Sunday, May 11, 2008

And He never said a mumblin' word

My church prays in Spanish even when none of our Spanish-speaking members are there. Sometimes we sing one of the Taize vespers in Spanish. Often, that doesn’t work very well. People start mumbling. They are confused by having to use the line of text further away from the notes than the English words and they are uncomfortable with having to form their mouths around syllables that don’t mean anything to them. Our Spanish-speakers members aren’t our strongest singers so the mumbling drowns out the people that are pleading with God - for once corporately - in the language of their hearts and childhoods and families.

But we keep doing it as part of our liturgy. We do it even when no one is there who benefits from a familiar language other than English. We do it because we benefit as a community. We benefit as a community because it makes us into a welcoming community and a welcoming community is a community that is more aligned with the plan God has for us than a community that stays within its comfort zone, which is really just water that is rapidly becoming stagnant.

A dominant aspect of the Evangelical movement that swept through our country for the last 30 years was something called a “homogenous church growth strategy.” Basically, pastors recognized that if they wanted their churches to grow (for whatever reason), like attracts like. No pastor would say that different people didn’t need Jesus, just that all people would be happier with Jesus if they worshipped alongside people who were similar to them in culture, language and socio-economic status. In our country, those three characteristics added together equate to race. So, the white Evangelical movement grew by making itself attractive to other white people. The music sounded like Top 40 pop songs. The liturgy was a familiar blend of 30ish-minute sermon, music and corporate prayers. The food served at Fellowship hour and at events was comfortably suburban. The energy was calm, reserved, and professional. The dress was casual but not too casual. Since these were all trappings of a lifestyle that white people were already comfortable with, churches gained new members who almost always happened to be white.

The emergent movement is about identifying church traditions that were formed during the Modern era and replacing them with practices that are more appropriate to the Post-modern era that we are currently living in.

I think we’ve done a good job as a movement. We’re re-examining doctrine. We’re reframing the requirements to be part of the club. We’re flattening our hierarchies.

But, as a movement, we have not yet replaced the homogenous church growth strategy with a new paradigm.

On Thursday, I met with Professor Soong-Chan Rah at North Park University. He’s been fairly critical of the emergent movement on this issue and I think he’s right. We had a good and somewhat casual introductory conversation and then he said something that made me reach into my bag and take out my notebook. He said:
The emergent church feels like a perpetuation of white privilege and that has to be the first thing to go.
He cited that overwhelmingly white pastors and writers get media attention and book contracts when churches that are doing the exact same work but that are led by non-white pastors get ignored. He didn’t need to tell me that my own church is an exception in the movement for being willing to be messy, uncomfortable and awkward by moving out of our comfort zone to make worship something that appeals to more than just white people: to mumble in our attempts to be a welcoming community. Any study done of churches that claim to be emergent are going to show that they’re over 90% white. My own experience of trying to start a conversation with over 80 cohort leaders and over 300 local folks by sending out an email, asking them to read and comment on my first post regarding race and the emergent movement got no response. Not one comment. I put the less effort soliciting comments on the quilt I made and got 8 responses. No response?

I know what people say in response: we’re a movement that grows through attraction, not prosyletization. But who is it we’re trying to attract when we make decisions about our practices? Usually, it’s people who already like what we like. For instance, the ancient futures movement goes back into history to find relevant practices today. But whose history? Are we plumbing the depths of Coptic traditions, a definitively African form of Christianity? Professor Rah has found evidence to support the opposite.

Other people will say that they can’t control who the publishers give contracts to. But that’s the white privilege talking; thinking inside the box. Why not say to publishers, “I’m flattered that you want me to write this book. Do you mind if I co-author it with my non-white colleague who knows just as much about the topic?” or “I will write this book for you if you also give a contract to my non-white colleague,” or “You know what? I’m flattered but my non-white colleague knows more about this than I do.” Foot-washing is not just something that is done with a hand-towel and a basin.

My church hasn’t gotten it right yet. When we focus a discussion on immigration issues, attendance goes down and, I’ll admit it, I’m part of that problem. But, as a movement, we cannot be afraid that our attendance will decrease. The Kingdom of God is multi-cultural. The Post-modern world is multi-cultural.

If our churches are not multi-cultural, then they are neither reflective of the Kingdom of God nor Post-modern.

