Greg Smith writes: Following the international emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the recent publication of the UK government Sewell Report followed by the Church of England Lament into Action report into tackling institutional racism in the Church of England, there has been considerable debate in evangelical circles. Some of this has been about theology and the politics of race and ethnicity but a more interesting theme is around the desire to develop and strengthen multicultural church congregations. This article will explore the theme out of a personal experience as a white, male, Christian with forty-five years of life experience in multi-ethnic churches and neighbourhoods and of academic and research engagement with the topic of ethno-religious diversity and relationships.
The topic is by no means new. The Faith in the City report (1985) highlighted the growing importance of black majority churches and of racism in society; in part it was a Christian counterpart to the Scarman report which highlighted how urban deprivation, social exclusion and racism in policing had been the trigger for the Brixton uprising of April 1981. If anyone doubts this was real it is vividly described in Leroy Logan’s book Closing Ranks (2020) and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” film based upon it. Moreover I can personally testify to numerous incidents that raised my awareness of racism. For example a Jamaican pastor colleague was arrested and charged with affray after being beaten up by white racist thugs when travelling home on a bus from church one Sunday night in 1976. He was only cleared at the Appeal Court stage because of influential white friends who prayed, engaged and paid good lawyers and stood alongside him as character witnesses.
The Newham Deanery submission to the Archbishop’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas (who produced Faith in the City) was based on research, in which I was involved, documenting the varied church life of West Ham. We found a growing number of minority ethnic churches alongside several in the historic denominations where members from various ethnic groups worshipped together regularly, some where Black people were in the majority yet few with any Black people in ministry or leadership. Based on this and subsequent research I wrote numerous pieces about the theory and practice of multi-ethnic churches including:
- Third way article… in July 1984 Click here to see the text P16
- Christian Ethnics in which I argued from the Bible and sociological literature against the homogeneous unit principle.
- “Inner City Christianity: Some Sociological Issues” Smith G. (1988) published as MARC monograph no 17
Evangelicals for Racial Justice : a brief history
From the mid 1970s a group of Evangelical Christians who were ministering in increasingly multicultural areas mainly in London and the Midlands came together to form the Evangelical Race Relations Group. In the early days members were predominantly white male clergy such as David Bronnert and John Root, or returned overseas missionaries such as Maurice Hobbs and Dorothy McQuaker, but as interest in the issues of race and the church grew the membership grew and became more diverse. The Evangelical Alliance was supportive, leaders from the New Testament Church of God and other Black Majority churches became involved.
Large annual conferences were held, a quarterly journal was published and enough funding was raised to employ a series of development workers, (Sue Conlan, Raj Patel, Clarice Nelson, Bev Thomas). Most of these were from ethnic minority backgrounds and were tasked with educating churches and developing groups and networks to work on issues of racism. In the mid 1980s the group was rebranded as Evangelicals for Racial Justice (ECRJ) with an explanation that “eek raj” in Hindi translates as “one Kingdom”. The manifesto shown below summarises a basic Biblical theology of race and suggests some action points relevant in the context of those times, most of which remain valid today.
Most of the publications of ECRJ and its associated networks are publicly available in this archive google Drive folder including the groundbreaking New Humanity Study Course. Our thinking within ECRJ engaged not only with the Bible but with the sociological and historical analysis of racism. The study course covered the history of Empire and slavery, the post war patterns of immigration and settlement in British cities, and the discrimination faced by Black people in housing, employment, education, immigration and the church. The sociological analysis of ethnicity, race, culture, religion and identity formation drew on the social constructionist approach developed in my Christian Ethnics and reiterated in my more recent Temple Tract on evangelical identity (p9 ff).
John Root explores this helpfully from the angle of Biblical theology in this edition or his excellent weekly blog which should be required reading for any Christian with an interest in living in a multi-cultural society. In the 1980s Critical Race Theory, (which is discussed extensively and more intelligently from a Christian perspective in this blog by Willian Murell than anywhere else I have seen) let alone the recent ill-informed “culture wars” rejection of it by many evangelicals, was unheard of. The contextual hermeneutic of Black Liberation Theologies was in its infancy. Nonetheless in discussions within ECRJ we drew some valuable insights and encouraged our Black and Asian Christian members to develop and articulate their own versions of contextual theology and racial justice activism.
