Same Words but Different

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As I’ve followed numerous articles, interviews, speeches and conversations related to race relations in the United States over the past couple of weeks I’ve come to realise that we’re not all using words the same way. Our words sound the same, but the meanings and emphases differ. White society faces the temptation to adopt the role of guardians of the lexicon and deny the validity of new definitions arising from within minority cultures.

This blog exists to encourage and provide resources for multi-ethnic churches. One of the keys to speaking to a diverse congregation is using the right words. The less our congregations look like us, the more carefully we need to choose our words. This is true in regular preaching, but exponentially more so when addressing cultural flash points.

So here are some words related to race relations that I’ve come to realise have at least two meanings each. If you can think of additional examples please list them in the comment section below. I intentionally focus on Black – White relations as that’s been the focus of attention in recent weeks.

RACE
This may appear to be a simple term for all of us who’ve completed numerous forms that ask us our race: Black; White; Latino; Pacific Islander; etc. However, consider this definition from FreeDictionary.com,

“A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them.

(While that’s hardly the most academic source, it’s a fair summary of many scholarly discussions.)

Although we think of racial differences in terms of physical features such as skin color, eye lid folds, or sometimes language, those physical differences are genetically insignificant. I have found that when we talk about different races, we most often refer to social and cultural differences rather than physical distinctions. If someone says, “Black (or White) people like this particular food or think a particular way” they are referencing a cultural value or taste, rather than a behaviour arising from a person’s skin colour or genetic makeup.

While this term isn’t disappearing any time soon, it’s valuable to remind ourselves of its limitations and foremost that all people belong to the human race. Our similarities far exceed our physical distinguishing features.

RACISM
Traditional (White) dictionaries define this word in relation to an individual’s sense of superiority over another because of race, or their hatred or prejudice toward others because of race. Racism occurs when one person treats another person badly due to their racial differences.

Many African-Americans include an additional word in their definition that makes a vital adjustment to the conversation. That word is “power”.  By this understanding of the term racism is a sense of superiority over a minority population with the power and authority to implement policies and systems that honor the superior and suppress and oppress the inferior.

According to this definition a Black person in the USA cannot be racist towards Whites, because almost no sphere of society exists in which Blacks possess power over Whites. Racism isn’t an attitude an individual possesses. Racism exists in systems, policies and institutions representing the majority (White) population who have the power and authority to implement and maintain those systems.

This “power” definition doesn’t mean that people of color bear no guilt in their relationships toward White America. There are plenty of vices that reflect racial hate, just not “racism”. These attitudes can be found in people of all colors: prejudice; hate; discrimination; bigotry; intolerance; and arrogance.

WHITE SUPREMACY
When most White Americans hear the term “White Supremacy” they’ll picture images of Ku Klux Klan hoods and neo-nazis. To label someone a white supremacist is a grievous insult. Because of this association when White America hears the term “White Supremacy” being directed toward them they naturally grow defensive and the conversation stalls.

I’ve increasingly noticed writers using this phrase in reference to social systems and structures where those with white skins enjoy advantages over other ethnic groups. Like “racism”, this shift in definitions applies the term less to individuals and more to collective organizations.

For Example: If I were to say, “The NFL demonstrates and facilitates White supremacy”, I’m not accusing the NFL of being run by members of the KKK. Rather, I’m highlighting a system where a disproportionate number of owners and coaches are White, particularly in comparison to the ratio of White:Black players.

Personally, I believe church leaders should only use this second definition with great caution. In all likelihood the vast majority of the audience will associate it with extremist groups and therefore find it inflammatory. However, we should expose our congregations to the technical meaning so they will be willing to pursue the speakers meaning and be less likely to respond negatively and impulsively when they hear the phrase.

PRIVILEGE
White privilege is difficult to define and describe. A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals 8 definitions submitted by contributors. At its core, this term refers to the concept that within US society a person of white skin colour experiences inherent advantages over those with darker skin colours. These advantages will not necessarily be the consequence of intentional preference, but nonetheless they exist.

