Before considering a theological apologetic for multiethnic churches or some solutions, let’s first consider some background:
Changing Demographics. The racial profile of near suburban communities are changing (those communities just outside of cities). In my community there has been dramatic change. In the last ten years, nearly 2,000 African Americans have moved into my town while some 4,000 have moved into a neighboring town. Approximately 15,000 people of color live within 15 minutes of my church (not counting those that live just across the city line one mile away). While we have attracted a few interracial couples and African immigrant families, Black families have not shown up in significant numbers, and those that have may not stay long or become members.
Lest we become too excited about the presence of interracial couples in predominantly white churches, we should consider why they say they attend these churches. Apparently, these couples find white churches an uneasy, but tolerable, fit. It is hard for either spouse to be a minority but it is less hard for the African American spouse, as they are more used to living in a white world.
Economic Differences? Although census data provide excellent data regarding the change of racial profile of a region, the economic status of new arrivals to a community is a bit less clear. One African American church planter suggested that there are 3 general categories of African Americans in a diversifying suburban community: Upper Class, Blue Collar, Lower Class. The upper class, from his perspective are those who have been in the suburbs for some time and are primarily seeking status in work, house, and church relationships to prove their arrival. He suggested that these folks would be unlikely to attend a White middle-class church, as there would be little status gained in doing so. The middle or blue-collar class folk are those who may also have been in the area for some time and are working hard to maintain their home, and family relationships. The lower class consists of those recently out of poverty and out of the city environment. He suggested that these individuals would be most inclined to return to church in the city in order to give a sense of familiarity and “déjà vu”.
Worship Culture Differences. It is sobering to note that 97 percent of African Americans and 99 percent of Whites attend racially segregated churches. Some of the reasons for such a divide have to do with church culture differences. The Barna report, African Americans And Their Faith, sheds light on the multifaceted nature of Black worship and faith. People of color are much more likely to feel connected to their church when they perceive it to be a place of refuge, a place that understands and supports them in their struggle against subtle but very real forms of oppression. Would they find such a refuge in a predominantly white church? Would they hear words that communicate an understanding of what it is like to live in their world? Further, African Americans spend twice as much time at church than whites and are inclined to see the church as their extended family. On the whole, they seem less interested in small group bible studies at private homes and more likely involved in small groups that focus on specific ministries (e.g., music, child care, diaconal, etc.).
Racism, Stereotypes, Prejudice, Ignorance and the Church. Issues of racism remain at the forefront of minority life. While the more obvious and violent forms (e.g., baseball bats to bodies, burning crosses) are rare, the subtler forms of racism (e.g., institutional) and prejudice are alive and well. First, few whites understand the power of white privilege: the ability to move about in the community without being noticed or suspected of crimes, the ability to have one’s identity be based on more than skin color. Organizational prejudice (e.g., glass ceilings, suddenly filled jobs or apartments, etc.) continue.
It is fair to ask whether Caucasian churches participate in this kind of behavior? The evangelical church, while not supporting racism and even speaking out against it (though maybe rarely), participates in institutional racism when it remains ignorant or silent about the current painful experiences people of color face. It participates in institutional racism when it individually repents of prejudice but ignores the need for corporate social justice so sadly missing in our society.Dominant culture individuals tend to see reconciliation and justice through the lens of individual behaviors. But when the church ignores people of color in its own community while sending ministry teams to needy individuals in the inner city it may send a message that minorities aren’t in this community but only “over there.” The church participates when it treats minorities as strangers when they have attended the church for some time. The church participates when it sends foreign missionaries to training schools to learn how to contextualize the Gospel but seems unaware or unwilling to engage ethnic minorities living next door. Neglect of race issues, whether from ignorance or from seeing it as not pragmatic or important is a sin and minimizes the fact that the church should be a visible testimony to “God’s wisdom of making Jew and Gentile one creature in Christ.” Prejudice exists in many White churches today because of the inherent power of being in the dominant culture coupled with the sin if complacency and indifference. In short, we white folk just don’t have to be concerned about race and racism.
Next week we will look at some theological encouragement to reconsider the value of multiethnic congregations.