Racism—personal and systemic
35 years on I and many other anti-racist Christians feel a deep disappointment and dismay that we are having to rehearse again the theology and social understandings we had come to see as established positions, and to engage in arguments with a new generation of evangelical Christians.
It is true that there have been some significant changes for the better. Black majority churches are thriving, accepted as part of the ecumenical family and have produced a cadre of outstanding leaders and theologians. Very few white people in the church or wider society are happy to be labelled as racist, or to use the language and stereotypes which were common a generation ago. Some ethnic minority groups are doing better than they were, when measured by educational or economic statistics, or even in terms of church and political leadership opportunities, and in comparison with some white working-class people who live in areas of multiple deprivation.
Yet on so many other measures, from the risk of being a victim of hate crime, to being stopped and searched by police, living in poor quality housing, being deported from or prevented from entering the UK, to becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid, to feeling unwelcome or unappreciated as a potential leader in church, people of colour face discrimination and racial injustice on a more or less daily basis. The situation has not been helped in the political climate which led to Brexit, and the populist nationalism which has had electoral success in Britain, much of Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. Without understanding these realities and listening carefully to the voices of Black brothers and sisters who have experienced these issues there is little hope of building a healthy multi-cultural local church.
One of the stumbling blocks seems to be is that a significant segment of white evangelical Christians are in denial about four aspects of contemporary racism.
First, evangelical protestants generally operate from a very individualistic perspective on faith and morality. They tend to say that only individual human agents can sin or “miss the mark” thus causing harm to other individuals. Thus as long as they don’t beat up a black neighbour, call them racist names or directly discriminate in a job interview or tenancy agreement they cannot be racist. They may go on to deny that institutional or systemic racism exists or that it can be considered sinful or in need of redemption.
A more complete Biblical theology would understand that the fall has implications for social institutions and indeed the whole created order. The Bible is clear that whole societies or nations can and do sin. We are all members of a body, firstly of the church and also of wider society, and the doctrine of total depravity suggests that both of these are infected with and prone to sin. Corporate repentance would be to acknowledge in public the specific elements of such sin, the way we have participated in and benefited from it, through ignorance weakness and our own deliberate fault.
Secondly, affluent white Christians sometimes hold views which are conservative politically and economically and sometimes slip into thinking that everything they own and enjoy are the rewards of their own hard work rather than the gracious gift of God. Even when recognizing the radical equality of all human beings as sinners before the cross it can be hard to accept that they in this world at least enjoy power and privilege. They can become uncomfortable when it is suggested that some of this is linked to their whiteness, and fail to recognize that because of slavery, Empire and racism the mainstream church and society in Britain has enjoyed power, prosperity and privilege, and continues to tolerate racial injustice to this day.
Thirdly, many white British people have a limited and biased understanding of history. School lessons barely scratch the surface when it comes to the horrors of imperialism and the slave trade on which our prosperity was built, or the way this was built on a false ideology of “scientific racism”. Britain is still portrayed as the best of all possible nations in which to be born. Within the church there is still an element of glorying in the Christian civilisation which we once enjoyed and the heroic efforts of missionaries to evangelise the colonies with lament that these days have passed.
Furthermore the good news story of the abolition of the slave trade and slaveholding is almost always told through the lens of privileged white men such as Wilberforce, Thornton and the Clapham sect while the amazing contribution of Black Christians in the 18th 19th Century to the abolition movement been whitewashed out of evangelical history. In our desire to see multicultural churches it is important to revaluate some of our readings of history and one of the best places to start from a Christian perspective is the Movement for Justice & Reconciliation.
Fourthly, most white-led evangelical churches struggle with the concept of political activism on issues of racial justice. The focus is sometimes narrowly on the life of the church and fails to recognize a calling to be salt and light on the reform and transformation of wider society. Multi-cultural churches are sometimes challenged into advocacy roles for individuals in their church or community who may have been victims of hate crime, discrimination in employment or service provision or are badly treated over immigration and asylum claims.