We cannot simply wait for non-white folks to come to us. They would only be tokens if we did. We must go out and get them, welcome them, and let them change the agenda so that it more accurately reflects the concerns of the entire Post-modern Kingdom of God, not just the white post-Evangelical, post-Christendom, post-colonial folks. Alternately, we should consider going to them, submitting to their leadership and learning about emergence from folks that have arguably been in the midst of it longer than the white folks have.

Professor Rah pointed out that the emergent movement still has hope that it will not be left behind in a stagnant pool of its own homogeneity because our conversations and writings pay lip service to pluralism. We have the foundational support to change our paradigm if we’re willing to mumble a little.

But are we?


Ali BG said...

R, way to tackle this issue from inside the movement. I think this is (dare I say it) TOP PRIORITY for the emergent movement if we actually intend to emerge anywhere beyond reaching some sympathetic Boomers, a bunch of Xers and a few Millenials. It's one of the places where groups like CCDA and SP and even the multiethnic movements in IVCF the ECC have a lot to offer us...

May we have the courage to mumble. A lot.

Erika Haub said...


What a great post! Thank you for challenging the default settings and sharing a bit of what it could look like to move beyond HCG 2.0.

At our church, we have the practice of always reading our biblical text in both Spanish and English. I was preaching today and as I was doing my intro I had this feeling that maybe I should just do the text in English and skip the Spanish version. We had had a special Mother's Day brunch and I was concerned about the time and the text was long, etc. And, Doug had printed the text in both languages for people to have so I kind of justified it in my mind that our Spanish speakers could just look at the handout if they wanted (the reality is that there are likely some who do not read so that was pretty bogus on my part).

At the last minute, I decided to go ahead and read in both languages. When I finished reading in Spanish, there was all of this audible response from the congregation: a response of appreciation and gratitude for the reading of God's word in the native tongue of many gathered. I realized how foolish, and selfish, my thoughts had been and I was so glad I didn't listen to myself!

All of this to say, even those of us who are really pursuing the multi-cultural thing still need to hear what you say here.


Jake and Jess said...

First off, amazing post. I don't know how to agree with this more without sounding like a brown-noser.

My only counter-point for discussion is this. I wonder if this focus of white-homogenity is focused too much on just the differences of skin color. Wouldn't it be just as awesome if my Gypsie-Czech-Romanian (white) neighbor decided that an emergent church felt like home to him as it would be if an American or African black man felt the same?

Would it be viewed as the same success if an American-born Iranian (mostly Arian in physical features) were accepted as an author for an emergent book deal as if a dark-skinned Bolivian were given the same book deal?

Just furthering the idea of multi-cultural in place of multi-colored.

Mike Clawson said...

Great post Rebecca!

I've personally been especially struck by the need for "us" whites to go join people of color where they are at, not just hope that they will come to us. I think that's really important.

However, one question that occurs to me is whether we (meaning emergents like myself) will be welcomed there if we do that?

I ask this because in some of the online conversations I have participated in related to this topic two complaints have been expressed about emergents:
1) we're not diverse enough; and
2) we're all a bunch of heretics anyway.

If that second one is a common sentiment about emergents among urban/ethnic church leaders (the ones that have heard of us anyway), then if I were to begin attending at, say, an urban African American church, I think I might be more afraid of being rejected for my theology (just as I was at a white suburban evangelical church) than for my race.

I guess I'm just worried that racial/ethnic diversity doesn't always go hand in hand with theological diversity, and I'd really, really like to have both.

Does that concern make sense? Any thoughts?

PrincessMax said...

Ali, I love hearing how sympatico we continue to be after 25 years.

Erika, what a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it here. I feel so bouyed up that my blog is one of the places you visit since I have so much respect for your writing, your choices and your perspective.

Jess, you can brown-nose as much as you want because I'm going to do it right back. I don't disagree with you at all. I definitely mean multi-cultural when I frame it in terms of race. In America, I think race is an easy heuristic (rule of thumb, Dad)for all that other stuff because if we deal with the racism, I think everything else will fall in line. I might be wrong. I'm going to think about that some more.

Mike, I'm going to respond soon but now I have to go to class because I left a big comment on your wife's blog and it took all my morning time.