An article in the Washington Post explains two truths to hold in tension when it comes to multiracial churches.
First, they are growing.
The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reports that the number of multiracial churches–ones in which no single racial or ethnic group comprises more than 80 percent of the congregation–have increased from 6 percent in 1998 to 16 percent in 2019.
Second, in spite of the rise in the number of multiracial churches, they are often not conducive to the flourishing of Black people and other people of color.
Korie L. Edwards, sociologist and author of The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, says, “These spaces can actually create a good deal of pain for people of color,”
Edwards explains that the difficulties many Black people and other people of color experience in multiracial congregations stem from the disproportionate burdens they bear in accommodating the comforts and sensibilities of white members of the church.
“In many ways (people of color) are expected to assimilate to the dominant White culture. They end up having to hide or let go of their own cultural preferences and minimizing their ethnic and racial identity,” explained Edwards.
The article highlights Derwin L. Gray, a Black pastor of Transformation Church in Lancaster County, South Carolina. Gray wrote, The HD-High-Definition Leader: Building Multiethnic Churches in a Multiethnic World, in which he lays out a deeply-considered and well-researched approach to building healthy and diverse congregations.
Pastors such as Gray and others are aware of the pitfalls and difficulties involved in pastoring racially and ethnically diverse churches. Unfortunately, such leaders may be more the exception than the rule.
If multiracial churches continue to do emotional spiritual harm to Black people and other people of color, then those churches have failed in one of their most foundational endeavors.
A church cannot be considered healthy if its attempts at diversity continually dash racial and ethnic minorities on the rocks of unexamined biases, cultural assimilation, and social detachment.
Multiracial churches fail because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.
“Multiracial churches fail because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.”Tweet
They mouth “pious irrelevancies and vain trivialities” in the face of anti-Black brutality, the racial wealth gap, and disproportionate deaths due to COVID-19.
If you aim for diversity without an emphasis on justice and equity, then you leave a trail of traumatized Black Christians and other Christians of color in your wake.
If you aim for justice, then you get racial and ethnic diversity in the process.
As another Black pastor of a multiracial church, Mika Edmondson has said, “You cannot love your neighbor while supporting or accepting systems that crush, exploit, and dehumanize them.”
Churches that prioritize justice and equity for Black people and other people of color demonstrate their solidarity with those communities. This is a solidarity that should persist regardless of the demographic diversity present in the congregation.
Yet when churches demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of an oppressed people by pursuing their uplift through policy and systemic changes, those congregations become sites of refuge and may see more racial and ethnic diversity in the process.
Multiracial churches demonstrate the unity and diversity of God’s people in ways that few other communities can match. There are, however, many more ways such efforts go wrong than they go right.
To protect the dignity and spiritual health of Black people and other people of color, churches may be better served not by making diversity the goal, but by making love of neighbor through justice the priority.