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Confessions of a Black Man in the Vineyard

Geno Olison

Geno Olison

Pastor, South Suburban Vineyard
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There I was, a young, black man in an overwhelmingly white Vineyard church. Honestly, I was uncomfortable. I’d grown up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago as the son of preachers who pastored a Full Gospel church. Our entire social network had been exclusively African-American. This church was nothing like that African-American church I grew up in, but the power and presence of the Holy Spirit was so familiar that it made all the difference for me. I’ve been in the Vineyard since that day.

I spent almost a decade at that Vineyard church before planting my own church (an intentionally multi-ethnic one) in 2009. From the start, I loved the Vineyard but didn’t really like it. Or maybe I liked it but didn’t love it. Either way, there was always this thing keeping me from being satisfied and feeling truly at home in the Vineyard as a black man. Recently, I’ve come to discover that it had everything to do with what I call cultural needs.

What Are Cultural Needs?
Our cultural needs are needs connected to things that are familiar to certain groups of people. These needs include humor, music, what makes us move, language, slang, and other preferred ways of speaking. Cultural needs can often go unnoticed until they’re not being met.

Cultural needs can often go unnoticed until they’re not being met.

In a highly relational space like the church, it can be more than disappointing to go long stretches without having your cultural needs met. It can be fatiguing when sermons and their stories don’t include elements that speak to your cultural context. It can be upsetting to never hear the kinds of the music that might be most familiar to you and it can be hurtful to never see people that look like you leading, preaching, singing, playing instruments, or doing anything meaningful on staff or on stage.

God’s Calling to Live Sacrificially
As I look back on the time I spent in that Vineyard, I realize that God had called me to that church. Whenever I thought about leaving, it became clear to me that God was calling me to remain there. I remembered feeling painfully aware of how few people of color regularly attended our church. I wanted to see that grow and I knew how much it meant for a new person of color to see me there when they walked in. It certainly helped that I truly love the people and pastors at that church. I always felt loved and accepted and I understand that they simply didn’t know what they didn’t know.

I believe that I was graced by God to hang in there and watch the Lord do the slow work of diversifying the church. I was given the assignment to live sacrificially in that space. However, that won’t be the case for the majority of people of color that visit a mostly white Vineyard church. They may not feel particularly “called” to a church that has little to offer them culturally. They won’t necessarily feel the need to tell the pastor that some of the humor in their sermon is slightly racist or that the vibe of church seems unwelcoming to certain groups. They’ll likely just leave and keep searching for the right church.

What Can You Do?
With this in mind, I have a few practical suggestions for the white pastor who’s actively seeking to cultivate diversity in their church.

Pray
First, PRAY specific prayers for God to send people of color who feel called to your church. Pray for men, women, and families who will be committed to live in what I call “diversity deserts” for the sake of the kingdom. Pray for folks who will respectfully challenge you and the things about your existing church culture that may feel unwelcoming. Pray for people who love you and your vision and will help you develop a holy discontentment for homogeneity in your church.

Ask
Secondly, ASK yourself these questions: Why would a person of color come to my church? What’s here for them? These questions can feel terribly convicting, but it’ll start you down the road of considering what someone of a different cultural background might have to give up in order to fold into your church.

Go
Lastly, GO and actively experience what it feels like to be the only white person in the room. You may have to travel a bit in order to experience this, but it will make you painfully aware of what it might feel like to wonder if you’re welcome or not. You’ll see how hard it might be to connect with the sermon, the worship, and the people with all of the cultural barriers that stand in the way. When you don’t regularly experience this it can be hard to empathize with any guests or regulars that might choose to engage your church as a cultural outsider.

There are more steps, but this is where I’d start in order to begin cultivating the diversity of the kingdom in your church.

You can hear Geno’s session from the Better Together Diversity Conference free with a subscription to the Vineyard Digital Membership by audio here or video here. You can also purchase them here.

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