As you might imagine, or know firsthand, multi-ethnic church ministry can be quite confusing at times. It’s worth the effort and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but my brain can tire thinking about even of a few of the complicating factors. As a very young church we are beginning to prioritize some of these issues and the questions they raise. What follows is an ongoing conversation I’m having with many of our leaders as we do our best to establish a church foundation that reflects the reconciling mission of God in which we participate.
As always, I’m interested in your perspectives and questions.
In People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States author Michael Emerson uses the sociological concept of “habitus” to demonstrate the difficulties of understanding a culture other than one’s own. Emerson defines habitus as the “deeply seated, all-encompassing set of preferred tastes, smells, feelings, emotions, and ways of doing things.”
The concept of habitus is heightened in the American religious landscape when we consider the two cultures indigenous to the political entity known as the United States. According to Emerson, for most of the country’s history white culture and black culture developed not simply in isolation from each other, but in opposition to each other. Given this history, those who don’t fall easily or obviously into either black or white cultures are compelled to choose which of these they will most assimilate to.
One final concept has been important to our church’s conversation about the foundations of our ministry. While there have been two indigenous cultures throughout the USA’s history, it is the white culture that has always been dominant and has privileged its members. There are endless implications of this historical reality, but an important one for us is “white flight.” When those within the white culture sense their neighborhood, institution, or church becoming non-white (however this is defined), the tendency is to leave for white cultural alternatives. White flight is a legacy in many American cities and churches, a fact people of color tend to be rather aware of.
Korie Edwards interacts with these concepts in her important study of multiracial congregations, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. In her research Edwards has found that among the relatively small percentage of multiracial congregations, the vast majority of these are built on a foundation that reflects white culture. In other words- and this seems incredibly important- multiracial congregations are usually only skin deep; their structures and ministries are actually white.
I think the above concepts are important in understanding why this is the case. In a multiracial congregation there is an assumption that unless the overall culture is white those identifying with white culture will not participate.
For a church like ours this can be rather depressing. It’s hard not to wonder whether it’s possible to be a truly reconciled community where no one has to mute their culture in order to be welcomed.
As our leaders have pursued this conversation it is becoming evident that if there is hope in being a multiracial congregation at our very roots we must take the time to identify what those roots are. What are the structures, expectations, and ministries that support the church as a whole? Do these elements reflect a white or black culture? Once we can talk about theses with some specificity we hope to identify what culture each element ought to represent in order to push forward our reconciling mission.
One quick example: It became apparent that the way we do corporate prayer on Sunday mornings was somewhat foreign to many African Americans in the church. Once we realized this we had a series of very detailed conversations about the experience of prayer in the black churches where some of our leaders have extensive experience. From these conversations we identified some of the critical cultural distinctions in prayer between white churches and black churches. We are now implementing some changes to the way we pray on Sundays that hopefully will move us away from a culturally white way of praying.
Will this work? Can we repeat this process for all of the church’s critical structures and ministries? I don’t know. But I’m convinced that because of the Gospel’s reconciling power we have to pursue this reconciliation to our deepest roots.