Overcoming the Racial Divide in The Wesleyan Church
The mission of the Wesleyan Church is to fulfill the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment. It is a clarion call to reach every race and ethnic group with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and should not discriminate. The fruit of evangelism in a multiracial society ought to be a diverse church, and any lack of diversity when it comes to a specific race or ethnic group should be explored to better understand why we are falling short of our mission and what we can do about it. That is the purpose of this paper.
In their book Divided By Faith, a ground breaking study on ethnic diversity in evangelical churches, Emerson and Smith discovered that evangelical culture appears to be preserving racism in America. They found that the most glaring lack of diversity in churches is among whites and African-Americans and unfortunately, the statistics within The Wesleyan Church concur with their findings. The latest census data lists African-Americans as over 13% of the North American population and yet, The Wesleyan Church has been unable to reach, connect and integrate with African-Americans in meaningful and sustainable ways. Perhaps we need to begin by reminding ourselves of the purpose of the church and the history of our movement.
Teaching and Information
Scripture is clear that all people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), that Christ died for every person (1 Pet. 3:18), and that followers of Christ are called to be co-heirs of the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:28-29). We also know that as believers, God has reconciled each of us through Christ and has called us to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Therefore, we ought to actively promote peace and reconciliation with God and one another as we anticipate that time when every nation, tribe, people and language will worship together before the throne of God (Rev 7:9). Our task is to establish the kingdom of God on earth as it will one day be in heaven. Furthermore, we are to strive to fulfill Christ’s prayer that the church might be brought to complete unity that the world may know that Christ was sent from the Father (John 17:21). When whites and African-Americans worship together and display unity in Christ, we see clear evidence of the power of the Gospel in a racialized society. Racism is not simply one sin among many, but rather a radical evil that divides the Church and humanity, corrupts institutions and undercuts the new creation of a redeemed world. When we devalue others and remain divided, we severely diminish our witness for Christ. It is for this reason that The Wesleyan Church has issued a statement on racism that simply states… “We oppose the denial of basic human and civil rights to any individual regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, or national origin” (Church and Culture. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011. p. 11). Our history as a movement bears witness to this claim.
John Wesley and the early Methodist leaders were uncompromising in their denunciation of human slavery and had a deep impact on the removal of slavery from England. The same was true in the United States. The early Wesleyan Methodist Connection was an influential movement in the fight against slavery in the mid 19th century as was displayed in their response to the Fugitive Slave Act, their work on the Underground Railroad, and their willingness to go to the Southeastern United States with a strong antislavery message. The Wesleyan Church also promoted integration among blacks and whites and encouraged people to actively oppose the practice of slavery until it was finally abolished at the end of the Civil War. However, with the major battle against slavery won, the greater war against segregation and racism would be far from over. The end of the Civil War created a defining moment for Wesleyans to continue the fight to end segregation. However, by the late-19 century a new emphasis in The Wesleyan Church was adopted as God created a revival of personal holiness that swept throughout Methodism and across denomination lines and was promoted through its literature, evangelistic crusades and camp meetings. A movement that began in the trenches in the fight for social righteousness was now more concerned exclusively with the experience of personal holiness to the exclusion of social holiness. Some would argue that a key opportunity for integration after the Civil War was lost as Wesleyans shifted their energies to pursue a more inward and experiential focus.
This shift in direction took place at the same time that a series of laws were passed, enacting the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation as well as the segregation of restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. These Jim Crow laws systematized a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages for African-Americans. During this time, Wesleyans were for the most part silent. When we fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s it seems that The Wesleyan Church had altogether lost the spirit of its abolitionist heritage and at times even found itself on the wrong end of the movement. A study of the district journals of the Wesleyan Church in the 1960’s shows either indifference or even opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and a glaring absence of any stance on racial reconciliation. Perhaps this is one reason that The Wesleyan Church’s Church and Culture Handbook goes on to say:
…while our denomination was born in an antislavery movement, we have sometimes ignored our own heritage and been guilty of both personal and collective racism and prejudice. For this sin, we have collectively repented and asked for God’s forgiveness, and we intend to strive for complete racial reconciliation, for we know that this is the will of God.” (Church and Culture. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011. p. 11)
This collective repentance is a first step in acknowledging our failings and ignoring our heritage. However, there are other factors at play when it comes to understanding the lack of significant integration within The Wesleyan Church.
