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.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

10 thoughts on “Reconciled To The Roots?”

  1. “and this seems incredibly important- multiracial congregations are usually only skin deep; their structures and ministries are actually white.” I have so much to say about how I’ve experienced this statement over the past 15 years in churches pursuing “multicultural ministry…but yes! Even the conversation/process about how to develop a multicultural church embedded in an ethnically and socio-econcomically. Two examples: how we talk. It’s like, “let’s have a conversation about race, but let’s not get emotional or ….let’s follow this set of rules so that we all ALL feel comfortable. How we develop conversation. “let’s read these articles or books and process them.” So yes, and yes. the structure of the church itself and the process of getting there will reflect the habitus “way of doing things” of its leaders. Then the rest of us feel like we need to embrace the culture fully and mute ourselves to even begin to influence in a way that would change the culture/structure to be ready for our communities to participate in the conversation. Can take a decade 🙂

    1. Complicated stuff; maybe a decade is optimistic? The more I learn about those in our church whose culture/habitus is different from my own, the more I realize that this will be a very, very long process.

      I appreciate your examples of how we talk and develop conversations. I think you’re saying that even the ways we discuss issues of culture reflect the biases of the dominant culture. It’s a discouraging but important reality to consider.

  2. Mmm, good thoughts. I think one of the inherent difficulties of a multiethnic congregation or movement is that everyone is equally uncomfortable…

    Another thing I’m thinking about, as we continue this conversation – although I can see the analysis of two dominant church cultures (black and white) as being important and valuable, I’m also very aware of the ways in which both Latino and Asian church cultures are really very different than either of those, and also the extent to which asians and latinos are often not included in the reconciliation conversation. While I think you could broadly lump those cultures together with either white or black ideas of church, for the sake of a simpler beginning, I’m also recognizing (especially in our IV chapter) that it’s not a great long-term solution.

    There’s also something in here (which I can’t quite formulate at the moment, given that I still have to write a talk to give tomorrow :p) about the white/asian dynamic… As white people privileged with the general comfort of cultural norms, our instinct is to move away from those in order to accomodate the needs of those coming from a black church culture. But, working with the assumption that “asian” and white church culture could be categorized as similar enough for government work (something I’m still not entirely comfortable with, but I get and can work with, especially given the location of our church), how can we be aware that when we move away from white church norms (which we often do with the idea, implicit or explicit, that white people need to get over themselves enough to culturally adapt a bit) that we may also be alienating those from an Asian church culture?

    I’m thinking about this in the context of my fellowship, as we work to shift our cultural norms to make space for a growing African and African-American contingent. At the same time, I’m discipling both African, Korean, and Singaporean students, and recognizing that the shifts we make towards a black church culture can be a direct affront to my Asian students, making them feel unheard and unseen. Which I’m concerned about, because of the power dynamics implicit and explicit between dominant culture and Asian American groups, as well as the relationship between Asians and other minorities (to paint with broad brushstrokes).

    How can we be aware of and mitigating the marginalization of Asians and Asian-Americans in our multiethnic conversation?

    (And that doesn’t even start on Latino students :p)

    1. You raise some good points here Lauren. A couple of thoughts:

      – The issue for me isn’t so much about “two dominant church cultures” as it is two indigenous American (as a political entity) cultures. The sociologist I’m reading point to black and white cultures as the two cultures that fit this bill.
      – Acknowledging these two indigenous cultures doesn’t mean that a church culture is bound to only these. However, it seems that most multi-ethnic churches assume white culture as a neutral starting point and build from there. It’s my working thesis that an American multi-ethnic church does well to strongly acknowledge the historical reality of two indigenous cultures and not simply the one (white) that has been dominant.
      – It is my hope that individuals and communities who do not fit within America’s historical racial binary will have a better chance of more fully expressing their cultural distinctions safely in a multi-ethnic church that understands and accepts America’s historical landscape. In other words, I think there is a better chance of a church becoming a safe place for everyone when it is not built on the assumption that white culture is an adequate and neutral starting point.

  3. To piggyback on David’s remarks, I agree that there’s a lot of historical force behind America’s racial binary of “blackness” and “whiteness,” and that it’s important for Christians to be aware of it.

    Matthew Frye Jacobson’s book Whiteness of a Different Color shows how the concept of whiteness took shape as non-Anglo European immigrant groups (Jewish, Polish, Italian) that were previously discriminated against gradually became “Caucasian.” Their perceived fitness to be assimilated into whiteness was always measured according to their relative proximity to “blackness” — of which the touchstone was the dark-skinned African body. Throughout American history, people deemed to be “Black” have always been the plumbline against which all other bodies are to be surveyed and evaluated.

