision of the beloved community.

Welcoming Justice alternates chapters between Marsh and Perkins, who have been friends for nearly forty years. In his chapters, Marsh, who is director of the Project on Lived Theology and professor of religious and theological studies at the University of Virginia, provides historical background to the Civil Rights movement and Perkins’ life and ministry, as well as introducing other contemporary expressions of community development, such as the “new monastic” movement. Perkins, in his chapters, shares his thoughts about the cultural captivity of the church, what the next Great Awakening will look like, and what it will take to build the “beloved community” in America today.

I don’t agree with everything Marsh and Perkins write in Welcoming Justice. I’m awed by Perkins’ life story, cognizant of the deep strain of racism that runs through our nation’s history—including its churches, and committed to racial reconciliation. I agree that churches must do more than they do now, both to heal our racial wounds and to lift up the poorest in our community. I’m just not sure that Perkins’ brand of community development is the way to go economically. That said, Marsh and Perkins—especially Perkins—inspire and challenge me to do more than I have been doing. My guess is that the book will have the same effect on you.

Welcoming Justice was first published in 2009, a year after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The second edition, just published, comes out a year after white supremacists organized a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. On the day of the rally, a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer.

The prefaces to the first and second editions of the book, by Philip Yancey and Marsh, respectively, capture the “two steps forward, one step back” character of American discussions about race. Our country has come a long way in the half-century since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but we still have a way to go before we realize the “beloved community” he dreamed of. Toward that end, to quote the sentence Perkins ends the book with: “Love is the final fight.”

Book Reviewed
Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoiming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, 2nded. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Woke Church | Book Review


The word woke is slang for being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Dr. Eric Mason appropriates this term to describe a church that has been “awakened to the reality of implicit and explicit racism and injustice in [American] society.” Such a church is characterized by four attributes:

  1. Awareness of the “overarching truths” that unite the Body of Christ, including the relationship of justice to the gospel (chapter 2) and the Church as the holy family of God (chapter 3);
  2. Acknowledgement of the history of racism among American Christians (chapter 4), which provides a list of beliefs and practices to lament (chapter 5);
  3. Accountability for churches to “reclaim our roles as light and salt in the world” by means of “prophetic preaching” (chapter 6) and advocacy for justice, which is understood to encompass how both individuals and systems act and react (chapter 7); and
  4. Action, which suggests “ten action steps” churches can take “to bring healing and justice into our spheres [of influence]” (chapter 8).

Mason concludes the book (chapter 9) with a brief study of the book of Revelation, which paints the “bigger picture” of God’s vision of the Church. “If the church can keep this image of what is to come before us,” Mason writes, “we will be energized to accomplish His purposes in the earth. We will work as one unified body, across all ethnic lines” (Revelation 7:9–10).

Mason is the founder and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, PA. He is a black evangelical who describes himself as “exegetically at home with my conservative family on the doctrines of grace, but ethically at home with my liberal family on issues of race and justice.” My guess is that Mason’s dual at-home-ness may frustrate readers. Conservatives may think some of his suggestions go too far, while liberals may think they don’t go far enough.

As a conservative white evangelical, the best piece of advice I can give to readers like me is this: listen. White and black Christians may read the same Bible, but they read it from very different social locations. And in my experience, white Christians are often unaware of the breadth and depth of racism in American history, including the history of the American church. Until we listen to our black brothers and sisters we cannot hope even to begin bridging the racial divide in our churches, let alone our country.

Dr. Eric Mason’s Woke Church is a right step in that direction.

Book Reviewed
Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018).

P.S. If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

One Blood | Book Review


The most heated conversations I’ve witnessed on Facebook had to do with race. Whether the topic was Confederate statues or Black Lives Matter, the conversations typically began politely enough but almost inevitably degenerated into the online equivalent of a shouting match. Many words appeared in ALL CAPS. These conversations both surprised and disappointed me.