Such episodes do offer an opportunity to discern where there are patterns of injustice and widen the scope of advocacy to other neighbours, of other faiths and none. I am proud of our own local church’s decision to support financially and in other practical ways a local Muslim woman and her children, who were destitute, and deserted by the husband and father, who had no recourse to public funds because of her undocumented immigration status. Yet so far it has been a step too far to petition the government about the injustices of the new immigration legislation.
Multi-cultural Local Churches
So at last we can move on to some of the practicalities of building and pastoring multi-cultural local churches. I hope that almost every evangelical Christian concerned with this issue would find the Biblical principles set out in the ECRJ manifesto uncontroversial. However, what this means in terms of ecclesiology and practice is going to be context and locality dependent. In metropolitan areas such as Greater London, the West Midlands and Manchester there are thousands of Christians from every nation under the sun, and a variety of thriving churches some of which have diverse congregations and others which attract the diaspora communities of a single people group.
Even in a small city like Preston (population approx 150,000) we find several mainline and independent churches with significant ethnic minority membership alongside “ethnic churches” such as the long established Seventh Day Adventists with a majority of people from Caribbean or African heritage, a Chinese fellowship, an Urdu speaking South Asian Group, Nigerian Redeemed Church of God, Romanian Orthodox and Pentecostal congregations, a South Indian Syrian Orthodox group, Iranian Farsi speaking fellowships and several Polish Catholic parishes. However just down the road in Burnley multiculturalism means a dualism of South Asian Muslims and White English “Christians”. A few miles away in Blackpool or Fleetwood ethnic minority populations of any type are a tiny minority.
Therefore an appropriate multiculturalism in the church is context dependent and subject to changing local demographic factors such as residential segregation, white flight, urban churn, and gentrification. In some places it may simply not be possible to develop a multi-cultural congregation or even, as second best, good fellowship and working together in mission across the multiple congregations that form the diverse people of God. London is one of the few cities where extensive research on church ecology has taken place most notably in the 2019 volume by Goodhew and Cooper which I review and reflect on here. Further thoughts on the diversity of the urban church are found in my unpublished conference presentation Reassembling The Urban Church.
Recent research for a doctoral thesis by Jessamin Birdsall offers some fascinating insights about the different ways British evangelical Christians frame their thinking about multi-cultural local churches. The limitation of the research is that it is confined to the Greater London area, where there is ethno-religious super-diversity, and a thriving religious market in which Christians may choose to worship at mega-churches within commuting distance, in a multi-ethnic or mono-cultural congregation, or in a small parish church in the neighbourhood where they live.
The thesis is well summarised in this interview with the author who gives an email address if you want to ask her for a copy of her full thesis. I will attempt to summarise her typology of approaches to multiculturalism in the church, and comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each frame. Clearly these categories are ideal types and should be seen as a spectrum rather than bounded sets, with the possibility of nuance and overlap in local churches and even in the thinking of individual Christians.
1. Race and Culture is irrelevant. This frame seems to be particularly common among white-led Conservative Reformed Christians. Essentially it is colour blind and culture blind. The assumption is that all those who are born again are members of God’s family with a new identity in Christ that transcends all ethnicities, cultures and other identities. There is little or no room for contextualised hermeneutics or theologies; what matters is faithful and authoritative exegesis of Scripture, which is taken to be objective truth.
It seems to me there are two major weaknesses in this approach. Firstly the theology, doctrine and life world application will be derived in an unquestioning way within the framework of systematic theology expounded almost exclusively by highly educated white European men in the Reformed Protestant tradition, even in the unlikely event that preaching and teaching is delivered by a person of colour. Secondly this type of church will be attractive mainly to university educated Christians who long for clarity and certainty, so that while there may be ethnic diversity within the congregation it is less likely to be inclusive in terms of social class and for people whose faith is more focussed on an emotional connection with Jesus.
2. Multiculturalism is essential to the nature of church. Here it is taken for granted that God who put the rainbow in the sky has also created a beautiful diversity of people groups with their different languages and cultures. By the Spirit he has spoken in polyglot languages at Pentecost and since, and has called people from every language, tribe and nation into the new humanity in Christ. Reference is often made to Revelation Chapter 5; 6-10 where the vast international choir is implicitly assumed to be offering praise in diverse languages and musical forms.
