A Church Like Heaven on Earth

August 5, 2021

In recent months, racial tensions have torn at the fabric of this nation. From city streets to university campuses, an atmosphere of simmering resentment reminds us that we don’t live in a post-racial society. The reality of this is even evident in many of the churches in which we worship.

This became apparent to me personally during my first year as lead pastor of (then) First Christian Assembly of God. It was April 2001, and Cincinnati was burning. The unrest started when police killed an unarmed teenager of color. The city was slow to respond, and the anger spilled into the streets. The local government instituted a 6 p.m. curfew for several days to restore order.

God had been working in my heart for years that our church needed a big change. We worshipped at the geographic heart of our city, just one mile from the fires and breaking glass during that week of unrest. Yet the congregation was a homogeneous 98 percent white commuter church.

Not only was there a demographic dissonance for me, there was a biblical dissonance. Hadn’t Jesus died to create “one new humanity” through the power of the Cross (Ephesians 2:15)? Couldn’t a reconciling Church be the missing component in our nation’s racial strife? Was the racially segregated church unwittingly contributing to the problem? Even worse, were we as the American Church actually devoid of the most compelling evidence that the gospel is true (John 17:20–23)? These questions caused a wrestling in me that led to a major transformation for our church. Those changes didn’t come easily, and there were a lot of things to learn along the way to becoming Peoples Church Cincinnati.

Today, our congregation is rich in stories and testimonies of racial reconciliation. Allow me to share a snapshot of what we’ve experienced.

Black and White
The changes began through friendships with black pastors in my city. These men loved the Lord and walked in the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s Word.

Prior to the age of 28, I’d never had a heart-level friend of color in my life. The 1995 AG General Council, which included an impactful resolution of repentance for the role of racism in our 1914 founding, helped open my eyes to the importance of cross-racial friendship. A reconciliation theme also punctuated the 1996 Atlanta Promise Keeper’s clergy gathering. I sensed God prompting me to make a positive chang

I reached out to influential pastors of black churches in Cincinnati. Over lunches, many cups of coffee, and, eventually, monthly small group times, I listened and learned — and I allowed God to change me. Before making these friends, I had no idea what it was really like living life in America as a black person. My perceptions were limited to what I saw or heard from television, movies or the news.

Over time, my perspective changed from one of believing I understood to a humble realization that there was a lot I didn’t know. I also experienced the joy of racial reconciliation with real people — real families. I soon gained a vision for what this could mean for a whole church.

As I studied the Word of God through this lens, Scriptures I’d never noticed before began to fly off the page at me. I earnestly pondered the connection between Revelation 7:9 and Matthew 6:10 — a worshipping Church of every tribe, tongue, nation and people before the Lamb in the age to come, and the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

One of my new friends of color pointed me to John 17:20–23 and raised the question, “Are our churches missing a fundamental apologetic for the gospel?”

If Jesus’ prayer for His future church in that passage asked the Father for our unity so the world would believe in Him, were we actually, through our default segregation, holding back the answer to Jesus’ prayer for our cities and our nation? 

What began to germinate in me was a vision far more profound than just an ethnically diverse Sunday worship experience. What was growing in me was a sense of God’s intended intercultural depth of biblical church. Never before had I noticed that Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Ephesians 2:1–10 preceded an electrifying vision of one new Body that comes together to form a temple, the dwelling place for God’s Spirit (verses 11–22).

By this point, a passion to lead our church into a new future and a realization of what it could mean for our city pulsed within me. Then came the riots of April 2001. It was my ninth year on staff and my fourth month as lead pastor. Little did I know how hard this journey would be — or how truly powerful God’s direction would become for racial healing in our city.

Come Together
We knew we needed to diversify our staff, our platform and our board as soon as possible to demonstrate our heart for inclusion. As I shared the vision, the Scriptures and these steps with our board, there were natural questions. Would this work? Would people stay? Would our finances drop? Would people misinterpret our desire to please God as political correctness? Would people of color really come? Was this really about the gospel?

My heart sank. I wondered how we could think in such a preservationist manner. Yet I knew these questions were natural. We leaned into the Scriptures, and we leaned into prayer. Within three years, we were ready to declare a clear new vision statement: God had called us to be a racially reconciled, generationally rich, life-giving church thriving in the heart of the city. At the end of our spring 2004 series of seven messages, Brandon Wilkes joined our staff as our second-ever pastor of color. 

