The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9 brought race relations to the forefront of the news. A survey of evangelical leaders conducted three days prior to the shooting indicates that racial reconciliation was already an ongoing topic among evangelical churches in the United States.
Seventy-one percent of the evangelical leaders surveyed said their churches have discussed the need for racial reconciliation from the pulpit, in seminars or in courses, according to the August Evangelical Leaders Survey.
“The survey shows that evangelicals care about racial reconciliation,” said Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals. “Most have addressed the issue publicly. Some have placed special emphasis on it. Others haven’t but know they should. A few have not, even though many of their members are minorities.”
Paul de Vries, President of New York Divinity School and Senior Pastor of Immanuel Community Church in Manhattan, said, “Even in our racially diverse congregation, racial reconciliation is an important theme going forward toward more complete healing.”
While the survey asked about the churches that leaders attend, denominational, educational and organizational leaders indicated that the topic has been important in their contexts as well.
For example, Doug Beacham, General Superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), said his denomination started engaging the issue 20 years ago, when the former IPHC General Superintendent worked to unite two Pentecostal denominational fellowships, which were divided by race, to create the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of North America, a fellowship that continues today.
When the IPHC gathered in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1996, denominational leaders repented of seven specific sins, including the sin of racism. The denomination also made changes in their leadership and departmental structure to be more representative of the denomination’s diversity.
“Racial reconciliation remains a major focus of our movement,” Beacham said. “We continue to host and encourage regular dialogue within and outside the denomination between white and African American pastors and churches. Needless to say we still have a long way to go, but I am thankful we are engaged in the process.”
Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University, said that racial reconciliation has been one of the university’s most visible commitments. Bethel University has an undergraduate major and minor in reconciliation studies, an annual reconciliation day with chapel and programming, a Chief Diversity Officer, and several initiatives to increase diversity in the administration, faculty and students.
Anderson said, “Sermons, seminars and courses in churches on racial reconciliation are not just a response to current events. They represent a deep expression of Christian faith – one that was an issue in biblical times as much as today.”
The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.