Glenn Bracey has just published an academic paper based on research he personally conducted by being part of 7 predominantly white churches in America. He is a sociology professor who is also a black evangelical Christian. His research paper can be accessed at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316355727_Race_Tests_Racial_Boundary_Maintenance_in_White_Evangelical_Churches
In being part of these churches over several years he was seeking to find out why churches continue to be racially segregated despite saying they want to be racially diverse. His conclusion was that unconscious, semi-permeable membranes exist that keep the churches mostly white. These membranes are created by key people within the church, especially leaders. (Whilst his research was amongst American white churches the conclusion appears relevant in the UK for white church wanting to attract non-whites, black churches wanting to attract white people).
The barriers or membranes leaders create include, tailoring services to attract white congregants e.g. the style of preaching, music, length of services, structure of services, dress codes, political and community activities, missionary interests, and theological emphases are consistent with white religious traditions or tailored to reach “unchurched” whites; having positive attitudes about whites and negative views of people of colour, discursive techniques for justifying racial inequality, and priorities that favour whites’ material and emotional Interests.
He also talks about his experience of an exaggerated welcome for potential congregants of colour. The
catch, however, was that the welcome was based on newcomers’ racial status and their willingness to use that status to serve the church’s perceived racial needs while not challenging the normative boundaries of white privilege and power within the space. He felt he wasn’t accepted for who was but as a black man. E.g. In one church he was asked to be in the worship group despites his gifts being elsewhere. He observed that “white evangelical ministers often attempt to increase membership by placing people of colour in highly visible positions as worship leaders, to predictably mixed results when used as a “quick fix””
In another church before they even got to know him he was asked to mentor a mixed-race youngster who did not have a father figure even though the absent father was obviously white.
He concluded that, “In each case, the warm welcome was preconditioned by white evangelicals’ perceived need for a new person of colour to play a particular racialized role in the white space.”
He also talks about other experiences that caused him to feel excluded, the white Christians being unaware of how it caused him and other people of colour to feel. These included following an emphasis on firearms during an ice breaker “Andrew cocked an imaginary gun and pointed it at me and the Latino first-timer next to me—”I call it my ‘China Gun’ because when I shoot it, it just goes ‘Chink! Chink! Chink! Chink!’” With each “Chink,” Andrew drew back with mock recoil and aimed at us again.”
He concluded “the whites’ laughter clearly demonstrated that they did not perceive how traumatic
being a person of colour figuratively shot by a strange white man yelling racist epithets might be for the two people of colour in the circle.”
This and the other examples of how he felt unwelcomed, would not happen in the UK. E.g. inviting him to help in an extended hunting trip for non-Christian youths, the violent imagery and extended isolation made accepting their invitation very difficult.
Others would, e.g. the shock he observed when he visited someone’s home for a Bible Study when they saw he was black, they had assumed he would be white. The time he stood at the visitors’ table before and after Sunday service at a large church. Approximately 1,000 congregants walked past him twice without greeting him at all. These white members’ collective performance of ignoring an obvious newcomer functionally denied a black visitor meaningful entry to the church and established
the church as white institutional space.
He says, “People of colour react to whites’ hostile performances with fear, anger, confusion, disappointment, and a host of other negative emotions that discourage them from remaining in evangelicals’ white space.”
He felt the people involved were not aware of the impact they were having. “In these and other examples from our fieldwork, white evangelicals never showed obvious signs of anger or frustration with our presence.”
However, the result of all this is that the churches remained predominantly white.
Written by Tony Thompson