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The Church in Technicolor
As I write these words the History Channel is promoting a documentary on World War Two. The series consists mainly of original film shot during that great conflict. Instead of the grainy black and white of 1940’s newsreels, however, the picture has been digitally enhanced and colorized. Hence the spectator can now watch a kamikaze pilot slam his plane into the deck of an aircraft carrier in vivid, blazing colors.
In his book The Color of Church Rodney M. Woo sets out to do for the demographics of the American Church what digital enhancement did for the World War Two documentary: change it from its current monochrome to vibrant technicolor. The book is not a reworked graduate thesis or a theoretical salvo from the ivory towers of academia. Rather, as the pastor of a post white-flight Southern Baptist church, it has been Woo’s lifework for the better part of two decades.
Woo aims his words at Pastors and Christian leaders. They are the ones who need to provide the leadership for the colorization of the church. And the need for this colorization is the main point of his book. According to Woo this racial diversification of the Body of Christ is biblical, essential, and—due to the growing minority population of the United States—increasingly needful.
The Color of Church is divided into three major sections of four chapters each: Biblical Basis, Current Reality, and Implementation. While these titles describe the major thrust of the divisions, in reality the whole book is peppered with theological background, current events and practical advice. Each chapter ends with a series of questions designed to provoke discussion. The book also concludes with a special section consisting of one chapter called “Multiplying the Vision” followed by a series of appendices and an extensive bibliography.
In the following paragraphs we will break down the book according to its major divisions.
Woo is not ambiguous about the theological foundation for his conclusions.
Genesis 1 and Revelation 7 are the two racial bookends of the Bible. What lies between is the journey of fallen humanity characterized by the rift between God and one another. One manifestation of this sinful separation is evident by the strife among the different races. (p. 6)
Woo’s ideal for Christian fellowship is based on the events of the seventh chapter of Revelation. Later in the first chapter he expands on this concept:
The apostle John clearly identifies the heavenly choir of the redeemed in the following terms: “Every nation, tribe, people, and language” all standing before the throne and before the Lamb. What is surprising is that believers who are already present in heaven are distinguished by their race, culture, ethnicity, and language. Yet all the people groups sing in harmony the unifying song, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:10). It is not the differences among the believers that are the primary emphasis, but the salvation that all of them share in Jesus Christ that brings them together. Although the Rev 7 scene is a very moving and powerful picture of heaven, it is possible to start earlier here on earth instead of waiting for heaven to enjoy all the nations around the same throne singing the same song at the same time. (p. 13)
This concept of our earthly corporate worship being a “dress rehearsal” for that celestial praise service is perhaps the major common thread that binds the whole book. We learn that it is this vision that led Woo to leave a small but successful work in a rural, mono-racial area to accept the call to a mostly-white church in a multi-racial section of Houston.
Woo hopes that his experiences at this church (the church is called Wilcrest and is located in the Alief neighborhood of Houston) will serve as a catalyst for other similarly placed churches to break the racial boundaries—and he is very insistent that such boundaries still exist. The evidence he presents is compelling:
According to the most recent studies, more than 93 percent of all congregations in the United States are not multiracial in their composition…What this statistic does not tell initially is that this includes all types of churches and congregations. In fact, if you narrow the scope of data to include only evangelical churches, the percentage drops sharply to approximately five and a half percent of all evangelical congregations that fit into this definition of multiracial congregations. (pp. 13-14)
The Current Reality
If something like Revelation 7 is our goal, clearly the American Evangelical Church is failing. What is needed, however, is not simply a program to invite more “people of color” to the church services. As Woo makes clear throughout the book, “colorizing” (my term) the church will require a fundamental change in attitude on the part of all involved, including deep and profound repentance for the underlying sin of racism that promotes and perpetuations the current status quo.
In addition to this, according to Woo, there needs to be a fundamental difference in the way we perceive the Church. He gives the following example from his own ministry:
From the very outset of the implementation of this vision, I always wanted to instill a mind-set that our church is not a country club but an emergency room or an ICU ward. We assume that each person whom God sends to Wilcrest is in spiritual need regardless of the exterior cover or color. In an emergency room, the physical need takes precedence over any other characteristic that an individual possesses. In the same way, our church must consider the spiritual need of the individual over and above any other trait. (p. 94)
Part of the solution to this, for Woo, is to emphasize the point that every member of his church should be a missionary. He has set up several levels of ministry—using community events to spread the gospel, participation in missions trips, leadership roles within the church, being sent as a full-time missionary from the church—to perpetuate this vision.
From the first page of the book to the last, Woo brings the reader is face-to-face with the overwhelming challenge he faced as he sought to turn his vision into reality in Alief. He encountered resistance—even hostility—from the original white majority. The international community responded with indifference, complacency and antagonism. So strong was this vision in his heart, however, that he persisted against all odds. Through consistent teaching he managed to communicate the need for sacrifice to the white majority. Carefully he selected multi-racial leadership for the church. Little-by-little he made changes in the worship style to diminish the euro-centric focus. Participation by church-members in domestic and foreign missions trips slowly raised their vision, and community events raised the church’s profile among the international populace of Alief.
The result is that today 44 nations are represented in Wilcrest’s membership. Woo readily admits that numerical growth has not been as great as he had anticipated, but points to the numerous internationals who have become missionaries to their home countries.
For this reviewer The Color of Church offered a refreshing and hopeful look at what the American Church could become, if it caught the vision. Many of us work in denominational contexts where, historically, racism was either openly promoted or implicitly tolerated. I have often felt that repentance for this sin has been superficial at best and, in many cases, nonexistent.
I was also pleased to see that, though Woo has a tremendous burden for the international community in the US, he does not fall into the trap of rejecting foreign missions. Rather, he actively promotes overseas work as a way to instill a greater vision in his own church. He would not be among those helpful souls (God bless their pragmatic little hearts) who have urged me to abandon ministry in Brazil in favor of ministering to Brazilians in the US.
At times I got the impression that for Woo a multi-national congregation was the supreme goal, at whose altar all other considerations should be sacrificed. I was somewhat bothered by the ecclesiastical “affirmative action” he employed in diversifying the leadership of the church. Yet the fact that he was able to pull this off in the heart of Texas speaks to his leadership capabilities and power of persuasion.
I would put this book on the “must read” list for US pastors. While not everybody serves in a multi-racial community, all are consistently confronted with people who are “different” from the makeup of their churches. How are we going to minister to them? How can they fit into the body of Christ? The Color of Church provides clear, biblical answers to those two questions.
Andrew Comings is a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary in Ceará, Brazil where he serves as Coordinator for Ministry Internships at the Cariri Baptist Seminary. He and his wife, Itacyara, have two sons: Michael and Nathanael. In his spare time Andrew blogs in English at www.comingstobrazil.com and in Portuguese at cadernoteologico.wordpress.com. Despite his field of service, Andrew does not drink coffee in any of its manifold forms.