“Reflections on Where We Are,” by Dr. Matthew R. St. John
Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2021
I’m asked often about New Hope Church’s endeavor to be a Christ-centered community for all peoples. The complexities of this effort, particularly in our day and age, with all the ideas and emotions attached to it, are astonishing. I struggle to find words to adequately convey the scope of this responsibility that our Lord Jesus has placed upon us—a responsibility to walk out as a witness to a watching world the oneness our Lord Jesus has purchased for us with His blood. But, in some effort to give an update, three matters come to my mind.
First, I am hopeful. A quick glance around the public square reveals a society rife with pain around matters of ethnicity, culture, diversity, history, and so forth. The overwhelming partialities that define our land (and even the church), along with a profound lack of empathy toward real human stories of pain-shaped injustices, beg for something or someone to make all things new. Of course, as disciples of Jesus we have the answer. The redemptive work of Jesus has the power to reconcile sinners to God and to one another. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-14). It has pleased Jesus to “reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20).
People ask me all the time where we’re going with this endeavor. Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, and in a world desperate for something to give, we will be powerful yet humble ambassadors of how the gospel unites repentant sinners from many tribes and tongues and peoples and nations. When we as a church walk out in real time such blood-bought oneness, in the face of so much complexity, we are a beautiful witness to a watching and broken world seared by, among many things, profound ethnic and cultural partiality and pain. I know it is for this God is shaping our church. He deeply cares about these things. This is why I am hopeful.
Secondly, this is hard. It is unsettling when folks reduce this prophetic and pastoral vision to mere politics. It is hard when accusations fly that we have been co-opted by some nefarious secularism or Marxism or liberalism, and that we need to just stick to the gospel (as if the gospel has nothing to say about how Jesus makes all things new). It is hard when we reach for a better future, but are anxious about how much it might cost us personally and as a community. It is hard, and there are days I wish to be done.
When Jesus was at the synagogue in Nazareth, having read from the scroll of Isaiah these words, as recorded in Luke 4:18-19,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
He was well received. It was understood by the audience, and rightly so, that the good news, the gospel, provided for holistic transformation. Captives would be liberated, as would be the oppressed. The poor would be gladdened by the proclamation, and the blind would see. Again, this Jewish audience was delighted by this, until, that is, Jesus correlated this gospel to include those of different ethnicities—the Gentiles (see Luke 4:20-30). It was then the crowd tried to kill Jesus. This story underscores for me the challenge of dismantling deeply entrenched ideas around identity and partiality so as to reach for the Father’s better things. Because it creates pain we are want to back away.
And there are serious challenges still at play. Many people of color believe the effort to engage a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church is just not worth it. Many in the majority feel the same. Even the most measured movements of progress are seen as too much for those in the majority, suggesting to friends of color that they may not really be welcome. Then there is the challenge of language. What words do we use to walk out God’s vision? Many decry the use of “social justice,” and yet “justice” is a thoroughly biblical term, and is always in the Bible seen within a social construct. There are also real and understandable questions about how to process the dynamics at play. Are there those who have power and those who don’t? To what extent is corporate repentance appropriate for historic injustices? Are we being congruent across different matters of unrighteousness—abortion to persecution to racialization? These challenges are real. And on top of these are my own shortcomings as a leader. I am certain there are wiser ways for me to carry out my own responsibilities. This endeavor is really hard.
Thirdly, through God’s grace we’re making headway. Around all these matters the hearts of our people are getting softer still–more open, more aware. My own heart is, too. My daily prayer is that God would pivot our church toward His better things; that we would conform more fully to the image of Christ. We will always be on a journey of transformation. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
I am regularly given feedback from ministry leaders around the country that when some crisis arises, such as that with George Floyd or Philando Castile, despite what might be a desire to speak prophetically and empathetically about such things, they cannot because their congregations would never tolerate it. By God’s grace, we strive to put voice to these moments; these glimpses of profound society sickness. Though it can be costly the return is powerful. Truly hurting people pushed in the shadows by the partiality and fear of those in the mainstream find themselves to be seen. The insertion of God’s grief and vision into these traumas reminds us that God has something to say, a message of hope—a vision for a better world washed clean by Christ’s blood. Despite real pushback, I hear all the time from people within our church family words of gratitude, encouragement, and appreciation for the journey. It is life-changing. It is prophetic. It is pastoral. It is timeless. It is biblical.
When we’re so close to something it is easy to wonder if good things are unfolding. Yet, from around our community I regularly receive deep appreciation for the way in which we are reaching to be a Christ-centered community for all people. Following the turmoil of George Floyd’s death and the riots that ensued, many churches reached out asking for counsel on how to navigate forward. Why? Perhaps because by God’s grace, though we have so much more to learn, we are making headway. We are inch by inch stepping closer to the vision God has for us, through Christ’s power, “so that through the church the manifold (literally, the multicolored) wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11). We have so much still to learn, but we are making headway, and for this we give all glory and praise to the Head of our Church, Jesus Christ.