• Print

Curtiss DeYoung: The early church of reconciliation

All of what it means to be a Christian is immersed in the biblical idea of reconciliation, says the professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University.

August 30, 2011

After graduating from Anderson University in Indiana, Curtiss DeYoung moved to New York City in 1980 to work at a homeless and youth runaway shelter and live in a Catholic house. Far from his nearly all-white hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., he said, he had extended himself well beyond his comfort zone and felt overwhelmed.

Seeking familiarity, he set out to visit the one church in New York City that was of the same denomination, the Church of God, that he grew up in. “I wanted to go to a church where everyone looked like me and worshipped like me,” he said.

He didn’t know until he got to the church that it was located in Harlem and that all the members were African-American.

“Because I’m white and all the members of the congregation were African-American,” DeYoung said, “the whole thing about everyone looking like me immediately changed.”

During his first visit to the church, the pastor called him to his office before the service started and invited him to sit on the pulpit with the other pastors, to greet the congregation, and to preach two weeks later. “All this happened within my first 10 minutes there,” DeYoung said. “It was a real introduction to a different way of doing church than I had experienced.”

He attended the church for a year before enrolling at Howard University, where he earned a master of divinity degree. Today, he’s a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University, an ordained minister in the Church of God, and the author of “Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” and “Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge, Our Only Hope.”

“The key experiential transformation for me was attending an African-American congregation and learning about church in another kind of way and from another perspective,” DeYoung said. “It so enriched my life that I simply didn’t want to go back.”

DeYoung was a faculty member at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the theological foundation of reconciliation and how leaders can apply it in today’s churches.

Q: You have said that with your writing and research, you’ve tried to seek a theological foundation for reconciliation. What have you discovered about the theological foundation for reconciliation?

In some ways, the term “reconciliation” encompasses all of what the Scriptures are about, particularly the New Testament and the gospel message. It includes our relationship with God and being reconnected -- that we, humanity, were created in the garden with this wonderful relationship to God, which was broken through the fall, and then Jesus comes and reconciles us back to God. By being reconciled to God, we’re automatically put into relationship with other folks who’ve been reconciled to God, which creates the Christian community.

But I also think the principle that comes out of biblical passages like Ephesians 2 and 2 Corinthians 5 is that we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. It’s as though all of what it means to be Christian is immersed in this idea of reconciliation.

If you study the New Testament and look at the different congregations mentioned, they’re all about living out this idea of reconciliation -- like the Jerusalem church, which was an ethnically Jewish church, but it brought together a Jerusalem culture, a Galilean culture and a diaspora Jewish culture, all in one church. It was culturally reconciled. Certainly, economic reconciliation was occurring there between rich and poor.

If you put on the glasses of reconciliation, you see it throughout the Scriptures.

Q: How do you build reconciliation into today’s churches?

That is the question that, if we could answer it, we would be very rich people, at least rich in faith. That is the greatest challenge.

I think that if the apostle Paul, who was the champion of the early church of reconciliation, if he were to come back on the scene today, he would be shocked, because it is a world that is divided. The idea of churches based on race would probably be abhorrent to Paul and the early church. Even though they struggled with that challenge in their own cultural context, they felt that’s where the gospel was calling them. Gender issues, class issues -- these were all things that occurred in the world, but you came into the church through Christ to live in a united community.

Today, unfortunately, we’re quick to leave and go find another church or let our theology divide us. That’s what’s different today about reconciliation. We’re trying to reconcile the church today; in the first century, the church was reconciling the world.

Q: What will it take to get to the first-century model?

First, it takes a central understanding that the primary role of the church is to be a community of reconciliation. Also, it takes a great dependence on the Holy Spirit. We see that in the first-century church it was the guidance of the Spirit that often took the lead in unity.

A good example of where we’ve seen movements in the church occurred in the early 1900s with the birth of what we call modern-day Pentecostalism, with the Azusa Street Revival. In 1906, William Seymour, an African-American preacher in a time of very high segregation in the United States, was the leader of that movement with whites and Latinos and Asians and others. It was tough to sustain, but they saw a connection between the mood of the Holy Spirit and unity.

