Gospel, Justice, and Multi-Ethnic Churches

This year I’m participating in a multi-ethnic church coaching cohort with the incomparable Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil.  During a recent conference call we discussed different models of multi-ethnic church ministry.  The mosaic model (my label) assumes a blank surface on which the diversity of God’s kingdom can be expressed.  Cultural diversity is necessary in order for the church to most fully express  and experience what God intends.  A justice model church views its purpose as representing and advocating for those most marginalized within society.  Justice is the goal, diversity is the means, and participation in this church’s mission requires a deep commitment to Christ’s love for the oppressed.

It is generally assumed that these are disparate models which, while sharing similar values, will take churches in noticeably different directions.  From my limited experience I think this is true.  However, there is more overlap between the mosaic and justice models than has been realized.  Finding these points of overlap is important as multi-ethnic churches become more widely available and sought after.

To see how these models coalesce, I begin with why multi-ethnic churches are necessary.  Simply put, these churches are a reflection of the Gospel.  Writing about the first century church, the authors of United by Faith put it this way:

…their theology informed them that God had already reconciled them across the line dividing Jews and Gentiles.  All they had to do was live according to what Christ had already done on their behalf.  When we gather together in multiracial congregations we are implementing what has already been realized through Christ’s death on a cross.

In other words, multi-ethnic churches aren’t so much strategies to accomplish reconciliation as as they are reflections of a reality that has already been accomplished through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  Of course there must be strategy and ministry that points the way to Christ’s victory, but we begin with what has already been done in order to know what is already true.

With the Gospel providing the starting point, we can now live into a reality where formerly divided people now worship together in reconciled community.  The mosaic model is helpful in this regard, illustrating the necessity of churches experiencing more of God’s design and intention through the diversity of their members.  But here we reach a serious problem that is sometimes overlooked by proponents of the mosaic model: there is no blank surface on which to build a diverse church.  In other words, the privilege and marginalization that exists within culture also exist within our churches.  It is impossible to naturally create a mosaic that benefits from God-intentioned cultural diversity without addressing societal injustices.

This is where the justice model comes in.  This model acknowledges the lack of a neutral starting point within any multi-ethnic church.  In The Elusive Dream sociologist Korie Edwards shows that most multi-ethnic churches are actually culturally white.  While the congregation may appear diverse, the white privilege of American culture is carried into church and influences its structures and values.  Attempting to create a mosaic church without first addressing the histories and cultural realities that shape American Christianity will result in a church whose reconciled community is only skin deep.

Combining the justice and mosaic models is the best opportunity for a church to experience and benefit from ethnic, racial and cultural diversity.  By repudiating the idea of a neutral starting point a church can consciously structure itself such that the marginalized are empowered and given a voice within the congregation.  This will be an uncomfortable shift for majority culutre people who are used to their (our) culture being the neutral and normal starting point.  However, by beginning with the Gospel we are freed to see and acknowledge where injustice and privilege hinders genuine reconciliation.  Acting on this knowledge, a church is best positioned to experience a genuine mosaic community.

What am I missing?  I’m especially interested to hear from those of you with experience within multi-ethnic churches.  Do you see these two models as completely distinct approaches to ministry, or is there overlap as I believe?

Church Planting Lessons: Vulnerability

This is the third in a series of posts about what I’ve learned about multi-ethnic church planting as we near the one-year anniversary of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville.  You may be interested in parts one and two.  I’ve added a photo or painting from Bronzeville in each of these posts.

I’m not sure I would have used the word “vulnerability” to describe the process of multi-ethnic church planting until last week.  That’s when, in conversation with my friend Professor Paul Metzger of Multnomah University, I first heard the word used in context of my vocation.  It’s been a helpful way to think about my experience and I’m grateful to him for it.

Like any new endeavor, starting a church carries a certain amount of risk.  I’m incredibly grateful for the strong, gifted, and experienced leaders who are collaborating to lead New Community into existence.  However,even with these leaders the process of pastoring a new church has often felt rather emotionally vulnerable.  I think this vulnerability has been especially poignant given the dynamics of a multi-ethnic church.

"Mind, Body, and Spirit," 1936. A mural by William Edouard Scott in the Wabash YMCA.

On more than one occasion I’ve pointed out this experience to the church by contrasting the predominately African American neighborhood where our church resides and the very white skin in which my own body resides.  This is new, unfamiliar territory to me.  Of course, anyone who participates in a multi-ethnic church – especially one that regularly acknowledges and addresses injustices related to race, ethnicity and culture – is bound to experience vulnerability.  This is the result of addressing those things that are often unacknowledged by both church and culture.

However, as a white man I am unused to deliberately and repeatedly choosing to experience vulnerability.  As I shared with my spiritual director a number of months ago, I’m used to leading with confidence and intuition; feeling vulnerable or exposed would mean I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere.  But pastoring a multi-ethnic church in an African American neighborhood has removed much of my self-confidence and I’m slower to trust my intuition.  Instead, I ask a lot of questions.  And more questions.  And follow-up questions.  I ask our leaders how my ideas sound to them.  I ask them for their ideas.

