Brenda Salter McNeil: The Outreach Interview
“Christians should be mad as heck that they only got one-half of the Gospel. We’ve been shortchanged.”
It’s a rather straightforward—some would call it blunt and maybe even risky—statement. But Chicagoan Brenda Salter McNeil stands firm, having spent the last 30 years processing, teaching, and preaching this message. She was a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, interning with the chaplain at nearby Occidental College, when she began to realize that Christians, including her, had heard only one side of the Gospel—being reconciled to God. The horizontal half, being reconciled one to another, was never addressed. And she began to question and explore not only why it wasn’t, but what was needed to see churches and individuals embrace both the horizontal and vertical tenets of the Gospel.
That questioning and exploration has led McNeil to share her learnings and insights with the local church. An ordained minister and founder of the leadership coaching network called the VIBE Alliance, McNeil is pioneering progressive new thinking and sharing it with church plants and established churches that have a passion to be multicultural congregations. As author of A Credible Witness (IVP, 2008, an Outreach Resource of the Year last year) and main speaker at numerous universities and national conferences this year (the National Outreach Convention, Urbana ’10, Exponential Church ’10, The Multi-Ethnic Church Conference), she is speaking into the lives and ministries of thousands of church leaders and emerging generations nationwide.
As McNeil readily admits, “one to another” reconciliation in any church is a difficult and long process. She is quick to say that years of racial, cultural, and gender separation will not be erased overnight. But McNeil is so convinced the Church on earth should reflect the diverse kingdom of God that she’s made it her life’s work.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to her in-depth about this work—how it began, what it looks like in churches, and the insights she’s discovered while doing it. Racism has more faces than ever before, she says, and for multicultural churches to thrive, that is where the conversation must start.
In a world that’s “flat,” how does racism look different from 20 or 30 years ago?
When I go to a black church, I speak Spanish, and they look at me like, “What is she doing?” And I’m trying to say, “This is no longer about black and white.” Today we’re dealing with much more than black/white issues. It is multiethnic, multinational, gender, socioeconomic. The issue is much more complex today, and we need new language to even have this discussion. We need to move beyond the black-and-white issues. This is not to negate the historical wounds of the black/white issues of the past, which still need healing. It just can no longer be the sole focus of our conversation because how we speak about the past is limiting our effectiveness to speak to our global future.
What did you see and hear in the Church that prompted you to begin coaching pastors and even start your own network?
There’s a new church planting phenomenon happening around the country. From the very beginning, planters are making decisions to plant multicultural churches. More and more young pastors are saying, “I’m convinced that this notion of bridging the gaps between different cultures, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, and genders is what the kingdom of God looks like. And I want my church to reflect that.”
But what we’re finding is that we have very few models of what that looks like, how you do it, and the difficulties of navigating this new thing. You can go to all kinds of places and get teaching and training on how to grow your small groups, but when you add the dimension of being intentionally multicultural, now you’ve added a layer of complexity and difficulty. About three years ago, a group of young church plant pastors came to me and said, “Look, we read your books, we’ve heard you speak around the country, we are totally convinced that the kingdom of God calls people from every tribe and nation, but what we need is coaching around how we implement the things we’re reading into our local context. Would you start a coaching network for pastors of multicultural churches?” So we launched the VIBE Alliance [Victory in Breaking Ethnocentrism]. Part of the problem is that so many church planters are in isolation and need to be part of a community, a peer network, where people can share their best practices. I think the day of the individual superstar church leader is over, and we’re moving toward a day where collaboration is going to make these multicultural churches work. We have to find a way to help support planters in the process of becoming a multicultural church. That’s new thinking.
What’s happening in the VIBE Alliance that tells you it’s working? Tell us some stories of churches learning and being intentional about multiculturalism.
I remember visiting one of the VIBE churches—and the pastor there is a female—which launched a seven-part message series on Easter Sunday, “7 Relationships You Can’t Live Without,” because another VIBE pastor had shared with her how important it is to launch a series on Easter to bring back visitors. This church saw returning visitors because another pastor in that VIBE cohort said this is something I’ve learned.
When it comes to multicultural work, sometimes we jump in with so much passion and conviction that it overwhelms us because we’re not clear on what we’re trying to do. All we know is that by the grace of God we want to be multicultural, but when asked what that means, all we know is we want to see a lot more people of color in our churches. In coaching, we force pastors to become clearer about the specific goal they want to achieve through multiculturalism. For example, we have a church in New Jersey that’s targeting evangelism and developing realistic goals for how evangelism becomes a strategy for becoming multicultural. A church in Chicago is focusing on leadership development. The pastor, she’s African-American, realizes that unless she has diverse leaders, cultivating a multicultural church will be very difficult. Now she has a white intern from a local college campus who’s part of her youth ministry. This isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. We’re working with churches to adapt or build the model they believe will be effective in their churches and communities.
Why do you say evangelism and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin and that we’ve lost one whole side?
When I started talking and preaching about racial reconciliation, it was foreign to so many Christians who attend church. So many had never considered that racial, ethnicity, class, and gender reconciliation was not just theory, but rather a biblical mandate. When I looked for congregations where the wall of hostility had been knocked down, I found hardly any. And that angered me because I think our credibility is shot. When you take the witness stand to testify to the truth of something, if they can prove your lifestyle doesn’t match up with your testimony, they can throw it out because you’re not credible. I think the reason why young people don’t go to church more, why church attendance is decreasing, is because people are tired of rhetoric without reality. I really believe that. So I started asking myself, ‘ Where did the breakdown happen? Why is it that Bible-believing Christians who love God with all their heart have never ever considered that this is part of what it means to be a Christian?’
