A Progressive Church Tries to Deal with Its Whiteness

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Image by Gábor Bejó from Pixabay

Today’s email brought an “Open Letter to the UCC” from officials in the church’s national offices. Turns out the UCC (United Church of Christ, or Congregationalist) is mostly white people. (Note: this has been true for a long time.) Just the other day, I found myself thinking, when I got yet another ad for “UCC Gear” featuring models who were persons of color, that what we Congregationalists did with optics wasn’t all that different than the Republican Party and its recent convention. Despite being overwhelming white, the GOP trotted out one person of color after another to alter the impression and provide cover to a racist President. But I digress.

The Open Letter reviewed the facts as follows:

“The United Church of Christ (UCC) is among the whitest Christian denominations in America. In spite of our strong commitments to racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, our congregational reality remains 84% White with no other racial or ethnic group representation exceeding 6%, according to the UCC Center for Analytics, Research & Development, and Data gleaned from the 58% of UCC churches reporting. Given all churches did not report, it is estimated the racial divide is even more stark.

“Regardless of public statements and actions, such empirical data presents a sobering reality for a church that makes bold commitments to anti-racism and toward the dismantling of White supremacy in our institutions of faith. The U.S. population is 62% White. Not only is there dissonance between our stated aspirations and our present reality; there is dissonance between many of our churches and the communities we are called by God to serve.”

The letter goes on to announce that it is posting an RFP to engage in an assessment to remedy the situation:

” . . . The United Church of Christ Board voted, unanimously, to lead both the UCCB and national setting in an institutional racial diversity, equity, and inclusion assessment. Just as we audit finances annually to assess fiscal stability and viability, on September 1, 2020, the UCCB will issue a public Request for Proposal to several identified racial-equity organizations to accompany us on this journey of self-examination by leading us through an objective racial-equity assessment from which we will challenge and hold ourselves accountable. Please feel free to share the RFP with others who specialize in such work.”

There’s a lot one might say about this, including questioning the new doctrine that if your group’s racial make-up doesn’t reflect the proportions in the general population that you are necessarily racist. But I’ll limit myself to a couple of comments and anecdotes.

A few years ago Jason Byassee, who teaches at the Vancouver School of Theology and writes for the “Christian Century” about interesting and thriving churches, commented, “If you want more older, white people, talk about ‘diversity.’ If you want more diversity, talk about Jesus.” We in the UCC have talked a lot about “diversity, equity and inclusion,” (note the previous paragraph) and then find ourselves puzzled that we remain largely upper middle class, educated, older, white people. Could it be that we need more focus on the person and power of Jesus Christ if we want to reach a broader constituency?

Another story. Perhaps 25 years ago I asked Jim Forbes, who had been one of my professors at Union Seminary, to help me understand the difference between predominately white and predominately black congregations. Jim thought for a long moment before saying, “In predominately white congregations people believe God needs them; in predominately black churches, people understand they need God.” So, if most of your emphasis falls, as it tends to in UCC churches, on all the things God needs us to do to put the world right, and not so much on our need for God, grace and saving, you — again — may limit your appeal.

A year or so ago, and pre-COVID, I mentioned that I was worshiping at Quest Church in Seattle, about a 1.5 mile walk from where we live. Quest, where about 1,000 people worship any given Sunday (again pre-COVID), is the most racially diverse church I’ve ever experienced. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Of the six pastors, five (including the lead) are female. Only one of the six clergy is white. But the unifying thing is the theology, which I would call “liberal evangelical.” Very Jesus focused. Very much about God’s power to change lives. LGBTQ welcoming too. Contemporary in style and music and again, all about the power of God to transform lives and communities.

So my hunch is the issue facing a denomination like the UCC is not going to be solved by the proposed assessment and whatever recommendations might come from it. What is required is a faith re-orientation, getting over the idea that we are in charge of the world and on the cutting edge of all things important, and getting in touch with God’s radical grace for sinners. As it turns out, “sinners” is the most inclusive category of them all.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Left alone, the problem should solve itself. Do nothing. The old white people will soon die off, and the denomination’s racial balance may shift. Unless, of course, the minority members are also senior citizens.

    On the other hand, does it matter? Aren’t we all children of God?

  2. I agree with Gordon. It’s true that we are all sinners but, more importantly, we are all children of God. I understand that ministers have to be marketers and that they understandably feel the need to think about how to attract a wider and more diverse group of consumers of the services they provide. But I think it sets a better example to potential and existing parishioners when you preach about Christlike virtues such as equity and inclusion, even if that doesn’t attract a more diverse congregation. The minister should be leading the congregation, not vice versa. Don’t worry about demographics. Preach your beliefs and conscience. That’s what matters.

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