The Common Good

The Author of Time's Report on Race and Megachurches: Interview with David Van Biema

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those slippery topics that come and go based on which national leader is currently jazzed about it. Back in the mid-1990s, when the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and Promise Keepers were riding high on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial "we are one" buzz.

Time magazine's Jan. 11 issue hit newsstands last week and, with its attention-grabbing report on "How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge the Racial Divide," promptly set us churchgoing folks to talking. Many Christians were excited to see Time devoting prime pages to Willow Creek Community Church and the progress it's been making toward becoming a racially diverse (or at least a racially aware) congregation. When a trendsetting megachurch like Willow Creek makes racial diversity a priority, people take notice. But will it stick?

With that question in mind, we called Time religion reporter David Van Biema to ask him about the story behind his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Van Biema is an award-winning journalist who served as Time's chief religion writer from 1998 to 2008. His many cover stories on religious topics, including the historic Jesus, Mormonism, Rick Warren, and T.D. Jakes, have sparked numerous debates and helped keep issues of faith and culture in the public conversation. Currently a contract writer for Time, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and son and is working on a book about the psalms. Van Biema lightheartedly calls himself "a secular Jew who occasionally backslides into practice."

URBAN FAITH: What attracted you to the "megachurches and race" story, and to Willow Creek as a model of progress?

David Van BiemaDAVID VAN BIEMA: A lot of it had to do with Michael Emerson, the coauthor of the book Divided by Faith. He's a sociologist who has been something of a theorist of racial reconciliation for over a decade and has written a number of books that have influenced the discussion about race and justice among many white evangelicals. I had heard someone say at a religion writers' conference that megachurches were "desegregating," so I followed up on that and that person directed me to Emerson as the foremost academic expert on the topic. I talked to Michael and he said that he thought that multiculturalism was increasing in megachurches but that his evidence was mainly anecdotal. However, he said if I'd be willing to wait a couple weeks, he would be analyzing some numbers from the National Congregations Study from Duke University that might give him a better picture of where things stand. So, I called him back a couple weeks later and he said, "Yeah, the numbers are amazing. I'm blown away!"

The numbers he found were for conservative or evangelical churches that had a weekly participation of a thousand or more, and what he derived from the survey is that the percentage of such churches that had at least 20% minority participation had quadrupled from like 6% to 25%. So, I kept talking to Emerson. I felt very excited to have been there at that moment when somebody was coming up with that kind of breakthrough statistic. Though there had been others who had asserted similar growth, the numbers seemed somewhat stronger in this case.

Eventually, I became interested in Emerson's own story and what he was doing. This led me to the compelling narrative about how Divided by Faith had been essential to megachurch pastor Bill Hybels becoming aware of race in America as a justice and theological issue. So, I thought I'd try to find out how his church, Willow Creek, was doing in terms of racial diversity and multi-ethnicity in its congregation.

By the time I got Willow's numbers, which were a combined minority percentage of just about 20%, I had concluded that it would be more interesting to do a story about Willow than to do one about a smaller church that was completely multiethnic and that had been multiethnic from the get-go. First of all, Willow Creek is so big and influential. And secondly, it was a church that was coming from an almost totally white place and was in the process of trying to make a huge transition from monocultural to multicultural. It seemed to me that Willow Creek's journey, both the positives and the negatives, might be meaningful and instructive to other churches out there.

What surprised you most as you dug into the story?

Time articleFirst, I think it was the fact that Emerson had been so blown away by the rapid growth of racial diversity within evangelical megachurches. You need to understand that before tackling this story, I was not a student of American megachurches or race in the evangelical church. I took a crash course on the subject, primarily through Emerson's books and research. And if you were to read Divided by Faith without any other knowledge of the topic, you'd get the impression that the last places where you would see progress in terms of racial diversity would be in evangelical megachurches. They just did not seem to have that kind of sensitivity or intentionality. In fact, their formation and growth seemed to be built around the idea that people would feel more comfortable going to church with people who were just like them. And if the people the evangelical megachurches were primarily focusing on were white, then it stands to reason that you'd continue to only gather white people. This is what Emerson had been writing about, so I think my initial sense of surprise was a reflection of his. The story seemed to develop a strong statistical peg before my eyes.

