Evangelical Christians must be willing to pay the price to gain racial unity, speakers said April 4 at a conference on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The final day of “MLK50: Gospel Reflections From the Mountaintop” occurred as Memphis and the country remembered King, who was shot down April 4, 1968, in this Mississippi River city. The two-day event – co-hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC) – took place in conjunction with many remembrances of King, including a ceremony at the Lorraine Motel, where he was killed, that conference participants were able to attend.
Photo by Rocket Republic
Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, talks about the inconsistencies of white evangelicals on race issues April 4 during the MLK50 conference in Memphis.
In the evening session, attendees gave an offering of more than $16,500 for the Memphis Christian Pastors Network, a multi-ethnic coalition seeking to foster racial unity and meet needs in the city. Earlier in the day, conference hosts unveiled the MLK50 Dream Forward Scholarship Initiative, which will enable minority students in Memphis to receive financial aid to participating Christian colleges, universities and seminaries and already has raised more than $1.475 million.
White pastors must address the issue, Dallas-Fort Worth area pastor Matt Chandler told conference attendees.
“You have got to say something,” Chandler told white pastors in the audience at the Memphis Convention Center and watching by live stream online. “There is no way forward if white pulpits won’t talk.”
Quoting King, the pastor of The Village Church said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
He had a difficult time sleeping the night before because he knew what he was asking of some of them, Chandler told pastors. They might be criticized, bullied and fired, he acknowledged.
Chandler encouraged them to begin by preaching on the Bible’s view of ethnicity and unity. “Ethnic harmony is one of the great themes of the Bible. This is the refrain of the Bible over and over and over again,” he said, adding, “Jesus consistently confronted broken thinking about ethnicity.”
Veteran pastor Crawford Loritts, an African American pastor of a predominantly white church, said on the final panel of the conference the question is not so much, “Where do we go from here?” but “Why haven’t we gone from here?”
The need is courage, he said. “This issue is going to cost us.
“Are we willing to pay that price? Love is expensive, and commitment is expensive.
“And I think God is standing back and saying to the church: You all know what to do here. You really do know what to do,” said Loritts, senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Ga. “It’s the courage and will to do it and to be it and to pay that price.”
Chandler and other speakers pointed to the need for cross-ethnic relationships – and not ones in which whites Christians find African Americans who agree with them.
As a pastor and president of the Acts 29 church–planting network, he has a group of black fellow pastors who provide a “voice that I need to hear because I do not know or understand,” Chandler said. “If it weren’t for the ‘hanging-in-there-ness’ of my African American brothers and sisters, there would be no way forward for us as a white congregation.”
On the final panel, Bible teacher Beth Moore said she has sought out minority voices who would push her.
“We’ve got to speak out,” Moore said, explaining she began voicing her convictions on social media when there was an effort to silence dissenting voices online.
“[I]n our discipleship, we are not teaching what is normative in the believing life,” Moore said. “We have been very proud of the fact that we have not ascribed to a prosperity gospel, but what we have ascribed to is a pampered gospel.”
Ignorance of history and the system is a problem for many white evangelicals, Chandler said in seeking to explain their inconsistencies on race issues.
“[T]hey don’t know what they don’t know, and they are part of a system that encourages their not knowing,” he said. “This ignorance has led to immaturity, and [immaturity] talks when it should listen, and it’s silent when it should speak. This immaturity has led either to hostility or withdrawal.”
Another problem is the slippery definition of “evangelical,” said TGC President Don Carson.
There are “millions of people who call themselves evangelicals who have never been born again; never really, truly trusted Christ; who don’t bow to the Lordship of Christ,” Carson said during the final panel discussion. “The statistical evidence for that is overwhelming.”
Photo by Rocket Republic
Karen Ellis, president of the Makazi Institute and writer/lecturer on international religious freedom, shares about the underground community of Christians that persevered through slavery April 4 at the MLK50 conference in Memphis.
Karen Ellis, president of the Makazi Institute and writer/lecturer on international religious freedom, said the perseverance of underground Christian communities among America’s slaves provides help for current followers of Jesus. They suffered violations of their religious liberty, but “they spread Christianity in America, not American Christianity.”
“[A]s we look at these abuses against the first freedom, religious freedom, we realize that Christ’s promise is true,” she told the audience, “that He will build His kingdom, and the gates of hell and legislation and racism and ethnocentrism and political idolatry and heresy will not prevail against its advance.
“As the cultural climate in America continues to sour toward Christianity, we must unite, and history shows us that we can,” she said. “If anyone has ears to hear, now is the time to find our way to each other.”
John Piper, author and Desiring God founder/teacher, said racial unity is for the glory of Christ.
“It is because we still see who we are that the unifying insignia of Christ shines so brightly with His glory,” Piper told attendees.
If a person lost his or her ethnic identity or language upon being born again, “Christ would not be preeminent in glory,” he said. “He would be parochial. He would be a tribal deity. Christ is not a tribal deity. He is the Creator of the universe, the incarnate God, the redeemer of a new humanity ransomed from all the people of the world that in everything He might be preeminent, that in the church the purpose of the universe happens.”
Piper told young people in the audience, “You have one hope to find a path that exalts Christ and does justice – an infallible, Spirit-illumined Bible in a colorful community of the redeemed. So young people, hold fast to the whole glory of Christ, and God may grant that we who are older may look down from heaven someday and see better things.”
H.B. Charles, pastor-teacher of Shiloh Church in Jacksonville and Orange Park, Fla., told attendees, “Do not underestimate what God is doing in the local church.
“Local churches being faithful right where they are might not make national headlines, but God is changing communities and neighborhoods and cities through churches that are determined to be the church,” he said.
The conference took a three-hour break so participants could attend events at the Lorraine Motel, where a bell tolled 39 times at 6:01 p.m. in memory of King. Only 39 at the time of his death, King led the civil rights movement from his time as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. In Memphis to advocate for sanitation workers on strike, King gave what became known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.
The ERLC/TGC conference’s final day also featured short talks, another panel discussion and 21 breakout sessions.
Leading music April 4 were the worship teams of Fellowship Memphis and The Village Church, which sang a newly composed song about racial unity.
Archived videos of the event may be viewed at mlk50conference.com/live.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)