The primary rebuttal of this concept isn’t with the definition, but with the reality. Many white Americans point to their own struggles and challenges to succeed in life as evidence that they didn’t receive any benefits because of their skin colour.

Because this could be an extremely long discussion on its own, I’ll just give two examples I believe would commonly be described as white privilege.

  1. Dictionaries: This entire conversation relates in some way to the fact that English is a language of white people and the dictionaries have been maintained by representatives of white culture. “Proper English” is defined by White society. African-American word usage or Chinese-American terms may never make it into the mainstream dictionary and will be regarded as “lesser English”. In order for a minority to be regarded as educated they must speak like White Americans regardless of the degrees they’ve attained. Yet at the same time White English continues to evolve over time and “proper English” is continually redefined in a way that most people are oblivious to. The double standard is glaring and it advantages (privileges) White society.
  2. Church: Picture two 16 year olds, one white, one black. They go to school together. They have the same classes and the same teachers. But on weekends they go to black and white churches of the same denomination. Demographics tell us that when they start looking for entry level jobs the one attending the white church is more likely to have relationships with civic leaders, farmers, small-business owners, and executives. In addition, the White church members are probably higher educated than their counterparts at the Black church in town and reinforce the value of education to this student.
    Because of these relationships the White student gains part-time work with a career track in larger businesses, internships, and relationships with influential people in the community.
    Although both students will work equally hard, and their families of origin may live at comparable levels of wealth, the social connections made simply by attending a white church provide one teen opportunities the other never received. Looking back, the white student may never appreciate the privileges that came with his skin color while she credits her accomplishments to her efforts and therefore disparages the efforts of those (minorities) who haven’t succeeded as she has.

Each of these terms has huge conversations behind them. I know I haven’t scratched the surface of the issues and attitudes involved. Hopefully, this blog post can raise awareness of conversations that need to take place around terminology, even before substantive conversations toward reconciliation can occur.

Black Lives Matter TOO!

I’ve been reluctant to dip my toe into this pond. Many people with greater experience and education than I have written great articles on this topic. However, perhaps some people who haven’t read those articles will take a few minutes to read this post.

We’ve all heard, and maybe said, the response to #BlackLivesMatter: All Lives Matter. Most people I’ve seen commenting on social media don’t seem to realise that everyone places an additional word at the end of that phrase.

Many white people hear “Black Lives Matter” as “Black Lives Matter More” or “Black Lives Matter Most”. So they respond with a phrase (that also contains a silent word) to correct the imbalance they perceive: “All Lives Matter Equally”.

This retort is a true statement.

What these people seem to miss is that the vast majority of people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so while using a silent “Too”: Black Lives Matter Too!

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Why do they need to make this statement? Are they seeking to be inflammatory or to make trouble?

Those using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so because they’re expressing their impression that many in society don’t think they matter. They feel neglected, so they remind each other and the world that they do matter. They do have value. Of course all lives matter, but there are many people made to feel as though they’re insignificant. Sometimes it’s individuals who feel as though no one notices them. Sometimes it’s whole communities.

Did you notice that little feeling of indignation you feel when you see #BlackLivesMatter and think that you’re being overlooked or devalued? That’s a sensation these people experience as a way of life.

Just telling them that “All Lives Matter” doesn’t remove the negative messages these people have heard for so long.

Why would a large portion of the African-Americans community feel a need to remind the world that Black Lives Matter?

  • Because they feel targeted by law enforcement and have seen a disproportionate number of African-Americans killed by police shootings.
  • Because in 2010 blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population.
  • Because drug laws are enforced more stringently against blacks than whites.
  • Because the best schools are in white neighbourhoods.
  • Because they have higher rates of unemployment.
  • Because they experience prejudice in their interactions with white Americans.
  • Because ‘white flight’ tells them they’re distasteful.
  • Because of history that, yes, goes all the way back to slavery, and more recently to Jim Crow.
  • Because they have limited opportunities as a result of Jim Crow policies that ensured limited inter-generational wealth transfer within much of the black community.
  • Because no one tells them they matter or are valuable.