Unfortunately, most of these conversations were between Christians. American society is divided, and American churches all too often reflect rather than correct those divisions. That saddens me immensely. We can do better. For the sake of the gospel, we must.

One Blood, according to its subtitle, contains John M. Perkins’ “parting words to the Church on race.” I’m not sure that’s right, however. While race is the context of the book, its text is reconciliation. Perkins writes: “Biblical reconciliation is the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of loving relationship” (emphasis added). Given America’s tortured history of race relationships, how can Christians lead the way in reconciliation? That’s the question the book examines.

Perkins is the founder and president emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation and cofounder of the Christian Community Development Association. Born in 1930 to black sharecroppers and raised in New Hebron, Mississippi, Perkins knew sorrow from an early age. His mother died of pellagra when he was an infant. (Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency that causes its victims to starve.) His father abandoned him at a young age. His brother, a World War II veteran, was murdered by a deputy marshal. When he was 17, his family urged him to migrate to Southern California in the hope he wouldn’t suffer his brother’s fate.

It was in California, at the age of 27, that Perkins became a Christian. In 1960, he and his wife and children returned to Mendenhall, Mississippi, to start Voice of Calvary Bible Institute, a ministry focused on personal evangelism and biblical literacy. Alongside this ministry, however, he and his wife, Vera Mae, began to minister to the material needs of members of their community. And he began to advocate for civil rights and public school desegregation. In 1970, he led a boycott of white-owned businesses that landed him in jail, where he was beaten by police.

In the following decades, Perkins increasingly became a black evangelical voice for civil rights, at a time when many white evangelicals were suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement. He advocated justice, of course, as well as help for the economically disadvantaged, but above all, he continued to urge reconciliation.

One Blood outlines the biblical case for reconciliation, as well as the kinds of practices that make it possible. More than any other, this single paragraph encapsulates the message of the book:

The Church must speak out with one voice against bigotry and racism. We have been too quiet. The time is now. A platform has been placed in front of us and we must speak with clarity and truth. We’ve made a mess of things, but there is a path forward. It will require us to hold fast to [God’s] vision for one Church and the biblical truth of one race. We need to lament our broken past and be willing to make some personal confessions about our own part in that mess. Then we’ll have to be willing to forgive and move forward toward true repentance. We must be committed to the right until the battle for reconciliation is won. And we must never forget that our power is not in guns, weapons, or armies. Our power is on our knees before God.

Perkins leaves no doubt that reconciliation is a gospel issue. “For too long, many in the Church have argued that unity in the body of Christ across ethnic and class lines is a separate issue from the gospel. There has been the suggestion that we can be reconciled to God without being reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Scripture doesn’t bear that out.”

At the outset, I mentioned my surprise and disappointment with conversations about race I have witnessed on Facebook. One Blood was surprising, too. Given what Perkins has seen, heard, and been subjected to in his 87 years of life, the lovingkindness of his message is stunning. It doesn’t detract from the hard truths he mentions about our nation’s — and the Church’s — failings with regard to race. Nor does it lessen the responsibility to make things right. But it does engender hope.

Book Reviewed
John M. Perkins with Karen Waddles, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Preaching with Cultural Intelligence | Influence Podcast


In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Matthew D. Kim about his new book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic).

Dr. Kim is associate professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and author of the book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear our Sermons (Baker Academic). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

I think this book is timely because America is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, and so are American churches. This diversification raises an important question: How should pastors and other church leaders preach and minister in this new cultural context?

Take a listen to Dr. Kim’s answer!

Pentecostals, Race, Justice and Reconciliation | Influence Podcast


In episode 123 of the Influence Podcast, I interview Pastor Walter Harvey about “Pentecostals, Race, Justice and Reconciliation.”

Harvey is pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as vice president of the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God. He also has the lead article in the January-February 2018 issue of Influence magazine, titled, “A Place Called Sherman Park: Eight ministry lessons that can help bring renewal to communities in chaos.”

 

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