As a journalist, did you have any preconceived notions about evangelical churches?

I probably brought to the story a kind of knee-jerk assumption from my Northeastern, non-Christian background that evangelicalism was heavily influenced by a Southern sensibility and so it likely was not the most fertile ground for racial diversity. I should have known better, since I've written a lot about evangelicalism, had encountered it all over the country and, for that matter, knew about the Southern Baptist Convention's apology to African Americans back in the '90s. But this was my first decent-sized story on evangelicalism and race, and I relapsed into old thinking. Clearly I was wrong.

Any other surprises?

As I got deeper into the story, I discovered that there were a lot of people who were not that overwhelmed by the numbers. I encountered Christian leaders who had been hoeing this "racial reconciliation" row for a long time and who were really quite weary of the whole thing. I also discovered that a lot of the ideas that felt bright and shiny to me had been pushed very hard by previous generations of leaders and people over the last 20 years as well, and the reality had not necessarily risen to meet the ideal. Many people that I thought would be in favor of what the numbers were suggesting were a bit more skeptical than I expected.

Do you think the 20% minority threshold that you talk about in the article is a valid measure of what determines whether a church or institution is truly integrated?

My answer would be no, and I'm not sure Michael Emerson meant it as a determining marker of a successfully integrated church. I think the 20% figure is the tipping point where a church begins to move to the point of no return. The reason that Emerson uses that number is that he, and other sociologists, determined that at 20% it becomes extremely hard for the majority members of a congregation to ignore the minority population. At that point, they have to deal with them, one way or the other. At that point, the congregation really has to make some decisions as to whether it wants to keep moving in that same direction, because I think if a predominantly white congregation moves to a situation where it's 49% white and 51% other, this might not create total multi-ethnicity in the culture of the church, but it would certainly create some big changes. So, looking at it optimistically, I think what we're listening to here with that 20% figure is the opening bell for genuine progress. It becomes difficult to move backward at this point. With that number, it becomes very hard for a Bill Hybels, who really has been talking the talk on this stuff ever since he read Emerson's book, to walk backwards.

Bill HybelsDo you think Willow Creek will be able to make genuine progress in this area anytime soon?

First of all, I want to make it clear that I'm not an expert on Willow Creek. I only had a limited amount of time with the leaders there. But I do think the answer is yes. Bill Hybels very graciously gave me 90 minutes of his busy day for an interview, and one of the notable things about the conversation was that I raised the issue about the lack of racial diversity on his senior pastoral staff early on in the interview, and he said that it was a great concern to him. But then very late in the interview, I asked him if he had any immediate unattained goals in this area, he said without missing a beat, "to find senior level [minority] staffing." I thought his bringing it up on his own that second time out showed that he is really committed to it -- he wasn't just placating a reporter with a bothersome question.

And the fact that he was willing to go on the record about it in Time magazine makes it even more significant. It's almost as if he's on the clock now. How soon do you think he'll follow through on that?

I don't know how long it will take him to find somebody, but I suspect he will. However, I'd be interested to see what ethnicity that person is. Based on my limited understanding of the subject, it's possible that it would be less threatening to a mostly white congregation to select a Latino, for instance, rather than to pick an African American. The Latino population at Willow is higher than the African American population now. But that's just a speculation.

That sort of goes along with a controversial observation in the article, where you write: "To some white congregants, naming a person of color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between 'diversity' (positive) and 'affirmative action' (potentially unnerving)." Could you talk about that?

I think my saying "affirmative action" maybe was a bit on the cute side. The resentment you sometimes hear from whites who are anti-affirmative action is a feeling of unfairness -- that is to say, why would the nation give to a minority stuff that's not available to the majority? It just doesn't seem fair to them. But the "unnerving" part was probably closer to what I meant to say about adding a minority pulpit pastor: It's not that they would be against hearing a sermon from a person of color; it's more along the lines of, "If I cede over to someone of a different ethnicity the authority that accompanies that position of leadership, then I'm really giving that person a kind of control over me, and that's threatening."

So it's a balance of power issue?

Yes, but I'm not sure Bill Hybels would frame it that way. I've seen interviews with him where he says he doesn't see it in terms of power relationships at all. But I think that's a valid way of looking at it. Those issues of power do often get translated into religious terms.