    So I think it’s helpful for Christians to recognize that these categories and concepts are rooted in historical realities. The Asian-American experience, though in some ways wholly unique, can still be helpfully understood with respect to the experience of Black folk in America. It may not be sufficient to speak of the Asian-American experience completely in terms of the African-American experience (for example, the “perpetual foreigner” phenomenon perhaps cannot be assimilated into that discourse), but it is certainly necessary to plot it on the same map.

  4. Hey, Nick – thanks for joining in 🙂

    David, I really appreciate your comment that “there is a better chance of a church becoming a safe place for everyone when it is not built on the assumption that white culture is an adequate and neutral starting point.” I think that’s a vital step for this multiethnic experiment.

    I understand the historical and social force of the binary of race relations in America, and I think it’s really important to recognize and work with. In the complexity of a city of immigrants, and a church with a significant Asian American demographic, where does the conversation start to include those who don’t fall into the classic binary? Nick, I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Where can we (helpfully) chart the Asian-American experience together with the Black American experience, and where does that become unhelpful?

    I guess my question is this: I see how working with the assumption of the White-Black cultural binary is necessary, but I’m not sure how it’s sufficient, at least in the long haul. I certainly see how it’s a valuable first step, though.

    How can we meaningfully invite Asian Americans into the conversation on multiethnicity, if we’re working under the assumption that the important distinction doesn’t include them?

    And second, how can we as a church start having this conversation more broadly?

  5. David,

    Very interesting post.

    You said:
    “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.”

    Can you give specifics here? I’d be interested to hear them.

    A couple of other thoughts:

    Americans, in my experience, tend to confuse Christianity and Americanism. More specifically, they think that Christianity is American. (This is at least true for white Americans, and I think that it can be generalized across the socio-economic spectrum, though I admit this is simply a conclusion drawn from experience and not from rigorous data collection.) In American churches, I typically get the sense that people don’t have an appreciation for the foreignness of the Bible and of Christianity. This, in my opinion, leads to cultural entrenchment. Understanding the Bible requires thinking about culture’s beyond one’s own. This means that thinking the Bible is our cultural property allows us to cut out this step, which in turn supports the natural tendency to privilege our own cultural preferences. But, the Bible itself is multi-ethnic in its origins. It is foreign to us. The cultural difference between America and the biblical world(s) is as great (or greater) than the difference between America and the modern Middle East. The church of the apostles was not a church that any of us would be comfortable in. Recognition of this foreignness should require recognition that we cannot privilege any American culture over another because neither is Christian. Thus, we must seek authentic expressions of Christian faith within the frameworks of the cultures represented in our community.

    You raised two questions to search out within our community: “What are the structures, expectations, and ministries that support the church as a whole? Do these elements reflect a white or black culture?” Perhaps a better second question (based on the comments to this post) would be: “What culture(s) do these elements reflect?” We could add a third, “Is that reflection appropriate?”

    Finally, I wonder if a profitable approach could be to focus on destabilization of cultural expectations within the church service. This happens inherently when we try to give a voice to all parties within the community and help them find an authentic expression of faith. I am uncomfortable with those expressions that are not my own, but through this discomfort and reflection on how it might be meaningful to my fellow community members, I experience genuine community with them and growth in my own expression of faith. What are some ways that we could destabilize cultural expectations? I think they could start with practices that challenge the way we connect Christianity to our individual cultures. This could mean incorporation of music from multiple cultures both contemporary and historical. Focusing on white and black American culture, we can include music that arises from early black spirituals as well as modern choruses (often written within and for white churches). This could mean incorporation of a variety of different approaches to prayer. This could mean incorporation of different approaches to preaching. Ultimately, one of the quickest ways to strip away pretenses of our own cultural belonging is to introduce a language barrier. The Bible is a foreign document to which we pledge allegiance, but we only encounter it in English. Readings in Hebrew and Greek can remind us that we can access the Bible only because others thought it important enough to cross ethnic and cultural boundaries to bring it to us. It can also bind our communities together as we are reminded that we have one great thing in common above all else: we are all foreigners.

    Sorry if this seems like rambling. I’ve been in the library for too long tonight.

    1. An addition to the final thoughts: Readings from other cultures’ (particularly African and Latin American) theologians can offer destabilizing our cultural hegemony on praxis, as can addition of even other musical traditions from outside the cultures represented in our community. Incorporating Bible readings from other cultures (particularly homegrown and non-western translations) could be disorienting to our cultural monopoly.

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