The classic definition of pragmatism is simply, “if it works, do it.” That has been the motto for many years within evangelical church growth circles. Entire conferences and seminars have been dedicated to the methods of building a church in a specific community. Nearly every tactic under the sun has been used, from community surveys to smoke machines and rock bands.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Many people today are offering solutions to this pattern of religious segregation. One such trend is ethnic pragmatism—the idea of using skin color in order to become more appealing to a certain ethnic segment of the community. Not only is this problematic, it’s simply not the blueprint God provides in the Scriptures for the local church.
When a church culture is drunk on church growth and is willing to push the boundaries in order to get results, pragmatic varieties begin to surface in all directions. For the people who attend the local church, the most important thing for them is their spiritual growth and maturity from the Scriptures—whether or not they recognize this reality. To waffle on this commitment in order to embrace a pragmatic scheme to gain new people into the church is tragic.
When it comes to appointing elders in the local church, the issue should not be based on the color of their skin. The decision should be based on the gifts, abilities, and competency of the man in question. If there is a need for an elder in the local church and there are several different men who are able to lead, if a church chooses a black man who doesn’t have the abilities of another white man in the same congregation based on a desire of the leadership to reach out to the black population in their community—they have made a decision that will harm their congregation.
When you read 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1, you never see Paul communicating to Timothy or Titus to look out among the congregation and choose a man who is a Jew for one area and a Gentile for another area. He simply drives home what is required of the man who leads. Paul wasn’t interested in ethnic marketing schemes to grow the local church. Such qualifications are based on the spiritual maturity and the God ordained call of the man who will aspire to the office of elder—not the color of his skin. Qualifications matter because truth matters and God’s church is to be cared for properly.
Ethnic Pragmatism is Patronizing Tokenism
As the social justice debate continues to expand and as people continue to reveal their cards in this complex conversation—more often than not the proponents of social justice continue to support a brand of ethnic pragmatism. One of the tragic realities is that such pragmatic logic is patronizing to the elder who is chosen as a token black man in order to market their church to the black community.
If a specific black man in the local church is biblically qualified, gifted in preaching and teaching, and called by God to the office of elder—he doesn’t need a white congregation to give him a hand up in order to help him reach his goals. To choose him primarily because he is black is tokenism. It’s ethnic pragmatism—the use of a man’s skin color in order to reach specific ethnic goals in the local church. This is patronizing, disrespectful, and completely unhelpful to the man and damaging to the congregation.
The best way for a primarily white congregation to reach out to a black population in their community is to do so naturally through evangelism that runs through friendships and individual circles of influence in the community. This should happen through friendships at the local ball park, the local school, the workplace, and other natural points of contact. Pragmatic ethnic marketing is not the way God reaches a community—it’s the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:18-21; Rom. 1:16).
Furthermore, a local church communicates something extremely dangerous to their community when they choose a man based on his skin color in order to reach people of a different shade of skin in their community. If a local church is willing to do that in order to reach black people in their neighborhood, will the local church be willing to offer push button app driven personal deacon service for the millennial population to be comfortable in the worship service too? What’s next? What modifications should be made to a local church in order to reach the LGBTQ+ community? When a church bows the knee to pragmatism, there is no limit to the level of capitulation. It’s all about the power of the vote among the elders and the congregation itself. Truth no longer matters.
The best way to love a community full of different shades of skin is to preach the gospel, evangelize faithfully, and intentionally reach the whole community with God’s good news. When people are saved by God’s grace, they want the truth of God’s Word and they want to grow in grace—regardless of the color of skin communicating the message. Ethnic pragmatism continues the long trend of division—making people believe they need a certain shade of skin color rather than the robust truth of God’s Word. Ethnic pragmatism seeks to communicate that ethnic varieties do not matter to the local church when in reality it communities that the color of skin actually does matter. In the end, ethnic pragmatism harms the church and weakens the foundation as a whole.