In Defense of the Multiracial Church. Sort of.

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It was so good talking with Jemar Tisby, author of the essential The Color of Compromise, last week. We covered a lot of ground in an hour but I was especially interested in asking Jemar about how he thinks about multiracial churches. I’d picked up on a certain uneasiness about these kinds of churches while listening to the podcast he co-hosts and was curious to hear more.

As a historian, Jemar began by reflecting on the origins of black churches in the U.S.A. He said, “There would be no black church without racism in the white church.” This is the necessary starting point for any conversation about multiracial churches as it acknowledges the origins of the racial segregation we take for granted in our congregations. Our racial divisions are not a result of personal or cultural preference as so many would like to believe – We listen quietly to the preacher, they talk back. We like hymns, they like praise bands. Rather, as Jemar points out, our segregation originates and is sustained by white racism.

So even today, when most white people would repudiate the former racism found in our churches, because we’ve not honestly assessed its subtler forms today, there remains an essential place for churches of color, especially black churches. Listening to Jemar talk about this reminded me of an article Pastor Charlie Dates wrote a few years ago in which he too made the case for the urgent relevance of predominately black congregations. Of this tradition he wrote, “The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of Scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel.”

Sadly, our white churches have generally not seen the gospel in this way. We have seen a choice between the gospel and justice, a choice which black churches have historically rejected as theologically warped and pastorally harmful. And yet too many multiracial churches have not disturbed these dangerous assumptions. In our conversation, Jemar made the painful observation that, “even in a multiracial environment the culture is going to tend toward white, toward what is most comfortable for white people.” Thoughtful students of these churches like Korie Edwards, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, and Jennifer Harvey have all made similar points about the tendencies toward whiteness within many multiracial churches.

Not all of these churches default to white comfort. For example, I have friends who pastor incredibly diverse churches whose ethos is multicultural and whose priority is justice for the marginalized grounded in the gospel. It’s just that these churches have few, if any, white people. But for those of us whose diverse churches include white people, the question is uncomfortably relevant: Is the multiracial church a genuine expression of the gospel, or do we succumb to racial injustices and hierarchies that continue to plague white churches?

Rediscipling the White Church is available today and in it I try to take seriously the legitimate criticisms leveled at multiracial churches by focusing on the deforming discipleship of white churches. If, as Jemar and other argue, many multiracial churches default to cultural whiteness, then it’s possible that those churches could benefit from considering how we’ve watered down the New Testament’s radical vision of reconciliation for something more palatable to the dominant culture.

Now, to be honest, the multiracial church is not the main character in Rediscipling; the title makes that plain. But here’s my confession: Despite all of its real failures and many important critiques, I remain deeply committed to the multiracial church. I believe that it is a reflection of the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus. I believe that it retains the potential to bear powerful witness in a world of hostility, injustice, and segregation.

I don’t argue that all white churches should become racially and ethnically diverse in Rediscipling. There are many reasons for this: I wanted to push against the tendency to add racial diversity to whiteness and call it reconciliation; I didn’t want to let those pastors and churches off the hook who don’t believe there is enough diversity in their context to pursue reconciliation. But, while I didn’t say this in the book, I believe that if white churches take seriously the call to disciple their people toward solidarity with the diverse body of Christ, at least some of those churches will make the slow, intentional, and sacrificial move toward becoming multiracial.

I suppose, on the release day about a book so focused on white Christians and their churches, I want to plant my personal stake in the ground. For all of its flaws, my commitment to the multiracial church remains unwavering. May we take our place alongside the black congregations esteemed by Jemar and Pastor Charlie in expressing the justice of our Savior.

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