April 4 marks the 50-year anniversary since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In a time of resurging hate groups and racially charged gatherings, King’s prophetic messages matter now more than ever. Our churches, too, need his message. The New York Times recently published an article that notes an exodus of black people from predominantly white churches.
In this fraught moment, the obvious solution is to start conversations among Christians and across racial lines. The less obvious truth, however, is that believers need to start with the Bible itself. Racial reconciliation requires the fundamentals of faith practice: good, substantive Scripture study with diverse believers. While cross-racial friendships and political alliances can create harmony on the surface, only conversations with and about the Bible can create reconciliation at the heart. They are far riskier and more challenging, but, done well, yield far more meaningful results.
In my work as a pastor over the years, I have been engaged in cross-racial (and sometimes cross-cultural) Bible studies as a means of deepening my own faith and sharpening others’. I have seen predominantly black churches partner with predominantly white churches for studies that have revived relationships and disarmed doubts. I have seen tears shed and friendships formed when one person yields to someone else’s understanding of Scripture. I’ve also seen evangelicals and reformed Christians of different races find common ground in ways that would not have been possible outside the context of the Bible.
As we commemorate King’s legacy, we have the opportunity to revive racial reconciliation efforts. While Bible study gatherings are not a silver bullet for changing churches, they are one tool that can positively shift the degree of racial trust among Christians. They have the potential to start cross-racial partnerships and, more importantly, ground local faith communities in the diversity of the global, historic church.
Here are a few ways to get started with a cross-racial Bible study of your own.
Go into the experience with only one agenda—to encounter Christ.
When people of different backgrounds enter a room to explore God’s Word, something surprising happens: We encounter Christ through each other. This focus on Christ might be the most important part of a cross-cultural study.
Although it’s tempting to focus on understanding others, try approaching the process with a desire to first understand God. When we come open-handed, expecting God to be revealed through the pages of Scripture, only then can we make room for life transformation with others. As Natasha Robinson writes, “Getting close to God is an important first step that draws us near to others.”
I had the privilege of witnessing this reality a few years ago in a joint Bible study between a predominantly white Presbyterian church and my predominantly black Baptist church. As the participants drew closer to God through a study of Philippians, they also drew closer as a group. By the end of the study, they were attending funerals for loved ones they didn’t know and cheering on each others’ kids at sports games.
Select practical partners.
Selecting the right partners for a study is more than half the battle. Start by recognizing who God has already placed in your circle of influence. Is there a church not far from yours with a different racial makeup? Are there outreach or city partners that share common values? More importantly, are there partners who are willing to learn something new from a cross-racial experience?
God has a way of placing people in your pathway. I learned this through an unlikely experience in college. On what could have been one of the worst days of my life, a Korean American woman down the hall heard me crying and invited me to her room. When we got there, she pulled me to my knees and taught me how to pray. My prayer life was deepened that day, and over the years, she became one of my closest friends and Scripture study partners. Her Korean faith heritage led her to practice waking up early to seek the Lord through prayer, and being exposed to that habit changed my spiritual life.
As facilitators, pursue “cultural intelligence.”
Facilitators—but not necessarily participants—benefit from being prepared for the challenges of cross-racial Bible study. The best approach: Have a facilitator from each church partner together in the process. Are there books you can read together? Can you plan the conversation in partnership with each other? And how do you want to report back to your respective churches?
Facilitators should be prepared both theologically and practically to make the most of the experience. Soong-Chan Rah reminds us that “cultural intelligence should not be understood in a vacuum and therefore requires an understanding of our cultural and racial history in America.” With that in mind, facilitators will need to reflect on our complex, collective history—which includes slavery, immigration injustices, and other issues—as a way to propel the conversation toward unity.
Create a covenant for community.
Once you’ve found the right partners, it’s important to determine how you will converse together. How will you handle disagreement? What happens when someone shares something confidential? Several online resources offer covenants that you can use without having to create your own. Principles for Bible Study emphasizes the importance of making room for difference, while the Circle of Trust Touchstones can be helpful to create space for sharing. Regardless of what you choose, the main goal should be to prepare participants to be open to hearing the voices of others and more importantly, the voice of God.
Practice hermeneutical humility.
In every Bible study, you will come to a passage of Scripture where one participant believes his interpretation is right and everyone else is wrong. This is especially true when you have people from various theological backgrounds. If culture shapes our understanding of Scripture, then how can we pinpoint differences that may keep us from hearing the perspectives of others? According to Principles for Bible Study, “We must … assume that we will arrive at different understandings of portions of Scripture and that that will not disturb God as much as it will some of us.”
By way of example: Last year, I had the privilege of participating in a conference hosted by the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. Being in a bilingual setting and experiencing worship in another language was a gift to me. But when Luis Carlos preached on Judges 12 and warned us about separating God’s people based on their accents, I recognized how my cultural experiences have limited me from a fuller understanding of Scripture, and I was reminded that hermeneutical humility is essential to healthy church community. As Sho Baraka writes, “We must all approach the table with our feelings and agendas submitted to our glorious Lord.”
Break new ground together.
There are many ways to study the Bible together. You can watch a movie and discuss the story in light of Scripture. You can read a book on race in America and connect it to biblical themes and ideas. Or (my favorite) you can simply stick to the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of content that can frame cultural discussions—for example, the story of Esther and the Jews, or God’s revelation to Peter in Acts 10 regarding Jews and Gentiles. You might also consider using a curriculum like the Community Bible Experience or simply select your own Scripture passages to study and create a plan that works for your group.
Eat food together.
Mark the experience by serving or sharing a meal together to reinforce the unity found through God’s Word. Although I say this in part because I’m a foodie, I also believe that Jesus understood the significant connection between food and cross-cultural dialogue. He was criticized for “eating with sinners,” but by enjoying a good meal, he was engaging with people in need right where they were and in settings that meant something personal to them.
Soong-Chan Rah once quipped to me that church potlucks are only good in multicultural congregations. “In a homogenous Christian gathering, everyone brings some of the same foods,” he said. “But, when we have true diversity, we get empanadas next to collard greens, next to casseroles next to kimchi. That’s when you get a true taste of the kingdom.” Pete Scazzero, too, said you can tell how far you’ve come racially by whom you invite to dinner in your home. By eating with someone of a different background, we break bread and boundaries for the glory of God.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Compelled by a vision of unity and equity across racial and economic lines, King challenged all Americans to see our lives as inextricably linked together.
In other words, we cannot experience the richness of God’s love without each other. When we brave the boundaries and connect with neighbors who don’t look like us, we experience God’s power “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18–19).
In those moments, God gets the glory and we reap the joy.
Nicole Martin is a senior mobilizer with American Bible Society and an assistant professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is the author of Made to Lead: Empowering Women in Ministry and lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and two daughters.