This goes back to evangelism. When they signed up, they didn’t find out the horizontal nature of reconciliation—one to another—was part of the contract. So that’s why when you hear it now, and you’ve been a Christian for 10, 20 years, it feels like an add-on. You didn’t get the whole story. You only got one-half of the cross. You should have been told when you first came in that this is about being reconciled to God and being reconciled to others. It’s like having gone to school and never been taught multiplication, and now you’re in college and they’re saying, “You don’t know the fundamentals,” and you’re wondering, “Why didn’t someone teach me that way back then?”
Why haven’t we heard both sides of the Gospel?
I think we know how to talk about being reconciled to God because we have a model or clear process in our minds. So we know that first you have to repent of your sins, invite Jesus into you’re heart, etc. We haven’t had a model for what reconciliation one to another looks like. We’ve left it very ambiguous, hoping people would figure it out for themselves. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. I don’t think people have necessarily had ill will or intended to say, “We’ll leave that part off.” That’s why we developed a model for biblical reconciliation. We found that if we didn’t develop a model, we would talk about it, but would never be able to guide people into what it looks like. When we coach pastors, we use that model as the guiding compass for what happens in that congregation.
Whenever God sets something in motion, there’s a reason, a plan. Why do you believe Jesus says we’re not only reconciled to God, but to others, as well?
I think we were supposed to be a countercultural community—something so compelling that others would see our unity and good works and glorify our God in heaven. In a world that’s divided, where people tend to group themselves with people like them, the Christian community was supposed to be this group of people that by their very existence made the world take notice of a God who could bring this kind of unity. It was supposed to be a physical expression of the kingdom’s power on earth. People would have a chance to taste the power of the cross by seeing that unity, seeing us together having communion, celebrating the Eucharist, that even though we had a million things that could divide us, our belief in and love for Jesus was the one thing that united us. And that trumps everything else.
I’ll be the first to say that it’s hard. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes humility. It’s a loss of power, and it’s much easier to just find and stay with people who get you and you get them.
We have many leaders with a passion for seeing their churches be multicultural, but they can’t seem to instill that DNA in their congregations.
One of the best practices we work on is developing a clear biblical theology of reconciliation throughout that congregation. I’m finding that pastors are assuming because they preached on it, their churches actually get it. They’re assuming their churches are more biblically literate than they actually are. We took some surveys and found that few people could quote verses that explain why they’re called to biblical reconciliation. They might get “love your neighbor as yourself,” but they didn’t have a real biblical basis. The pastor had it. But there hadn’t been enough clarity around building that kind of a biblical basis for reconciliation.
What does it look like when that DNA is actually embedded in the congregation?
If you really want this thing to blow up in the church and catch on fire, there has to be intentionality around teaching and training. Generally, beginning the process is much less difficult than sustaining it. One church we work with started a biblical reconciliation class. A VIBE church in Tacoma, Washington, developed a whole curriculum around biblical reconciliation. Another church made teaching about biblical reconciliation part of its orientation process so that new members heard it from the beginning. It’s basically saying, “We’re going to make sure there are teaching and training opportunities for our congregation to ramp up their knowledge, and biblical reason, for reconciliation.”
When did you meet Jesus and first realize this breakdown in the Church and the need for reconciliation?
I was a 19-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University, where a friend who lived in the same dorm I did shared her faith with me. It was there that Jesus became more than just someone I acknowledged on Sunday morning. At Rutgers, almost every campus ministry was predominately white. Rather than get involved in one of these ministries, I started to attend a small Bible study that met on Friday nights in another student’s dorm room. Our group was almost exclusively African-American. One of the values we shared was a strong commitment to evangelism. As a result, the Bible study grew to be the largest ministry on campus. Why did a group of African-American students do this? Couldn’t we find a ministry on campus to fit into? I didn’t ask those questions then.
Fast-forward 10 years later. In the early ’80s, I was a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary. There, things really began to shift for me. I went to London with a group of seminarians and pastors, all African-American. The Anglican Church had invited us to come and teach about the black church in America because they were beginning to experience decline. They were looking for ways to stay viable in urban, multiethnic communities and found that the black church seemed to do well in the urban setting. People around the world came to listen to us and were absolutely riveted by the things we were sharing about the African-American church experience. That trip was the beginning of my understanding the importance of our interconnectedness of our experiences and the global nature of the Church. It was eye opening and life changing for me. It was the beginning of me realizing that we needed each other’s stories and perspectives and could no longer think we could be successful at being church in isolation from each other. We needed to learn from and resource each other.
What did you do with those realizations?
I was interning with the chaplain at Occidental College near Fuller, when it hit me that while the Intervarsity group on campus was doing so well, 200 strong, only two were people of color, one Hispanic brother and one African-American guy dating a white woman. It brought me back to my days at Rutgers. I wondered, Are there students of color meeting somewhere in a dorm room having a Bible study, just trying to remain steadfast in the Lord and yet not participating in the campus chapel program? It made me start asking questions about our understanding of the Gospel, how we trained and developed leaders, basically questions around why. Those questions led me to begin to develop the practices and thought processes I talk about and preach today.
As you’ve said, the work of reconciliation is hard. How do you deal with discouragement and defeats? How do you stay encouraged?
I think the spiritual and emotional self-care of anyone in ministry is essential. I do look for places of restoration and people that are life giving. And I don’t do this work alone. I have a team of people I work with and usually have at least one other person with me when I travel. I’ve learned that reconciliation is meant to be done in community; it cannot be done alone. My spiritual rootedness has been a saving grace, and I am fully dependent on the Holy Spirit. I really believe you must have spiritual sensitivity to have a lasting journey on this road. I have been called to the ministry of reconciliation. It is my life’s work.