Brandon came from the corporate world and brought tremendous organizational and leadership skills, as well as a rich walk with Christ. There was an evident call on his life, but he held no Bible degree and had not yet earned pastoral credentials. We immediately came under criticism that we were hiring him only because of his color. Brandon stayed steady, and so did the board. We were gaining cross-racial traction.

As our preaching began to include more teaching on biblical justice, in addition to evangelism and discipleship, people struggled to integrate their personal politics with the call of Scripture to love enemies, orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor. At times, folks got angry and would leave, saying, “You love the new people more than you love us.” This bewildered me. How could they not see what I was seeing: that the gospel was now profoundly including more marginalized people into our church? How could they not join in the joy of new conversions, new disciples and new city-impacting activities?

Even as long-term congregants slipped out, however, new lives came in. Throughout the journey, the church experienced and celebrated fresh victories for all to see.

Of course, the losses were deeply painful. And some surprised me. In 2006, for instance, we lost an entire home group of influential members who struggled to adjust. The secretary of the board was the last of the group to leave. He insisted he needed to step down because the church was changing so much. We agreed that on his last Sunday we would publicly pray over him and his wife as he prepared to take on a teaching role at another local church. All the while, my heart ached. I feared this loss would shake the church profoundly. In the early stages of our vision, this couple had enthusiastically supported the Revelation 7:9 model. Were we failing?

On that same Sunday, we received 21 new members who, together, looked like a beautiful microcosm of heaven: black, white and brown. Only God could have arranged the timing. In the services that day, we first prayed over the couple leaving. Then we welcomed the new members. The church rocked with energy and momentum. God was decidedly building “one new humanity” for himself (Ephesians 2:15).

That same year, the Lord added our first language group, an Ethiopian/Eritrean fellowship. Their vision matched ours in that they didn’t prefer a separate, segregated church. They realized their children needed American expressions of the Kingdom to unify their lives as they walked with Christ in a new country. Yet the adult immigrants had unique needs for culturally contextualized fellowship and support. How would we solve these challenges?

As the Lord led us — especially through the wisdom of Pastor Petros Yefru, who founded the Amharic language fellowship — we found our answers. The children joined the children’s ministry fully (there were only a few young ones at the time). The adults kept a Sunday School hour in their language and, over time, matriculated into the life and leadership of the church at large.

This approach worked. As each new nationality joined, the Lord granted wisdom for honoring, including and celebrating the cultures and unique needs represented.

Before long, we realized that our small groups were not mixing. There were intense divides around election times, and the racially segregated clusters in the Sunday morning café were reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. Was this vision really going to work, or would we simply be a more diverse — but still virtually segregated — body of believers? Over a board/staff retreat, we pressed in to the Lord for answers. First, we searched our hearts. Had we heard from God to head in this direction? Yes. Was this scriptural? Yes. Then we needed His wisdom to learn how to become one in Jesus (John 17:20–23).

Our next step was developing a small group curriculum: The Vision Experience. There were no resources for this, so we commissioned our own cross-racial team to do the work. We wanted desperately to unite, to give the world a picture of the kingdom of God on earth.

God answered our prayers. Today the church is still learning what reconciliation includes, but the cross-racial intentionality, inclusion and authenticity is very rich.  That richness is becoming a witness in our city. When an unarmed father of color recently was shot in the head by a white University of Cincinnati police officer, our church body came together to pray, discuss and add our input into this fractious situation. University, city and media leaders actually sought our counsel and insight because of our well-known multiracial constituency. In the end, the African American family who suffered the tragic, unjust loss of life shockingly received a just indictment from a grand jury and prosecutor. They also received a quick release of the body cam video for all to see. Instead of rioting and protests, Cincinnati experienced peace, and the university is pursuing proactive change to further grow racial understanding and biblical justice for everyone in its surrounding community, which is also our church neighborhood. In all such moments, we try to seize the opportunity to amplify that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a reconciling gospel, unashamedly drawing attention to His name and the Scriptures that guide our input.

