Last Sunday as I was giving a pastoral word to the congregation of New City-Nairobi I used an illustration I call the "ugly cousin" situation. I'll explain that later, but this brought back to mind the way I felt when Joan finally started acting like she might be my girl friend. This was during our high school days. I was (still am, of course) white and Joan is an African American.
When we were somewhere together and some black young man would flirt with Joan, (flirting outloud to pretty girls was a standard Newark behavior) I wondered if she would acknowledge me, or act like I wasn't there, or be swept off of her feet by some guy more appealing than me? I was somewhat insecure about where I stood.
I wasn't jealous so much, it didn't make me angry (a lot), and as always I was willing to fight if necessary. I really wondered where I stood with Joan. I couldn't fault guys for wanting to flirt with Joan since I thought she was terrific and I assumed everyone else felt the same way. My intuitive feeling was that if this girl was for me, it wouldn't matter who else came along, she would want me and would stick with me. Time has proven me absolutely correct on that account. This makes me very thankful to God, and mystifies me as to how she could love me like she does.
I know that when we want to reach a certain ethnicity it is easier to reach them if one attempts to reach them with cultural congruence, this means in ways that they socially appreciate and that do not offend them. This is what I was speaking to the church about. In a reconciliation type church (one that purposefully is inclusive of various ethnic and cultural groups) evangelism sometimes means you go after a specific ethnic group, but in company of other ethnic groups, some of which may even be offensive to the group you are trying to reach.
When I was a teenager doing evangelism on the streets of Newark in the late sixties there were times when the crowd around our platform would be yelling at us, namely the white folks in the mixed race evangelistic team. They weren't being friendly, they were calling us names. These were sometimes just angry people, sometimes Black Muslims, some members of the Black Panther Party.
I am sure there were times when some of the African American Christians wondered, "why didn't we leave them home?"
Well, there are a good reasons why we can't leave the "offensive" race home when we try to win people to Jesus. One of those reasons is because sooner or later the new people are going to find out that we actually do church with these other kind of people. This where the idea of the ugly cousin comes in. It is like when your mother realizes you are going out with your friends, and your cousin happens to be visiting, and your mother insists you take your cousin with you. You don't want to do it because your cousin is ugly and socially inept. Your friends will despise you if you bring your cousin with you, and probably make fun of you for days. But you have to do it. Later of course one of your friends marries your cousin. For Joan, I could have been like an ugly cousin. The lesson here is that you can't deny family, and in Christ all who are in Christ are our family.
Do you know that song, "When we all get to heaven..." Maybe the next part should be, "what a surprise there will be!" Surely those who wouldn't or couldn't stand to be around others not like themselves are going to have a shock when they find out heaven is crowded with just those kind of folks. Assuming the bigot gets in at all. It is not just race and ethnicity. We can all be pretty accepting if the other ethnic type guy is a millionaire, or a doctor, or a great athlete. No shame in that company. Class distinctions are getting stronger and stronger these days. Being "ghetto" is a nice affectation for some middle class teen-agers, unless of course it is real, then those people get really scary.
Americans are loath to admit they are in a class. We believe in social mobility and we don't like the idea that anyone is frozen at an economic level. Fluid as we might like to believe things are the reality is that some people don't flow very fast, at least not upwardly. Levels of economic income and education give us each a distinct culture. Sometimes in order for a person to move to a different level their culture will have to change. While we are in our (lower) culture others may despise us. Not often consciously, but boy they can sure avoid pretty well. Christians tend to avoid evangelism, inclusion in church and youth group, inclusion in schools and social settings, to and with cultures(i.e., people from those cultures) that make them uncomfortable.
My Bible reads that Jesus was anointed to preach the Gospel to the poor (Luke 4). I don't think he had drive by preaching in mind, tossing Gospel tracts out the window as we speed by. I think he meant loving on folks who are not like us. If we do include those kind of folks in our lives, then how can we hide them for a little while as we seek the middle and upper classes to win? Maybe we can keep them out of our churches and send them to churches especially made for "their kind." You know, a place where they wouldn't feel out of place. Here I want to give a very southern, "well bless your heart." Which means I think you're an idiot. Not because I think people are dumb, but blind to the love of their own comfort with its sense of security, and their inevitable hostility to folks Jesus wants them to love, not in theory but in the daily living out of life. Isn't there something in the book of James about this? Oh yeah, chapter 2:verses one to six.
Randy Nabors is the pastor emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. Randy was the organizing pastor in 1976 until his retirement in June of 2012. and the congregation continues its commitment to being centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ, living out the call of the gospel in racial reconciliation, mercy and development ministry to the poor, with a commitment to the city. Mr. Nabors is now Senior Staff with Mission to North America. He and his wife Joan are serving together to encourage the works of mercy in churches, and to develop the planting of churches within poor communities, especially the inner cities of America. To this end, he is seeking to build and establish the New City Network and the Ten Million Dollar Fund.