Is My Church Multiracial?

As I get this blog up and running, it’s important to establish some consensus of terminology. In my reading I have generally found broad disagreement on whether multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, or something else are the most appropriate descriptors for churches with  members from a variety of racial or ethnic backgrounds.

At this point, I use multiracial and multiethnic interchangeable, although I recognise that some people may give the words distinct technical meanings. Multicultural seems to deserve its own definition as people of the same race or ethnicity can still have different cultures based upon characteristics such as social class or geography. I expect I’ll write more on this topic before too long.

Today, I specifically want to define the term “multiracial church”. Anytime I have a conversation with other ministers and mention that my church is multiracial, I invariably hear back something like, “Yeah, our church isn’t 50-50 or anything, but we do have a few [insert minority group here] that attend.” It’s as though 10 minority members in a church of 250 proves the church isn’t prejudiced and in fact is almost racially integrated.

The definition that I now use and I think is generally accepted is one I stumbled across in Yancey’s book One Body, One Spirit.

“I will define a multiracial church as a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80 percent of the attendees of at least one of the major worship services.”

Notice that this definition focuses on the size of the majority race within the church rather than whether a particular minority group reaches a certain threshold. A congregation with 12 percent black and 10 percent Chinese would be classified as multiracial because the majority group is only 78 percent of the congregation.

The second aspect of this definition relates to the way racial groups integrate in worship. A historically white church that sponsors a Spanish language service in the gym would not meet this criteria as a multiracial church even if under the oversight of the same congregational leaders. A multiracial church must have a basic commitment to building relationships between races. While simply attending worship services together doesn’t guarantee relationship building, it’s a lot more likely to happen than if the two groups worship separately.

The 80 percent figure may seem like an arbitrary definition. Yancey addresses this in his book and states that “there is sociological evidence that such churches [meeting the definition] differ from monoracial churches.” Of course, that’s not saying there’s a huge difference between 81 and 79 percent, but simply that the church culture is significantly impacted when no single racial group makes up more than 80 percent of the church membership.

I appreciate this definition because it provides a firm benchmark in a sphere of thought that is often ambiguous. It’s not the only definition, and some would argue it’s not the best definition, but it’s a whole lot better than just using words and terms that have different meanings to each person.

Having a racially diverse congregation that meets this basic numerical definition of a multiracial church does not make any statement about the intentionality or racial health of the church. Such a church may not have racial diversity in its leadership or may maintain its traditional worship forms. However, defining a church as multiracial based upon its membership or attendance provides a fundamental starting point for churches to explore the numerous challenges that this diverse population presents to congregational life.

 

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Is It My Turn To Speak?

Jason Whitlock writes headlines before he writes articles. He likes to get people’s attention. As an African-American sports journalist he often leverages his heritage to write from a “black perspective”. He commonly uses sports events as a basis for social commentary.

With that said, I found one of his recent articles very interesting. You can read it HERE.

In this article he uses a tantrum thrown by Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Dez Bryant, as a springboard to make the point that his behaviour was not a product of his race. “Dez Bryant’s inability to control his emotions is not a racial issue. It’s a family dysfunction issue.” He goes on to write,

If this country wants to really invest in young people, we must first invest in restoring the traditional family unit. As long as 68 percent of black women who have children are unwed, there are no cures for the social maladies preventing black progress.

Much of the high-profile lawlessness and dysfunction we see in professional sports are a direct result of the impact of Hurricane Illegitimacy. It is not a coincidence that Bryant consistently struggles with his emotions and decision-making and [Calvin] Johnson does not. Johnson did not grow up amid chaos. He and his sister were raised by their married parents, who worked as a railroad conductor and an educator.

Anyone familiar with my work realizes I do not shy away from discussing race. It’s an important, vital discussion. But so is the discussion of family. In many respects, the conversations go hand in hand. The man-made factors energizing Hurricane Illegitimacy unfairly and, in my opinion, intentionally impact the black and brown family structures. The drug war and mass incarceration are targeted at poor, dark-skin communities.

I find his article compelling reading.

As a minister in a multi-ethnic church I have members that fit this demographic. Young black women in the pews each week who experience the social pressure to start a family without a husband. To what extent is the pressure greater on these black women than the white women sitting next to them? Because they all face some pressure.

As a white minister in a multi-ethnic church it is difficult to know how to address the issue. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I do not believe a white journalist (or preacher) could safely write the article that Whitlock did. God absolutely requires all preachers to promote purity and holiness. God wants all preachers to uphold his design for stable, loving marriages and families. Yet the question remains, “In a multi-ethnic church how do teachers address issues that have greater prevalence within a particular cultural community?”

Do we avoid the issues? Should we never mention that 68% of black women who have children are unwed? Or just teach other topics? Or just address it in private, maybe even segregated, forums?

Do we treat everyone the same? Should we pretend that every member, urban and suburban, faces the same pressures?

Do we just lay it out there and let the chips fall where they may? Of course no one would set out to be offensive, but should a white leader discuss this issue as sensitively as he can even though in all likelihood it will upset some?

Do we find a black leader to address the topic? Does the race of the speaker make a difference? Should this make a big difference?

Whitlock himself recognises that this is a difficult issue to discuss, “The normalization of illegitimacy is so pervasive in black America that people are afraid to publicly address its dangers and consequences out of fear of being labeled a sellout or a racist. It’s been so normalized that some people honestly don’t believe it’s a problem.

On the one hand it’s a family dysfunction problem. On the other hand, it’s a family dysfunction problem that’s more prevalent (not uniquely prevalent) within the black community. Can multi-ethnic churches address one issue without addressing the other?

