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Ethnic diversity viable in church, Newbell says

NASHVILLE (BP) — Barriers to ethnic diversity in the church — barriers already torn down by the Gospel of Jesus — can be eliminated in practice as Christians shed assumptions and overcome fears, author Trillia Newbell contends.

Newbell, who has written a new book on diversity in the body of Christ, says relationships based on a humble desire to understand can be vital in a cause she is passionate about.

“[Y]ou don’t want to assume. You want to ask questions,” she said in an online video interview for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It’s amazing what we can learn from each other when we are open and willing.”

“So I think that one would enter into a relationship without assuming that you know everything, [and be] willing to ask if you don’t know,” said Newbell, the ERLC’s consultant for women’s initiatives.

Fear also can inhibit the effort to achieve ethnic diversity, she said.

“If you don’t know someone or something about someone, you might just be fearful,” Newbell told Daniel Darling, the ERLC’s vice president for communications. “Also, it’s a hot-button issue. … And so people are, I think, just afraid, afraid to talk about it because of what we see not only in the media but in our backyards. It can be kind of a touchy topic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be something we should be talking about, because I think when we start talking about it, it will help break these divides and barriers, especially with Christians because there isn’t one, there shouldn’t be one.”

The Gospel has eradicated such divisions for followers of Christ.

“The Gospel unites us and makes us brothers and sisters,” Newbell said in subsequent interviews. “Only in the body of Christ can two people be different and yet the same (equal in creation, equal in redemption). Jesus’ blood breaks the divide that so often entangles us.”

Despite the Gospel and God’s celebration of the diversity in humanity, “the problem with the current church model and experience for most of us is that while we affirm these truths with our lips, Sunday morning reveals a different story,” she said.

Converted to Christ as a young woman, Newbell was part of a Knoxville, Tenn., church made up mostly of white people for a decade. A request from her pastor led to the writing of her book, “United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.”

“My pastor at the time asked me to read and review John Piper’s book ‘Bloodlines,'” she told Baptist Press. “I was so affected by the book because it was the first time that I had read so clearly about issues of race from a white male theologian. From there I wrote a blog about my own concerns and struggles as a black female in a predominantly white church. The response was pretty remarkable to me. So many seemed to resonate with what I was sharing. It seemed like a topic that needed to be addressed.”

Newbell grew up in the South, and her father told her about being beaten for refusing to sing “Dixie” at a sports event, and about the suffering blacks experienced in those days. He also taught her to love all people, regardless of their ethnicity.

When she became a Christian, she grew to understand being black “wasn’t even my first identity,” she wrote in her book. “And though the richness of that truth took some time to sink in, I had become first a Christian, then a black woman.”

In addition to finding her identity in Christ, she also benefited greatly from deep relationships with two young Christian women — one white and one Chinese. Those friendships fleshed out for her the ethnic diversity of the body of Christ and form much of her personal pilgrimage described in the book.

“By building into diverse relationships, we display the reconciliation and redemption of Christ to a world that is broken and divided,” Newbell said. “True unity is found first through being reconciled to God and then to each other. To walk in that unity arm in arm with people of every tribe and race is to declare to the world that Christ’s blood is enough for the fight for racial reconciliation.”

Because Christ’s salvation of sinners cuts across all ethnicities, “our churches should be the most gracious environments on the planet,” she wrote. “More than any other place, the church should be more open to and excited about having people unlike themselves.”

Newbell; her husband Thern Newbell, who is white, and their children moved to the Nashville area last year and are part of another predominantly white congregation, a new Southern Baptist church plant.

Churches, especially their leaders, can take intentional steps to foster ethnic diversity.

“I think it’s important to try to develop a staff that reflects their desire for diversity,” she said. “I also think it’s important that they talk about it and cast a vision for it to their congregations.”

Christians can promote diversity in their families by inviting people of different ethnicities into their homes and by reading books together “about other people, other nations, other tribes,” Newbell said.

“Hospitality teaches children, one, to love people and to serve others because you have to be others-focused to be hospitable, but also it can teach them that they welcome other people who are not like them in terms of ethnicity in their home,” she said.

Newbell is lead editor of Karis, the women’s channel for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and blogs on such sites as The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God.

Her book, published by Moody Publishers, is available at Lifeway Christian Stores, other Christian booksellers and Amazon.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press’ Washington bureau chief. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).