Creating New Wineskins

While many in the U.S. civil rights movement were busy integrating lunch counters, others took on an even tougher challenge—integrating U.S. churches. Sadly, they met with stiff resistance.

A book published three years ago, Divided by Faith, made the provocative claim that "white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it." Now that book's co-author Michael Emerson joins Curtiss Paul DeYoung, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim to write United by Faith—a plea for the church to be the church of Jesus Christ.

"The history of the church in the United States leads one to believe that sustaining multiracial congregations is a near impossibility due to racism," write United's authors. And yet in spite of this tragic history, they argue convincingly that Christian congregations, when possible, should be multiracial and that such congregations can play an important role in reducing racial division and inequality. They define multiracial as a congregation in which no one racial group is 80 percent or more of the people.

The first of the book's four sections examines the New Testament church as a model for "doing church." The authors conclude that "Jesus' inclusive table fellowship and vision of a house of prayer that was for all the nations was a precursor to what we call multiracial congregations" and that the early church standard was one of Jews and Gentiles living in reconciled relationships. "We declare that the first-century church was united by faith!" the authors assert. They cite the church at Antioch as a prime example of the new social order that was neither fully Gentile nor Jewish and therefore required people to come up with a new name—Christians or Christ followers. Sadly, they state, this "broad inclusiveness decreased only when the church became more aligned and identified with the Roman Empire and the culture of the elite."

The second section measures U.S. churches—beginning in the early 1600s and going through the 1940s—against the New Testament church standard. "There were some brilliant moments when reconciliation was being practiced," the authors note. "At times it seemed as though the diverse congregations of the first-century church might reappear. But racism could not be kept at bay." This section offers in-depth case studies of four multiracial congregations: Riverside Church in New York City, The Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, St. Pius X Catholic Church in Beaumont, Texas, and Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.

The third section considers, then challenges, the arguments for homogeneous churches. In a nation in which one culture has been so dominant and racism has been so destructive, some argue that racially separated congregations provide a place to embrace and nurture culture and to seek refuge from and resist racism. Others argue that homogeneous churches tend to grow faster. But the authors reply that "while racial separation may be sociologically comfortable, we do not accept it as ordained by God." Indeed, the New Testament church demonstrated "the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile people across socially constructed divides." Furthermore, multiracial congregations can powerfully join hands to resist racism together.

THE FINAL SECTION offers a theology of and practical suggestions for multiracial congregations. "One reason the first-century church was so successful at establishing diverse congregations," the authors argue, "was that 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."

What are the characteristics of healthy integrated multiracial congregations? According to the authors, they "maintain aspects of separate cultures and also create a new culture from the cultures in the congregation." Their leadership is "representative of the different races in the congregation." And finally, they have a high degree of social interaction across races.

While United By Faith does not smooth over the challenges of creating and growing multiracial congregations in the United States, it does offer a hopeful, biblical, theologically sound, and timely vision at the dawn of the 21st century. By mid-century there will be no numeric majority race in the United States.

The case studies of four multiracial congregations are varied by geography and denomination, but all evolved out of white congregations. The book would be stronger if it included at least one story of a multiracial congregation where persons from the dominant white culture joined a predominantly African-American or Latino congregation rather than expecting people of color to bear the burden of "fitting in" to white church structures.

Finally, some readers may wish that the authors would have used the more current language of "anti-racist" rather than "multiracial" congregations. "Multiracial" offers a comforting image of diversity, but it may not fully capture the power dynamics at play or the systemic forces that will need to be resisted if the church is truly to create new wineskins that welcome and bless all on equal footing.

J. Daryl Byler is director of Mennonite Central Committee's Washington Office. He serves on the Damascus Road anti-racism teams for MCC U.S. and for Washington Community Fellowship, his home congregation in Washington, D.C.

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