Do you think Bill Hybels and the other Willow leaders will have to address this "power" issue head on before naming a nonwhite teaching pastor?

Again, I'm not an expert on Willow Creek. I can only speak to this stuff based on my brief interview with Hybels and my conversations with a few dozen people in the congregation. But my sense of Hybels is that he will find a way to do it. However, there are several questions that attend that, one of which is the possibility I mentioned that the teaching pastor would be Hispanic or some ethnicity besides African American. In any event, my suspicion is that Hybels's authority and leadership at that church, which he built and steered from its birth, is strong enough that the congregation would probably go there with him if he does it.

Of all the people you quoted in your article, I was most intrigued by the comments from Curtis Sallee, the African American gentleman who has been a faithful member at Willow Creek for the past 15 years. He said: "[W]hat Bill has done racially has been nothing less than miraculous, [but] there needs to be someone who speaks for the church ... who's a minority. That's the next step. I don't know whether they are ready to take it. But they're going to have to address it sooner or later." That's pretty candid.

I was very happy to talk with him. I think it's healthy that the church has minority members who are willing to express themselves in such honest terms, and that's not always the case.

I would imagine that your article will encourage some people there at Willow Creek to persevere and perhaps push a little harder moving forward.

To the extent that I'm allowed to say it, that would please me. A few caveats, though. One is that when we were talking about evangelicalism, I think that one of the most compelling reasons given for why churches over 1,000 are making this change faster than some other churches was not necessarily an evangelical point, it was a megachurch point. I do recognize that most megachurches are evangelical, but it was not necessarily a theological thing that's driving them to become more multiethnic. Rather, it has to do with a lot of these churches being relatively new churches, and a lot of these megachurches still have founding pastors who are very much in control. So, what you do not have is a church where everyone in that congregation has been a certain color for as long as anyone can remember. Or, some denominational connection that has dictated the composition of the church from the beginning. Megachurches aren't like that. Therefore, if someone who is the founder and senior pastor of a church like Willow Creek becomes excited about the idea of racial diversity, then he's more likely to be able to push it through than would be a pastor at a church that's not like that. I don't mean to suggest that there are not strong evangelical or theological reasons for a church pursuing racial diversity, but I think part of it is structural.

That also raises the question about the ultimate goal of diversity in the church. What if an African American pastor does get hired as teaching pastor at a church like Willow Creek? Would that then do it? Would that be sufficient in terms of making the church multicultural or multiracial?

That's a good question, and I'm sure some would argue that simply having a nonwhite pastor isn't enough, that something about the culture of the church needs to change as well. I guess my feeling about that is, if you have a nonwhite teaching pastor at a mostly white megachurch, doesn't that in and of itself begin to change the culture?

It would definitely be an important step.

At the same time, what is the responsibility of a local church in terms of becoming multicultural? That is, if Willow Creek draws from a geographical area where the racial numbers or ethnic numbers run a certain way, how much further does it need to go? So you can get a teaching pastor, but how far would it have to go beyond that?

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of churches have not been willing to simply take that first step. There's a fear among some people that decisions like that could be a slippery slope toward something else. We can get so caught up worrying about the unknowns that nothing ever happens.

Yes, and from that point of view one teaching pastor would be a huge opportunity for people to practically live it out and see how people would respond.

But then there are those in the black church, and other nonwhite Christian communities, who are not persuaded that this diversity is even necessary. I interviewed a pastor at a black megachurch who expressed a certain sympathy for multiethnic churches, but he was not really in favor. So, I think it's a very real and arguable position not to want to be a part of a multiethnic congregation if you're nonwhite, since there's a lot of specific history to wrestle with and issues to address if you decide to go there. But that wasn't what I was writing about in this story.

Yet it's a very real aspect of this topic. It's been said that genuine racial reconciliation and diversity and multiculturalism in the church will ultimately require some sort of sacrifice from everyone involved.

I agree. Those leaders that I spoke to who have been doing it for a long time were very clear about the sacrifices required and the hard decisions that have to be made. You have to go into it with your eyes open. But I guess what I would say is, we should be so lucky to get to the point where people have that decision to make.

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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