These issues are complex. There is no single simple solution. But all these factors and more contribute to why so many in the black community feel a need to remind the world #BlackLivesMatter…Too.


If you’ve read this far, you might also appreciate this article by Michael Hanegan, 9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me To Say #BlackLivesMatter.

You may also be encouraged by this short video from Rick Atchley who preaches for The Hills Church in Fort Worth. This was filmed in the days after the shooting of 5 Dallas law enforcement officers.

And I’m sharing this video below because sometimes we just need to be slapped.

Most Christians Don’t Speak English

Myopia is a medical term for nearsightedness. Sadly, many Christians suffer from social and spiritual myopia.

We can see the things and people that are close to us very clearly. The people that are further from us culturally or ethnically, or by wealth or education we don’t see as clearly. Sometimes we walk right past them and don’t see them. Sometimes we look around our community and only see people like ourselves.

In this short but excellent video Russell Moore encourages mono-cultural churches to ask why they’re monocultural. But don’t look around a room and ask people like yourself. You need to go outside the church building, into the community and have those conversations with people of other races. Is there a reason that a Black, Hispanic, or Chinese family wouldn’t come to this church?

Is it possible that churches filled with white Americans have come to view ourselves as the definition of a Christian? That our standards should be universal standards? That our beliefs should be universal beliefs? That our “way” of doing church is the “right way”?

This mindset decreases the likelihood that a church will make changes in order to accommodate others. We’re more likely that even when we acknowledge different perspectives of time flexibility between cultures we’ll still demand that African or Latin-Americans keep a schedule that we’re comfortable with, rather than adopting looser start and finish times. Because the way we do things is the right way.

We might convince ourselves that four-part harmony is the “reverent” way to worship God, oblivious to the roots this style of music has in European culture. Because this is the right way to worship, we expect others to become like us, rather than us learn to appreciate Japanese or Indian musical worship genres.

The way we define “normal” is crucial for churches wrestling with the challenges of multiculturalism. Life in a multi-ethnic church must challenge our myopia. We also need to acknowledge our tendency toward myopia and be alert for its symptoms.

I’ll leave my commentary there and I hope you enjoy this video.

The Folly of Homophily

I came to the United States in 1999 to attend graduate school and prepare for full-time church ministry. It was not very long before I took a class title “Church Growth by Small Groups”. In that class I learned several rules about the composition of effective small groups. Among these rules were:

  • The smaller the group, the more homogeneous it needs to be. The larger the group, the more heterogeneous it can be.
  • Small groups are not the place to conduct intergenerational ministry.
  • Primary Group Interaction works best around age, interests and background.

This mindset isn’t restricted to small group ministry. It was carried over to small groups from broader principles in the church growth movement.

It is a core principle of the church growth movement that homogeneous groups and churches grow larger and more quickly. There is research that verifies this principle. So many churches focused their efforts to share God’s Good News with people most like themselves. Undoubtedly this makes sense. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that it’s simpler to “do church” when you don’t need to navigate a cultural maze.

A church located in a largely monocultural town in rural Idaho has a relatively simple path to integrate neighbours into the culture of the church. A church in New York City that has 27 different nationalities represented within 5 blocks of the church building will face many challenges during the process of meeting and integrating with these neighbours.

Sociologists use a term for describing the tendency of people to associate with other people like themselves: homophily. The familiar phrase “Birds of a feather flock together” aptly describes this preference. But the tendency of racial groups to congregate in particular communities arises from motives beyond homophily. The practicality of particular cultural resources (religious centres or ethnic grocery stores) or proximity to those who share a common language . In extreme cases ethnic or racial groups may congregate out of safety concerns.

Yet the fundamental mission of the church demands that we cross ethnic, language and cultural barriers. We are sent “into all the world to make disciples”. (Matt. 28:19) The homogenous unit principle creates a false dichotomy between the work of missionaries and the work of the local church.

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The church is at it’s best when it demonstrates the love of God to all people. The more homogenous we make the local church the less inclusive we portray the kingdom of God. Consciously focusing on serving one particular population group that happens to look and sound like me, unconsciously excludes minority groups that look and eat differently from me.