Without being specific Whitlock demonstrates the difference between racial and cultural issues. He compares Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson. They are both super-talented, young, black, wide receivers playing in the NFL. However, their family upbringing is so disparate that it’s not fair to compare their personalities just because they play the same position or share the same race. The culture (or sub-culture if you prefer) that influenced them is completely opposite.

Johnson was raised in an environment that valued citizenship and education. In contrast, it’s a miracle that Bryant avoided the life of crime and drug addiction to which his mother succumbed. All at once the issue is racial, but also cultural. Church leaders need to be vigilant not to assume that because people have one trait in common they have all traits in common. For the 68% of unwed mothers there’s also 32% who are married. Who are you speaking to?

Leading a multi-ethnic church requires knowing your members more than your statistics.

Desegregating the Church

Do you know that only 8% of all churches in the United States meet the definition of multi-racial churches? THAT’S EIGHT PERCENT!! (Yes, I’m shouting that in shock and horror.) I’m blessed to serve one of those 8% but we need to keep reminding ourselves of the value of our racial makeup. It’s far too easy to take our racial harmony for granted.

DEFINITION: According to George Yancey a multiracial church is defined as “a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80% of the attendees.

Racial harmony is not the Gospel of Jesus. Racial harmony is a powerful response and witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the power of God.

HARMONY Sunday 2013On Sunday our church celebrated it’s 4th Annual “HARMONY Sunday”. This special day celebrates God’s work not just in bringing two racial groups together 20 years ago, but on keeping them together for 20 years. Today our church consists not only of Anglo & African-Americans, but some Hispanics, and several other nationalities. We have members raised near the Gulf of Mexico, and others in the Dakotas. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us together.

Our church forms part of the Restoration Movement. This group of churches has spent the past 200+ years calling the broader Christian community back to the forms and teachings of the first century church as described in the New Testament. This mission has been carried out more successfully in some areas than in others.

One aspect of the earliest church that the restoration movement has given little acknowledgement is the area of race relations. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples and teaching relevant to Jew and Gentile relationships, but little application has been made to contemporary racial tensions. Churches of Christ are still as segregated as any other denominations in the United States.

I love God’s vision of his church as described by John in Revelation 7:9,

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

God’s kingdom is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. That crowd at the throne of the Lamb is our goal and destination, and there’s only one building. (See also Rev. 5:9-10 and 14:6) If it’s Jesus prayer, and it is, that “God’s will be done on earth as in heaven” then this vision of God’s throne, must be part of our vision for God’s church.

One of the problems churches encounter is that our vision for the church is too one-dimensional. We focus on doctrine over practice. Where we do focus on practice we often limit it to corporate worship. It’s interesting that throughout Revelation the throne scenes don’t describe a liturgy (order of worship), but they take considerable time to describe those present and worshiping.

HARMONY Sunday 2013-02That the church in eternity appears as a unified body should not surprise those of us who’ve studied the first century church. Acts 2 describes how the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, which became the first church, consisted of at least 15 language groups. Although they held Judaism as a commonality, one can only imagine various cultural customs and values this crowd brought with it from across the Roman Empire. It’s no surprise that one of the first church arguments involved the distinct cultural groups of the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. But they didn’t split!! They didn’t form distinct Hebraic and Hellenistic churches. That came years later. Rather, they worked to find a solution to the issues at hand.

God’s vision for a racially inclusive kingdom and therefore a racially unified church is found throughout the Bible. Here’s a just a few passages to consider:

  • Genesis 12:3 All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. [A messianic promise made to Abraham]
  • Psalm 67:2 May your salvation [be known] among all nations.
  • Isaiah 56:6-7 My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
  • Matthew 28:19 Go and make disciples of all nations.
  • John 3:16 God loved the world so much…
  • Acts 11:17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? [The apostle Peter after baptising the Roman, Cornelius]
  • Galatians 3:8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…
  • Revelation 7:9 I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…

Perhaps the greatest challenge most churches face is overcoming indifference with intentionality. Most churches I’ve visited will say “Blacks, Whites, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics… Anyone’s welcome here.” But this is a very passive statement. What most of these churches don’t realise is that they’re really saying, “Any Black, White… person that comes here and fits into our existing culture is welcome here.”

diversity 01Hispanics may be welcome, but we’re not printing anything in Spanish anticipating their arrival. African-Americans may be welcome here, but we’re not learning any Gospel songs or celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Chinese Christians may be welcome here, but we have no clue when Chinese New Year is, and little interest in learning much about it.

If existing churches are to represent the kingdom of God as seen at the throne of the Lamb they must learn to be become aware of different cultures and cater to them. We must admit that our way of doing things is not the only way of doing things, even if it’s the way that makes us most comfortable.

WE MUST BE INTENTIONAL.

What does intentional look like? Mark DeYmaz describes how in the early days of Mosaic Church in Little Rock the church began to attract Hispanic guests. Before long, they began printing their church bulletins in Spanish as well as English. One week a well-meaning volunteer separated the different language bulletins to different sides of the entrance. Yes, this is only a small thing but DeYmaz notes, “Think about it: two separate tables, two separate groups.” That’s intentionality.

I love that as chapter 21 of Revelation (v1-5) describes God consummating his relationship with redeemed humanity, there are no longer any nations, races, people groups or languages. Rather, God’s dwelling place is simply “among His people” and “They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.” The only distinction among people are those with God in his dwelling place and those outside his city who rejected the forgiveness he offered.

Now there’s a vision for the church.