This does not come easy. It was hard work in the first century. They were human beings, just like us. They had to work hard to make unity happen, and we need to see it as a central concern of the church, as something that’s worth working hard for and worth sacrificing for. Perhaps that’s why reconciliation, when it’s mentioned by Paul, is mentioned in the context of the crucifixion, because there is some sacrifice involved.

Q: What would be the characteristics of a church where the central role is to be a community of reconciliation?

One thing in a church body, if it was diverse, is that you would feel something of everyone’s culture in that congregation -- so everyone is represented and everyone is making a contribution.

It could be in music. It could be in artwork. Who in leadership is represented for the congregation? Certainly, it is in the illustrations that are used in the preaching and the teaching. It’s not only culturally, but around gender. So there are not just sports analogies for people who like sports, for example, but there are other kinds. It’s an inclusive-feeling environment.

Initially, it’s intentional efforts that over time become more natural. If someone came into the church, they could feel a sense of who they were, but they could also feel that they’re being stretched by someone else’s perspective.

Obviously, theological diversity in a church is challenging, and political diversity in a church is challenging. So you also would see a church where people are committed to stay at the table, even in the difficult conversations, and that their commitment is to the sense of community and that there’s belief that by having this variety of perspectives, they’re going to come to a bigger understanding of who God is.

Q: Have you seen the power of reconciliation in action?

Oh, yes. There are many congregations today -- not enough -- but many that are experimenting and working on this, becoming more diverse and making this a focus of who they’re about.

The ultimate reconciliation is relational, as we are living in each other’s lives. That’s where the church still faces a great challenge. We can put together a very diverse Sunday service with choirs and great artwork and all kinds of things happening. But do we really know other members of the church? Are we invested in their lives across the various lines that divide us in our society?

Q: What are the intentional things leaders can do to weave people’s lives together?

If your congregation is located in a neighborhood that’s diverse, that becomes much easier, because you link people up within the neighborhood. You can develop your small group ministry with some intentionality about how you place people in a small group together.

It can still be voluntary, but the people want to experience a group where they build friendships and relationships. That will seem fake initially, but over time, as you develop relationships with people, it becomes real.

It is difficult to stretch your comfort zone, but what I’ve discovered over time, if you keep consistently stretching your comfort zone, you have a larger comfort zone. The things that used to feel uncomfortable are comfortable.

When I went to this church in Harlem and I was the only white person in the congregation, initially I noticed everything that seemed different. I even wrote in my journal that there was a black preacher and black worship. But I looked in my journal after about six months, and all those had dropped away. I had a new norm where I was comfortable, something I would have never imagined before.

If you live in a community that’s one racial group, there are socioeconomic issues that we need to look at. Who are the people that are being excluded in your community? How do we reach out to them? How do we build partnerships?

Q: How do you get people to be willing to get outside their comfort zones?

If your congregation is already demographically diverse and you’re trying to move to the next place of relationships, you are going to have seniors, youth and singles of different races and cultures. You could still do it around those shared life experiences.

Say it’s a Bible study for all these different cultural perspectives, because everyone’s going to be weighing in on their perspectives. The reality is we know how to do this, because we already sit in Bible studies with people who have different political viewpoints and different life experiences. We already live in diversity. We’re just trying to now stretch it more.

Worship is a great example of this. People would say, “Oh, I don’t know how to do diverse worship.” I said, “Do you have older and younger people in your church who have different opinions about worship? Then you’re already dealing with this.” It’s the same kind of skills that it is to look at cultural styles of worship versus generational styles.

I think sometimes we make it harder than what it is. But the challenge is we don’t have that many congregations yet that are diverse. A lot of people are in diverse workplaces, in diverse schools and in diverse activities like sports.

It’s the church that’s the most racially segregated institution in the United States. What we need to do is invite people from these other networks where we’re connecting with them, not just invite people to church who look like us and who we think will want to come to our church because they’re of our racial or cultural group. Let’s also invite other people that are already in our friendship circles at work or at school or in our leisure activities.