Monocultural churches look a lot like the problem Paul confronted Peter over in Galatians 2:11-14. We share the Gospel with people of other races because that’s our mission, but we revert back to worshiping with the people and culture most familiar to us because that’s where we’re comfortable. I believe God constantly calls us out of our comfort zones to stretch us and to benefit people around us regardless of their degree of commonality. I thought this quote (from this blog) provided an excellent summary of my concerns:

The main criticism of the homogenous unit principle is that it denies the reconciling nature of the gospel and the church. It weakens the demands of Christian discipleship and it leaves the church vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict. It has been said that ‘the homogenous unit principles is fine in practice, but not in theory’!

The Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) continues its life today because, thanks to homophily, it works. The theoretical breakdown also still exists because the HUP justifies passive racism.

Rather than embrace the fundamental missional example of the New Testament that the church must share the Gospel with disparate cultural and ethnic groups, HUP prioritises ministry based upon similarity.

Rather than celebrate the growth of the early church as it transitioned from its Jewish roots to include its Gentile neighbours, HUP avoids the struggle on the basis of effectiveness.

Rather than embodying the command to love our neighbours as ourselves, HUP encourages the church to love neighbours LIKE ourselves a little bit more than others.

Rather than promoting spiritual growth that overcomes prejudice and racial stereotyping HUP reinforces the supreme value of practical efficiency.

So the numbers produced by HUP may show a period of growth, but at what cost to the church as the embodiment of the Spirit of God.

Homophily may be a natural sociological phenomena.

I believe that God desires the church to redeem homophily by demonstrating an unnatural love for people who don’t look, sound, or live like “us”.

A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers that the father seeks.                    John 4:23

Color Brave not Blind

This week a friend shared a TED talk with me that captured my attention. Mellody Hobson raises the issue of race because as she looks around the boardrooms of corporate America she sees a glaring absence of minority representation. Consider this statement, “Of the Fortune 250, there are only seven CEOs that are minorities, and of the thousands of publicly traded companies today, thousands, only two are chaired by black women, and you’re looking at one of them.

This disparity prompted her to take the risk to use the forum of TED talks to discuss the state of race equality in the United States. She speaks to the business community and challenges them not to be complacent and to take whatever small steps they can to provide all people with the same opportunities in life.

Here is her presentation from March 2014.

I appreciate her use of the term “color brave”. It encapsulates several important ideas.

  1. Addressing racial issues still requires courage.
  2. The phrase promotes action. No bravery is required to say nothing.
  3. It challenges the common term, “color blind”.

I’m not going to regurgitate her excellent presentation, but I do believe churches need to adopt this attitude. I believe that color blindness is the predominant attitude toward racial integration in the majority of churches and it results in a lot of white folks standing around together, and a lot of black folks standing around together, and lot of Hispanic folks….

I was also blessed this week to attend a Gospel Meeting at a local black Church of Christ. The visiting speaker was Dr Carl Baccus from the Southside Church of Christ in Los Angeles. Dr Baccus has ministered with this church he planted for the past 58 years.

At one point during his sermon, Dr Baccus paused, looked around and said, “This church is too black.” That’s a “color brave” statement if ever I heard one!!! He then made the point that churches need to serve their communities and therefore look like their communities.

His own church was planted in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood not far from LAX. However, over the years this neigbourhood has transitioned and now is now predominantly Hispanic. Southside Church of Christ responded to this change by hiring a Hispanic minister. They offer a Spanish language worship service and Bible classes as well as bilingual portions of their services.

Dr Baccus also mentioned that more Koreans are moving into the neighbourhood now and the church is considering how this will impact their ministries.

When Dr Baccus said, “This church is too black” he spoke with considerable credibility as someone willing to change the culture of his church in order to reach the lost souls in his community. That’s being “Color Brave”.

What will it take for more church leaders to look their congregation in the eye and say, “We’re too monotone. Let’s do something about it!

  • I have previously written on the topic of racial colour blindness HERE.

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.