Over the past 15 years, the church has seen significant growth. People are surrendering their lives to Christ from every walk of life and cultural background. This has given the church many exciting testimonies to celebrate. We’ve diversified from one percent black and one percent international to 25 percent black, 50 percent white and 25 percent international, with 30 nations represented. Our board, staff, small groups and worship services all richly reflect heaven on earth. In 2012, this momentum compelled us to a name change, from First Christian Assembly of God to Peoples Church Cincinnati.  

Just as important as our ethnic and socio-economic diversity, the congregation is building deep relationships across political, cultural and language barriers. This is a profound effect of the gospel of Jesus Christ: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). We are learning to unite in Jesus so the world will believe He is the Son of the living God.

Time and again, we hear words like these from new guests: “When I came in here, I could hardly believe what I was experiencing: diverse people loving each other and worshipping as one. It was like heaven.”

Fulfilling the Heavenly Vision
Reflecting back over this 15-year journey, there are a number of things I wish I’d fully understood at the beginning. As you welcome new people from a variety of backgrounds, consider these seven principles for leading your congregation into a beautifully diverse future.

1. Lead with Scripture. The people of God must recognize that this vision of worshipping and serving in a church like heaven is God’s idea. The human condition inclines toward the path of least resistance, but the gospel calls us to transformation through Christ (Romans 12:2). Point your church to God’s Word every step of the way.

2. Lead through personal development. Reading, relationships and growth are vital for leading a church into a more racially and ethnically inclusive future. As you grow in these areas and develop friendships with a variety of people, your congregation will follow.

3. Lead courageously. Don’t be afraid of Spirit-led intentionality. Whether you’re diversifying the platform, hiring staff, changing print and online media, modifying sermon illustrations or adding board members, natural processes never move quickly enough.

Political terms, like “quotas” or “affirmative action,” can create friction and keep churches from moving in the right direction. Promoting church diversity is not about political correctness. It’s about spreading the gospel. First Corinthians 9:22 says it best: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

4. Lead by welcoming variety rather than forcing assimilation. It’s a mistake to think you can assimilate diverse people into the church without changing. Every group needs the joy of contributing its gifts, beauty and culture to the mosaic that God is creating. Such an atmosphere will allow your congregation to experience the power of Ephesians 4:16, as “each part does its work.” The richness that ensues in the life of the Body is the church-like-heaven stuff. And this is attractive to newcomers — the lost and the seekers.

5. Lead the way to healing. Especially in cities or communities where there are sharp racial divides, make the deepest breach the primary healing point. Reconciliation through Christ speaks powerfully to all people.

Many times over the years, we heard from Latinos, Asians and Africans who said, “When we came, we saw that blacks and whites love each other in this church. We knew this meant we would be welcome, too.”

Prioritizing racial healing matters.

6. Lead justly. Some churchgoers dismiss biblical love and grace as liberal ideology or a social gospel. Biblical justice is part of the full gospel. The enemy wants to hoodwink Christians on this, but Psalm 89:14 declares that God establishes His throne in both righteousness and justice. These are dual expressions of His kingdom.

The key is to keep the gospel of Jesus at the center of all you do. Not only is this good biblical theology for the church, it’s also powerfully attractive to the spiritually lost of all backgrounds. Jesus saves, and He saves people to do good works in the earth (Ephesians 2:9-10).

7. Lead as a Kingdom representative. Each of us must die to our ethnocentrism to do church like heaven on earth. As believers from every nation come to understand that their primary citizenship is in heaven, they will more easily relate to their true fellow citizens.

As we fulfill our roles as ambassadors of another government here on earth, we can be more of a blessing to our earthly governments and societies. The multicultural church realizes that the true hero of the Church is King Jesus, not the founding fathers of any earthly country.

This kind of thinking isn’t always easy. People naturally want to see their group as exceptional and other groups as inferior. But God wants to change our natural inclinations so we can see people as He sees them: not just genetically similar, but fearfully and wonderfully made in His image, redeemed by His blood and filled with His Spirit.

As we realize that all earthly kingdoms and cultures fall short of our heavenly country, we can begin to unite as one “new humanity” in Christ (Ephesians 2:15).

Revelation 5:9-10, says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and peoples and nation. You made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

The world is hungering to see and experience the Church as God designed it. Are we capable and motivated enough to give the Lamb what He purchased?

I think we are. We are His Church. And this is His vision.