Exchanging Comfort for Growth
Why are most ecclesias in North America predominantly white and middle-class?
Only some of our ecclesias match the racial demographics of the communities where we worship. This situation is not unique to Christadelphia. Recent surveys have found that while 85% of all Christian churches desire greater diversity, less than 15% have realized that goal.1
Men and women commonly congregate with those most like themselves. I suppose this makes sense. We tend to find more comfort with those with similar interests, common concerns and those at the same relative economic level. In America, cities and suburbs often formed along similar ethnic and economic boundaries.
Yet the gospel calls for us to embrace quite a different viewpoint than our cultural norm in society. The very gospel message spoken to Abraham was that through Abraham and his Seed, “shall all nations be blessed.” (Gal 3:8). In Christ, all distinctions are erased. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one on Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28).
Racial segregation in worship is not new.
God always intended to redeem faithful men and women of all nations, cultures and languages. In many ways, this was the purpose of the spirit gifts at Pentecost.
Racial segregation in worship is not new. At the time of the apostles, we read of a synagogue in Jerusalem organized around an ethnic enclave of freed slaves from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia (Acts 6:9). There was an unhelpful distinction between Grecian and Hebraic widows. One of the early challenges to the infant church was finding unity in a dynamic, growing body where each preaching campaign added more diversity. As the church grew, many Jewish believers grew increasingly frustrated with the challenges of diversity. Some even wanted to resist change by imposing the culture and practices of Judaism on Gentile believers.
While all believers rejoiced in the Gentile reception of the gospel, they were unwilling to accept that their manner of worship and religious traditions should be subject to change. Theirs was a mindset of assimilation, not integration.
But is This What the Gospel Calls for in Ecclesias?
We do see ethnic and cultural diversity in our community when we look globally. Today our community is truly made up of faithful people from all countries and of every language and culture. We rejoice over this. What we don’t often see is integration within ecclesias. Not surprisingly, the same phenomenon of homogeneity is common among most North American church denominations, and there is plenty of literature to read on this topic. Most congregations struggle to realize ethnic and cultural diversity. As one author put it,
I don’t think Christians have intentionally tried to remain culturally and racially divided, but the challenges of fellowshipping in an integrated church are significant. Ultimately, it is simply much easier to divide into our own comfortable groups, and form churches where people agree with each other about doctrine, and want to worship and practice the same way. The effort that it takes to understand cultural differences is, for many people, simply not worth the potential return. In the end, church segregation happens, not purely by intent, but because people do not actively work against it.2
In the US business world, companies have struggled to increase ethnic diversity for decades. They created programs to “affirmatively” include more racial diversity in companies. Having been part of the management of such programs, I can attest that these efforts clearly had some value. However, over the years, companies learned that simple racial “representation” was never enough.
The goal was to achieve a competitive value in diversity, using their diversity as a strategy in the marketplace. For example, having more diversity in a marketing group provides improved consumer insights. The aim of the best companies was not to force ethnic hires but to seek diversity as a tool to make their company stronger. Companies sought diversity because it made them better.
When it comes to the value of integration in Christian congregations, one author said it this way:
One reason I want to see racial reconciliation, multi-ethnic congregations, and greater diversity among evangelicals is because I want more of the Bible. And every time I get to know people from other cultures and backgrounds, my Bible grows. I see new things. I get new angles into the truth of God’s inspired Word. I find new treasures.3
Christadelphians should have a special appreciation of this principle, being a lay clergy. Hearing the gospel expounded by a wide swath of brethren gives us insights we often would not have had. When we hear an exhortation from a brother who has endured the loss of a job or gone through a serious health scare, we can get insights, even if we haven’t personally had that experience. Add to these insights based on varied ages and experiences or from those who have come from outside the community, and we get alternative ways to understand the messages of the Bible. The more inclusive we are, the richer our examination and comprehension of the Scriptures.
Learning From Other Regions
I re-read a fascinating article by Bro. Craig Blewett on the radical change to preaching in South Africa. We’re re-publishing his article in this issue for your consideration. The South African ecclesias entered this century with a recognition they needed to do something substantial if their ecclesias were to survive. They tried to reach the Black community by employing traditional preaching with conventional strategies. But they obtained poor results. As Bro. Craig described it,
Little emphasis was placed on developing long-term relationships with target communities and welfare was typically limited to members of our own community. Consequently, we scarcely reflected the diversity of the South African population, or the transformation being experienced throughout the country.4
Something urgently needed to change. Finally, a brother challenged the ecclesias to think out of the box—to consider transformational change. This activity took the form of “Good News Centers” in communities characterized by a history of racial mistrust following Apartheid. They soon found that developing relationships through “touching communities” (direct involvement in real, tangible works) helped turn stony soil into fertile land.
They created preschools for children (aged two to five); they developed several feeding programs, provided after-school homework and support classes, provided artisanal (craft) workshops, organized gatherings for older women, and started sports programs. These activities met real community needs and allowed ecclesial members to find many ways to contribute.