There is much to commend this framework, though it is exceptionally difficult to put into practice within a single local congregation, or even in a thriving network or ecumenical fellowship that represents the whole of Christ’s church across a city or borough. Furthermore it fails to recognize any sense of ethnic hierarchy in society and church and can fail to address questions of equality and justice, implicitly accepting the persistence of white privilege.
3. Multiculturalism is instrumental for mission and evangelism in urban diversity. In some ways this framework is a variation on type 2, though here the focus is on mission. In Matthew 28; 19-20 the risen Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’. Since globalisation has brought diaspora communities to our neighbourhood it is important to offer the gospel to all of them and disciple new believers into the local church. At its most basic level the concern is to develop a strategy for church growth, either for the local church or a wider denomination.
While such a mission focus is a noble aspiration, experience suggests it is difficult to achieve. Most church congregations in diverse urban areas seem to be struggling to survive and do not have the resources to employ specialist evangelists for even one of the minority communities in their area. Few among the church membership will have the cross cultural skills or confidence, or the social networks to reach out to people of other ethnicities or faiths. If the church calls someone to a specialist “ethnic outreach” ministry it is all to easy for them to become marginalised from the church, and for groups of believers worshipping in a heritage language or cultural form to become a separate congregation unconnected with the sponsoring church. This has happened to a friend of mine who is Pakistani priest, commissioned by the diocese to plant and pastor congregations of South Asian Christians across a wide geographical area. The job description fits with wider mission and church planting strategy but does little to build multi-cultural local churches.
4. Multiculturalism in the church as a barrier. The fourth frame of Christian thinking about multiculturalism in the church regards it as a hindrance to the healthy development of churches and the growth of the realm of God. It is most likely to be articulated by Christians from ethnic minority backgrounds, though it has some unfortunate resonances with some of the Christian narratives of apartheid South Africa or the segregation era in the South of the USA. There are two lines of argument that may be advanced both of which seem more pragmatic than derived from Scripture or doctrine.
Firstly, attempts to be multicultural are a barrier to outreach and church growth, especially among recent immigrant communities who have a strong sense of group identity, extensive social network bonds, communicate mainly through their minority language and desire to maintain their heritage and culture. The argument here is one in support of Homogeneous Unit Principle of Church growth which has been critiqued earlier.
The second argument is that multicultural churches do little to advance the cause of racial justice in church and society. The logic of these claims is that it is better for minority communities to gather together in churches where they can gain confidence in their faith and identity, become self sufficient and self propagating, identify and develop strong “indigenous” leadership and exercise agency rather than dependency on “white saviours” in political and social action, and even in evangelism and mission. The book World Christianity in Western Europe: Diaspora Identity, Narratives & Missiology is a valuable set of case studies and reflections on the situation internationally. It is edited by Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana who has recently been appointed to a key role in the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission which is playing a leading role in thinking and practice around multi-cultural church.
Case studies Churches in Multi-ethnic communities.
In conclusion I believe that frame 2 which sees multiculturalism as essential should be the favoured option on theological grounds, though in the real world of British cities we need to recognize that option 4 is alive and thriving. I don’t know any churches that live up perfectly to the ideals of 2, but I’m aware of some in London and elsewhere who have gone a long way towards it. The examples I know are mostly among Baptists or Methodists, although Jessamin Birdsall’s research mentions a couple of Anglican parishes that have developed over several decades as thriving and healthy multicultural churches. Jon Kuhrt has written about his church in Streatham as a social melting pot. When we lived in Newham we belonged to a majority black, white led Baptist church which had also made good progress. Several years ago I told an anonymised version of its story which you may read here.
Multicultural churches are desirable, and can be exciting illustrations of the realm of God. But they are my no means easy to achieve. Long term commitment to the vision of a multicultural fellowship plus an abundance of grace and agape love seems to be the secret of success.
Greg Smith has worked for over forty years in urban mission, community development and social research in London and Preston. Until retirement in 2019, Greg worked for Together Lancashire, supporting faith-based social action and urban churches. From 2011 to 2016 he also worked for the Evangelical Alliance managing the 21st Century Evangelicals research programme and continues to analyse and publish academic papers based on the data.