By W. Ray Kelley
In a February 1992 Restoration Herald article, I discussed a basic philosophy concerning racial integration. A minister in Arizona had asked for specific methods he could implement to help integrate his congregation. My response presented the reality that it is very difficult for a congregation to integrate if its local community is not diverse. Generally speaking, a congregation should reflect the racial makeup of the community in which it ministers.
It would be easy to apply this basic concept to our brotherhood and attempt to justify the lack of minorities in our local congregations. The rationale goes something like this: historically, our congregations have always been located in predominantly white communities; therefore, we have not reached minority groups.
Of course, there are major flaws in this logic.
First, the original all-white areas where our congregations were built more than 100 years ago are now very diverse or predominantly minority. A good example is Fredrick Price’s thriving congregation in Los Angeles that was once an independent Christian church.
Second, we have moved away from minorities for well over 100 years (W. A. Moore addressed his concern with churches leaving the city in a 1917 Christian Standard article).
Third, our major church-planting efforts continue to be in predominantly white suburbs.
Fourth, the United States is our field of evangelism, and more than 12.5 percent of that field is African-American; yet, we have not made strategic efforts to reach that population.
Fifth, those efforts to plant minority churches are generally underfunded, understaffed, and quickly terminated.
A Look at Our Past
In 2003, I researched and wrote an article for The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement entitled “African-Americans in the 20th Century Christian Church/Churches of Christ” (pages 17-21). It chronicles the successes and failures of the efforts of the independent Christian churches/churches of Christ to evangelize within the African-American community. Unfortunately, there was an editorial error concerning the approximate African-American membership—it should be 5,000, not 500 (page 21).
During the past 50 years our brotherhood seemingly lacked a genuine commitment to African-American evangelism. We did not aggressively seize opportunities, and we lost innumerable chances to integrate or plant congregations.
A Look at the Present
In order to get the current status, I contacted several African-American ministers and found we have clusters of churches in African-American communities in seven geographic areas: Atlanta, Georgia; central Kentucky (because of the efforts of the College of the Scriptures); central North Carolina and Virginia (because of the efforts of Winston-Salem Bible College); Greater Chicago, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; Greater New York City; and Southern California. Unfortunately, the number of congregations has not increased during the last 25-plus years. Some churches have grown and others have lost members, but we still have approximately 100 congregations with about 5,000 total members.
We have added a few new congregations—some as a result of congregations remaining in their communities and continuing to evangelize them. Two or three new churches have been planted as a result of the efforts of individual ministers or local evangelistic organizations. However, an equivalent number have ceased to exist.
Denzil Holness, minister with Central Christian Church in Atlanta, contends (and I agree) that “The number one challenge is evangelism.” Successful evangelism involves many elements, but I will focus on three.
• First, congregations routinely target various people groups for evangelism: a certain socioeconomic group, a specific age category, seekers, etc. In these targeting efforts the church-planting organization, existing congregation, or other organization makes a deliberate effort to reach a new group of unevangelized people. Representatives of two national church planting organizations indicated to me that they were aware of only five multiethnic new church plants across the United States during the last 10 years.
Of course, some people will say we should not have African-American churches or white churches—just churches. Theoretically and theologically, I agree with that view; therefore, the question is, “Do we have a growing number of integrated congregations?” Since the African-American population of the United States is 12.5 percent, we could consider a congregation integrated if at least 10 percent of its membership is African-American.
In an effort to determine whether we are making strides toward integration, I contacted 40 brotherhood congregations with an attendance of more than 1,000. Most did not keep statistics concerning their ethnic diversity. The most common response was “we do not track that information.” This sounds good on the surface. But one wonders if they track other characteristics. I suspect they do. The obvious conclusion is they are not especially concerned about the racial diversity of their congregation. However, several have programs to reach minorities and indicated their congregation was similar to the diversity of their communities.
I know there are integrated Christian church congregations and/or some moving in that direction. It would be good news to hear from them.
• Second, in order to achieve successful evangelism, leaders must be trained, and the primary source is our Bible colleges. I understand, however, that many congregations draw leaders from within their body or other sources. I contacted all of our Bible colleges to determine how many African-American ministers are being produced. Sixteen colleges responded. Of the 5,955 graduates produced during the last five years, 217 were African-American. Of that number 14 from seven different colleges are ministering within our brotherhood. They also indicated that seven current African-American students are expected to enter the ministry within our brotherhood.
A sad reality is the majority of our current African-American ministers are approaching retirement age. They need to be replaced, and we must produce more African-American leaders if we are going to be successful in planting new churches or even in keeping the status quo.
• Third, successful ethnic evangelism requires intentional effort. Planting a new church in the African-American community, which probably will be urban, is a slow process. The big splash of a successful suburban church plant will not happen. It will take more time, money, and commitment. Most church-planting organizations and their supporters are not willing to make these investments.
Integration is also a slow process. Local congregations must be aggressively intentional in their approach: changes will be required, learning the culture is important, overcoming prejudices might be necessary.
What Will the Future Hold?
Richard McCain, minister with Highland Road Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio, said this:
If we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get what we have always gotten—not much. Don’t misunderstand me; I have not given up, but I do believe that we still do not have a sincere commitment among our churches to urban and/or African-American evangelism. We have not shown the willingness to commit significant time, energy, and money. “It is about dollars and sense.” If we really want to see progress, we should have the sense to commit significant dollars to make it happen. That philosophy is working in new church planting in other areas (suburbs).
Take a few minutes and go on the Internet to the United States Census home page (www.census.gov) and click on American FactFinder. Insert your city’s name or your Zip code. Proceed to the maps. You will probably discover there is major racial segregation in housing and also a relationship between the lower economic groups and the racial minorities. If we were analyzing a Third World country, these communities would be described as “unreached people groups.” But they are not located across the ocean or national boundaries. They are around the corner from where we live, work, and worship.
During the next 25 years suburban housing in major cities will likely become more and more integrated. These changes may encourage the local congregations to become more integrated, as racial prejudices and stereotypes disappear. But we cannot wait for this slow process to produce possible integration and evangelism.
You can do something right now, right where you live—inner city, suburbs, small town, rural community.
1. Encourage and actively support our African-American ministers.
2. Aid our established African-American churches with volunteer workers or finances.
3. Fellowship with the closest African-American Christian church.
4. Encourage congregations that are relocating to the suburbs to leave a strong nucleus in their old building.
5. Make sure your congregation’s local evangelistic efforts include African-American families.
6. Help recruit and educate African-American men for ministry.
7. Support new church plants that intentionally integrate.
8. Include African-American Chris-tian church ministers as speakers or musicians for planned programs.
Where is the Restoration Movement going in African-American ministry and evangelism? It depends. Where are you going?
Ray Kelley writes from his home in Farmers Branch, Texas.