These changes led to improved relationships. Improved relationships led to discussions about the Scriptures. Those discussions led to baptisms. In the September Tidings issue, we communicated a need for funding for the South African Bible School. That Bible School now draws heavily from disadvantaged communities and a racially integrated school, as are many ecclesias now in South Africa.
We would be wise in North American ecclesias to learn from our South African brothers and sisters. It may be that the specific programs implemented in their country aren’t an exact match for us in North America. However, they learned that repeatedly doing the same things did not provide different results. When they developed trusting relationships in communities where they previously had little presence, their preaching efforts found a more effective and sustainable seedbed.
The gospel compels us to change
We have also seen a revival in many UK ecclesias in recent years. They, too, were experiencing diminishing numbers, and some ecclesias closed. Then, the LORD blessed them with a remarkable influx of Iranian refugees. These refugees were seeking a Christian church and the Christadelphian unique unitarian doctrine drew them. The integration of new Iranian brothers and sisters has led these ecclesias to make fundamental changes in their worship services, and they have redirected much more of their energy into teaching first principles and nurturing new disciples. This development substantially changed the weekly experience of a member in one of these ecclesias. Diversity increased membership but required thoughtful and reasonable accommodations outside normal comfort areas.
In 2020, Bro. Steven Cox wrote this:
A term frequently discussed is ‘integration,’ which is sometimes misunderstood by those on the periphery of the changes in the UK to mean Iranians must learn English. For those in ecclesias which are now majority Iranian on Sunday mornings they know that ‘integration’ is a two-way street.5
Working to become a multicultural community in North America will likely require difficult adjustments and sensitive discussions. If we wish to integrate differences, not assimilate, then we must be firm on first principle doctrinal issues but flexible on cultural matters. For example, how we demonstrate joy and express praise may differ from one culture to another. Are we willing to embrace alternative practices? The gospel compels us to change. Integration demands change. The status quo we are accustomed to is predictable and comfortable, but it comes at a great cost.
For Your Consideration
This editorial offers no answers. Rather, it is a call for all ecclesias to seriously consider why our ecclesial halls so rarely reflect the ethnicity of the neighborhoods we worship in. That assessment should include a look at our willingness to change and the value we place on having racially and culturally integrated ecclesias.
Ultimately, we are responsible for the realities we see in front of us. Assuming we do want ecclesias to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity, what practices might inhibit integration? Do we preach in our own or disadvantaged areas? Would we consider adapting our worship services if required? Are we preaching to a community with which we have little to no relationship? Is our message addressing the needs of the neighborhood around us?
Let me give you an example. If our ecclesial hall is located in a low-income neighborhood (frequently the case), crime and social injustice are often real problems for those living there. What should our preaching message be to that community? Should we expound on Bible prophecy, describing how we believe the Last Days will unfold? Or should we address how Jesus will radically change the world at his return? How does God care for the disadvantaged? How will the Kingdom ensure justice for all?
Jesus spoke to crowds that the Jewish religious leaders were abusing. He offered them the vision of living immediately in the Kingdom of Heaven, repentance, forgiveness and grace. His words resonated with them, and he met them right where they were.
Isolation, whether intended or unintended, is not the model of our Lord. His work was often with the poor, the sick and the diseased, and those feeling dispossessed. His preaching addressed their concerns and lifted them from despair. Jesus knew the value of worshipping with all people. New disciples came from within the towns and hamlets of Israel—often on the streets and in unpleasant settings. We know little change happened at that time inside the more sterile synagogue precincts.
To win people for Christ, the Apostle Paul changed himself, his message and his practices. (1 Cor 9:21-23). The NLT makes the commitment even more clear:
In 1969, Bro. John Bilello authored an important article about racial prejudice, published in The Christadelphian Magazine. He rightly concluded that our community has much work to do to better integrate.
Prejudice cannot abound if true brotherly love exists. Likewise, our claim of love for Father and Son, whom we have yet to behold, will fall on deaf ears in that day if we cannot unreservedly love our brother whom we have seen. For we know that His Kingdom will be based on a divine constitution which will cast away for ever the prejudices of man and the men who possessed them.6
At the end of the day, it all comes down to us as individuals. Are we willing to change? Will we exchange comfort and predictability for growth? Are we just another white church in North America? Or will we be a “house of prayer for all people.” (Isa 56:7).
- All Smietana, Bob, Racial Diversity at Church More Dream Than Reality, Lifeway Research, January 17, 2014.
- Zimmerman, Jacob, Moving Toward Racially and Culturally Integrated Churches, Christian Perspectives: Society and Life, November 3, 2019.
- Wax, Trevin, I Want a Bigger Bible, August 13, 2015, The Gospel Coalition.
- Blewett, Craig, South Africa: Cast Your Net on the Other Side, The Christadelphian Tidings, June 30, 2020.
- Cox, Steven, The Iranian Émigré Community (UK), The Christadelphian Tidings, June 30, 2020.
- Bilello, John C., Racial Prejudice Examined in Light of the Scriptures, The Christadelphian, Vol. 109, 1969.