The gospel and race: An interview with Jordan Rice

Jordan Rice is the pastor of Renaissance Church in Harlem, NYC. He and his wife Jessica planted the church in 2014. Renaissance is very diverse, reflecting the neighborhood well: 50% black, 30 to 40% white, and the rest Latino and Asian. Jordan recently led the church through a series on the gospel and race. We spoke to Jordan about the church, racism in America and this series.

A lot of churches are talking about diversity, but what gave you the passion for diversity to be a core value of your church plant?
I was originally an opponent of diverse churches. The only diverse churches I saw were white in culture with black people assimilating into the dominant culture, and I was against that. And then about 10 years ago, a good friend challenged me. So I really started to explore the scriptures, and once I got to Revelation 7:9 where you see the picture of the kingdom with a great multitude ... from every nation, every tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, it hit me like a ton of bricks that every single time I pray, “Lord, your kingdom come,” this is what I’m praying for. I’m praying for a diverse group of people coming together to all be family. If the gospel is real, then it makes us actual brothers and sisters. That was a huge turning point in my life when I knew that if we are truly reconciled to Jesus, we can truly be reconciled to each other, regardless of the obstacles.

What shaped the message and direction of your recent series on the gospel and race?
Everything I’ve seen about the gospel and race has asked, “How do white Christians become more tolerant and more accepting? And how does majority culture welcome in other people?”

But those are not the questions people are asking in our neighborhood. So we needed a two-fold approach. For the outsiders to Harlem, we wanted them to have a really good understanding of how people from Harlem understand the gospel and race. And for people in our congregation, we wanted to give them really good language for how to approach this topic.

Novelist and social critic James Baldwin said, “To be black in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” Just the myriad of things that happen — just what it’s like to be black on a Tuesday — is pretty exhausting. When we talked about race, I knew that black members would be coming in fatigued and angry and hopeless in some cases, and I wanted them to feel encouraged and heard and seen and that they would learn new things, and that everybody would be able to walk alongside them on that journey.

Tell us a bit about how your community groups played a role in the series.
American psychiatrist and author Scott Peck talks about four stages of community.

There’s pseudo-community, which is what people often categorize as real community. Everybody’s getting along and hugging.

Then once people realize they actually strongly disagree about things germane to their life and their faith, they start trying to change each other, and that brings chaos.

Emptiness is next. That’s where people realize they can’t change each other.

And then finally there’s real community — when you see someone who is flawed and you accept them for who they are and engage them with love and care. That is where true community can happen, and that’s when I think the gospel is the most profound and most powerful.

I knew that this series was going to take us quickly from pseudo-community to chaos, and we went into it prayerfully. We told everybody that this is going to get uncomfortable (especially in our community groups) and it’s going to get uglier before it gets better, but give it some time. And we’ve seen a lot of healing and progress.

Is there a highlight from the series that stuck with you?
Many black people have heard this argument: “The reason you are a Christian is that slaveholders forced your ancestors to accept Christianity to serve the interests of those in power.” We addressed this in the series with a message about the historical roots of Christianity and whether or not Christianity is the “white man’s religion.” In that message, we used Acts 2 to validate that Christianity in Africa started at Pentecost, not when the slave ships pulled up.

After that message, establishing Christianity as indigenous to Africa, an African woman stopped me in the hallway with tears streaming down her cheeks and said, “Thank you so much for showing how the gospel truly has embedded itself in every culture well before slavery or colonization.” That was what we were aiming for in the series.

Final thoughts and how can we pray?
If you think about all of the intentional and horrific acts that had to happen to bring America to this point, how could we ever think that we would unintentionally unravel the mess, the historic trauma and racism that has been pervasive in this country for 400 years? Nothing that has happened in America has been unintentional to get us to this place. Why in the world would it unintentionally just magically unravel with good gospel preaching?

I don’t think we would assume that with any other area of life. But with race, for whatever reason, we think, “Hey, if we just stick to the gospel, it’s all going to figure itself out.” But it’s going to take bold, intentional actions, and I think we could all pray for courage to do some bold things to undo racism.

I’ll be praying for our churches. I’m praying for pastors who take stances and get fired. I’m praying for new churches to open. I’m praying for seminaries that are going to lose funding because they take a direction where they highlight the injustices. I pray for denominations that are going to be in jeopardy because they stand for what’s right. To take a stand means that you’re going to put yourself in a vulnerable position. Make no mistake about that. But I’d rather be in the middle of a storm in God’s will than to be laid up on the shore somewhere outside of it.

The fact that we’re having these conversations more and more is no small thing. And the fact that people are so receptive is no small thing. And I imagine there are Christians in America that 30 or 40 years ago thought we would never be where we are today. I don’t want to discount the progress we have already made and only look to what is still lacking. So I am grateful to everyone, in no matter how small a way, who is taking steps in the right direction, because direction is really more important than speed. I’m praying for more boldness to continue walking down this path.

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