With over 60% of the African-American population now living in urban centers and with a majority of Wesleyan churches established in rural areas or suburbs, there are geographical challenges to meaningful integration. Complicating the issue is the structural evil that has been left in the wake of racism and slavery. This has manifested itself in the persistent residential segregation that often isolates African-Americans and whites and concentrates poverty and social problems in African-American neighborhoods. Economic inequality is also a significant issue that has been well documented. According to data from the US Census Bureau in 2010, the median net worth (all assets minus all debts) among whites is $43,800 and among African-Americans the figure drops drastically to only $3,700. In fact, in the past 25 years, this disparity has quadrupled proving that these issues will not simply go away over time. Beyond the above issues, there also exists a racial divide with respect to lack of integrated social networks, access to health care, television viewing habits, music and worship preferences. This last point is verified by the fact that the seven major black denominations account for more than 80% of African-American religious affiliation in the United States with the other 15-20% scattered among the Roman Catholic Church and mainline denominations.
Perhaps it goes without saying that there are numerous obstacles to integrating our churches. The challenges are many and the pursuit of reconciliation and unity in the body of Christ can at times cause us to grow tired and weary. But let us not forget that great passage of Scripture affirming the fact that, “He himself (Jesus Christ) is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). It is the role of the Church to show God’s power by reconciling divided people and being more intentional about this process.
What Should We Do
This leaves us to ask the question “what now”? What steps should be taken as individuals, churches and denominational leaders to usher in a new movement of unity and integration among whites and African-Americans in The Wesleyan Church? Perhaps the following ideas will help spur our imagination. On an individual level, we must begin by engaging in more serious reflection on race-relations in order to better understand the complexities of the issue. Education must also be accompanied by the intentional pursuit of relationships with members of another race. Progress is made whenever whites and African-Americans begin to pray together, worship together and spend more time building meaningful friendships. These friendships allow us to see the greater inequalities and issues surrounding blacks and whites. Finally, individuals must commit more time to focused prayer, asking God to guide and direct their efforts and help break down the strongholds to unity that might exist.
As pastors of local churches, there is a larger mandate to lead the process of reconciliation among whites and African-Americans by better integrating our churches. This will require taking a fresh look at each community or parish and answering the following questions. How has the community changed? Is the current congregation reflecting the diversity of the area? Are there other locations in each geographical area that can be reached through church planting or strategic partnerships? Pastors will need to minister with greater dependence on God as they take intentional steps to become more racially diverse. This might mean diversifying a local board or staff, offering a more inclusive worship experience or being willing to relocate or plant a church in a more diverse neighborhood. While individuals can help by growing more educated, building friendships and praying for their communities, it is the responsibility of pastors to lead their congregations towards greater integration.
Finally, at the district and denomination level, the leaders of The Wesleyan Church are responsible for responding to our growing multiethnic society and providing leadership with regards to race relations. By drawing on the best aspects of our history as a movement when it comes to fighting for reconciliation, The Wesleyan Church can reclaim its role as a pioneer for social righteousness as it addresses many of the social inequalities mentioned earlier in this paper. There should also be a targeted effort to plant churches in urban centers and offer strategies, tools and resources to better integrate those churches with whites and African-Americans. Furthermore, we must lead the way as a movement when it comes to diversifying the leadership of our churches, districts and denomination as well as creating strategic partnerships with other African-American churches, movements and organizations. Most importantly, we pray that God would continue to build a passion for reconciliation and integration in the hearts of the lay leaders, pastors and leaders of our denomination.
The division between African-Americans and whites is well documented and the process of integrating our movement will require a sustained effort. This will be an endeavor that requires godly leadership and will result in times of repentance, difficult decisions, uncomfortable moments, and a need to continually remind ourselves that love covers a multitude of sins. But let us not forget that we are a movement characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, an optimistic view of God’s grace, a history of leading the way when it comes to social righteousness and a deep passion for transformation. We can learn much from the history of our denomination as we remember our victories and avoid our mistakes. New generations and pioneering pastors are reaching new people with the Gospel. There are churches in our movement that are intentionally integrating as our society becomes more diverse. The stakes are high. With many sociologists predicting that the majority of US residents will be non-white by 2050, the Wesleyan Church must wrestle with the fact that if we fail to reflect the growing multiethnic population and remain racially homogeneous, we will find ourselves irrelevant and more significantly, unfaithful to the Great Commission. May we as The Wesleyan Church continue to fulfill our mission and may we echo the prayer of Christ for his church, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).
(This paper uses the term “race” to refer to ethnicity, acknowledging the common use of the term but recognizing there is only one race…the human race. The paper was written by Jon Wiest, Kyle Ray, and Wayne Schmidt. It was edited by the Faith & Public Life Task Force before being recommended to the General Board for adoption as a position statement for The Wesleyan Church.)