If all I knew about the PCA and race was what I saw at General Assembly 2014 I would be encouraged. The annual gathering of the highest court of the Presbyterian Church in America featured four significant sessions concerning racial harmony and cultural diversity in the denomination.
Leading off the week was a presentation on race, history, and the PCA. Three papers were presented by historians Dr. Otis Pickett, Bobby Griffith, and Dr. Sean Lucas. The topics ranged from the use of Chickasaw Indians in Mississippi by white missionaries to evangelize black slaves to the founding documents of the PCA which explicitly denied a segregationist stance or intent. After the papers were presented Dr. Carl Ellis responded and challenged listeners to do theology not only on the epistemological side (knowing what God teaches) but to labor on the ethical side (knowing how God calls us to live). Then Dr. Ligon Duncan, Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, pledged his hearty and vocal support of the movement toward greater diversity in the PCA.
The next day, I had the pleasure of presenting a seminar on the topic: “An Indigenous Reformed Movement in African American Communities.” I contended that we are seeing a rise in historic and classic forms of Reformed theology, and for this we should praise God. But we have more work to do if we are to see a truly indigenous Reformed theology spring forth from African Americans. If theology is the application of God’s word to all of life (a la John Frame) then we have much more theology to do. We must determine the most pressing questions, problems, and issues facing African Americans today and seek the Bible’s answers to those situations. Indigenous Reformed theology will arise from and speak to contemporary African American contexts.
Then, Rev. Dr. Mike Campbell of Redeemer Church gave the keynote address at the MNA luncheon. He spoke about the need to “put off” our old cultural ways of relating to one another and put on love. This requires truth and honesty as we talk about our own cultural idols and repent of them. When we begin to lay down our preferences for the sake of Christian unity then we’ll begin to see a new, diverse community formed and led by the Spirit of God.
A final seminar presentation I was not able to attend was on the topic: “The Coming Harvest: People of Color and the PCA” presented by Aaron Layton, Director of Diversity at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis. His goal was to outfit leaders with the necessary resources for educating, training, and strategically planning for diversity in churches.
What I’m Not Saying
As I said, if all I knew of the PCA and race was gleaned from these presentations I would be encouraged. But don’t hear what I’m not saying. There’s more to the story than what went on in these few sessions. In fact, the historical presentation revealed disturbing facts about factions inside and outside of the denomination that were angling to perpetuate racist practices. Even in 2014 when every national group listed by the U.N. is currently represented in the United States, the thousands of faces bobbing by were still overwhelmingly white. I still felt the pressure to speak and dress a certain way because little cultural diversity was observable at all. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a few talks once a year to see substantive change regarding diversity in the PCA.
Yet there is cause for hope.
The sessions on race, history, and diversity may have been pebbles dropping in the pond of the PCA. Pebbles, by definition are small, but they also cause ripples. And those ripples may begin to rock the cultural stagnation from segments of the denomination. But ripples take time to spread. Who knows how long it will be before the PCA will experience notable and positive progress in terms of diversity? But if this year’s presentations were any indications, we should look and pray for a ripple effect.