And yet, I’ve still been called to pastor, to lead.  And so: vulnerable leadership.  Thankfully the cross of Christ provides the model of complete vulnerability.  The future of our young church lies here, at the cross, where God became weak so that we might have life.

Church Planting Lessons: Relational Networks

This is the second in a series of posts about what I’ve learned about multi-ethnic church planting as we near the one-year anniversary of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville.  Part one can be found here.

Two years ago I knew two people in Bronzeville. As I became more involved with our church planting efforts in the neighborhood, I quickly realized that I needed to meet a lot of people relatively quickly.  As a proud introvert, the idea of forced meetings with a bunch of strangers made my stomach turn.  I know church planters who are great at that sort of thing; I, on the other hand, would have come off as a really bad salesman.  Eventually I found a framework for meeting people and telling them about the vision of our church.

"Bronzeville" by Gregg Spears

Relational Networks became the phrase I used to describe how I was meeting new people.  Maggie and I had lived in Chicago for less than two years when I began reaching out to people in Bronzeville.  This was enough to seriously limit who I knew in Bronzeville, but to make it more challenging we were living on the North Side, miles north of  our future church’s South Side neighborhood.  In other words, as a white guy living on the North Side who’d recently moved from the suburbs, I was going to need some serious help.

Help came rather quietly in the form of conversations over coffee and lunch.  As I was introduced to folks who lived or worked in the neighborhood I’d ask for a follow-up meeting.  Over these conversations I usually had the chance to share about our church, but the real benefit was learning more about the neighborhood and being introduced to other folks.  In a relatively short amount of time I began to see networks of relationships throughout the neighborhood.  Interacting with these networks through new relationships allowed for multiple opportunities to invite people to our church and learn about ways our church could be involved in the neighborhood.

The early days of the church planting process were filled with these meetings and they remain a priority one year after beginning weekly services.  The idea of relational networks lets me be myself while still actively connecting with new people who haven’t heard about our church.  I heard a preacher once say that credibility is what other people say about you.  It’s my hope that as our church becomes part of many relational networks our credibility as humble and courageous followers of Jesus will become known in Bronzeville and beyond.

Church Planting Lessons: Ask Dumb Questions

New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville is quickly approaching our first anniversary of weekly Sunday services.  Michael Washington suggested that I capture some of the stories and lessons from this first year before they retreat too far into the past.  Good idea Michael.  Over the next couple of weeks, in no particular order, I’ll post a few of the things I’ve learned about planting a multi-ethnic church.  As a disclaimer, I’m convinced there is far more to be learned, that on a good day I can just begin to see the forest for the trees.

Bronzeville had already been identified by our sending church as the Chicago neighborhood where our new church would be located.  As I became more involved I began to learn a lot about this historic neighborhood, including how different it was from our sending church’s North Side location.  I wondered, What needs to be different about this new church given the history and demographics of Bronzeville?

Photo Credit: Kymberly Janisch (http://bit.ly/gxvoft)

Bronzeville has been a predominately African American neighborhood for a long time with a history I began to learn about one morning when Michael drove me around, pointing out significant landmarks.  We talked a lot about the historic churches in the neighborhood that morning and when we eventually stopped for coffee I asked my first dumb question: Should we scrap small group Bible studies in this new church in favor of a mid-week, all-church Bible Study? Most of the churches I’ve been a part of have leaned heavily on small groups for discipleship, community building and Bible study.  Michael pointed out that small groups are relatively unknown in many African American churches and I wondered whether the method should be dumped for something more contextual to the neighborhood.

As we continued to plan I started to wonder about the critical components that would need to be in place for a multi-ethnic church to thrive in Bronzeville.  During this time I reached out to folks who lived in Bronzeville or were familiar with the neighborhood.  I asked, Which aspects of church are indispensable to you and your friends? I didn’t care whether or not they were attending a church.  What mattered to me was hearing what parts of church they looked forward to expectantly.  Over and over again I heard how important worship music was.  The basic message was: “You can change everything else- the format, the preaching, the demographics- but don’t mess with the music!”

If you’re wondering, we decided to keep the small group method- Michael convinced me that it could be effective- and I began to pray like crazy for the right people to lead our worship ministry- a prayer that was answered with two excellent leaders.

There have been many more dumb questions, and I’ve yet to regret a single one of them.  Gracious conversation partners have tolerated my ignorance and been patient as I learn how our church can best honor the neighborhood.  Dumb questions lead to insightful answers, answers that have significantly shaped our church during this first year.

Reconciled To The Roots?

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.

Prayer before one of our first services in 2010.

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.

Prayer during a service in December.

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.