How Is The British Evangelical Church Handling The Issue of Race?
Not too long ago I heard about a PhD student, Jessamin Birdsall, doing some really interesting research around race and how the church is currently, and has been historically, approaching this issue. Fortunately, she was kind enough to sit down with me over zoom and share her hard won wisdom with us all!
So, first of all Jessamin Birdsall is a very cool name! Can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself sort of who you are, where you’re from, and what it is that you do?
I’ve been living in London for five years now. I’m American. I’ve lived in quite a few different places, actually. I was born in Japan. My parents were in Christian ministry there for about 20 years. So I spent part of my childhood in Tokyo, part in Southern California outside LA, a few years in Massachusetts, a few years in India, and now a few years here in London. At the moment, I’m finishing up a PhD in sociology and social policy at Princeton, where I’ve been focusing on religion, race and inequality. I also work at the church urban fund as the head of research and evaluation there.
So this specific project that we’re talking about today, does it have a title?
If I’m honest, I’d have to say that the title has evolved a few times over the years. But at the moment, the title is, “Racial Integration In British Evangelicalism: Frames, Barriers and Practices” That’s the dissertation title.
What motivated this project? Obviously you had to write about something, but what made you decide to write about this?
Ultimately it comes out of my convictions. As a Christian, I believe very strongly that God calls the church to be a place where people of all different backgrounds can belong, contribute, and worship God together. And I believe the church should be a place of justice and reconciliation, where each person is treated with dignity and respect. I think scripture offers many beautiful pictures of that and calls us, as Christians, to model that. But the unfortunate reality on the ground is that the church doesn’t always look like that.
We know the church is divided around a number of issues. That the church has not always respected the dignity and equality of all people. And, particularly in regards to race, we know that the church has quite a complex history with it. On the one hand, the church was a large part of the justification of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. And on the other hand, the church has played a significant role in abolition movements and challenging white supremacy. It’s a complex historical picture.
And while we might say that some of those things are in the past, the reality is that, even today, the church remains a messy institution and a place that is divided along racial lines, both in the US and here in the UK. For me, as a Christian and as a sociologist, I’m very interested in understanding why those divisions exist. The factors that perpetuate those divisions are the factors that can help bring greater justice and reconciliation. So those are the things that motivated me to pursue this particular project and concern that the church has a long way to go to live up to its biblical calling as a diverse people who pursue justice together.
At the start of something like this, how do you make sure that the data and results you get are accurate while making sure people feel comfortable to speak their opinions, because a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about race in the church?
It’s a long process! Being a PhD student, there’s always a long period of reading and research initially. So lots of reading of history of theology, sociological studies of race, and the church, and equality, and trying to familiarize myself with lots of different voices and periods of history. In short, I needed to get a sense of what other people have written on this topic. I’m not the first to be exploring these big questions. There’s a huge body of scholarship that I needed to familiarize myself with first before diving into my own project. That took quite a long time!
Then when it came to designing this particular project, one thing that was quite important to me was that I listened to people of many different backgrounds. A lot of the existing scholarship on race in the church, especially in America, focuses on white evangelical theology, white evangelical experience, and lends very little focus to people of color and their own experiences and attitudes about how race is handled within multiracial churches. So it was important to me to make sure I wasn’t just interviewing a single particular type of person about these issues.
Ultimately, I interviewed about 75 people; a mixture of folks who identified as white British, black British, and Asian British as well. I also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t interviewing people just from one particular church background or one particular neighborhood. So I recruited people from a number of different institutions. That way I wasn’t just tapping into one little subculture, but trying to get people who had diverse life experiences and influences. Also people from a range of ages because obviously there’s some generational differences in how people think about race and, particularly, race in the church.
Over the course of about a year and a half, or two years, I built up a group of people who I felt brought a number of different voices and experiences to the study. That being said, with qualitative research like this, you’re never going to achieve a truly representative and statistically robust sample. So I can’t claim that the people I’ve spoken to perfectly represent or encapsulate the whole of British evangelicalism. But I am confident that I have a good range of people with diverse stories and perspectives to share with me to inform this project.
Another part of the process is figuring out what questions to ask. As you said, race is not necessarily an easy topic for people to explicitly address, for many different reasons. And so I had to be quite thoughtful about the way that I phrased the questions, the way that I sequence the questions, and even the way that I introduced myself. Obviously being a white researcher myself has implications for the way people will respond to my questions or how free they feel to speak with me.
So, at the outset of the project, I had to do a number of pilot interviews where I would test out different ways of asking questions to different kinds of people and make adjustments along the way to get to a point where I felt like the questions helped people to open up. I needed to make it clear that I wasn’t fishing for a particular answer and to create an environment where people felt that they could speak to me openly. And confidentiality is a key part of that. So all the interviews that I do are confidential and people have the chance to stop the interview or pull out of the project altogether at any point. Because you don’t want people to feel coerced into participating or saying a particular thing.
Wow! That’s a lot more prep work than I would have expected but it makes perfect sense when you explain it. Would you mind talking us through some of the data and any conclusions, or correlations, you’ve been able to draw from it?
The way I’ve written up the dissertation so far is I have three core chapters. In the first chapter, the main thing I’m interested in is understanding how evangelicals in Britain think about race, especially in terms of how it relates to the mission of the church. Having interviewed quite a range of people, I’ve found that, broadly speaking, people fall into four different categories.
The first category of people see race as largely irrelevant to the mission of the church. They see it as a sort of secondary issue or a social justice issue that isn’t a priority for the mission of the church. I’d say that most of the people in that category have what we call a colorblind ideology, and use language like, “God doesn’t see color. We’re all one in Jesus therefore race is something we shouldn’t really think about or explicitly address.”
The second category of people see racial integration as a barrier to the mission of the church. These folks actually split into a few different sections. Some of them have experienced quite significant racial discrimination within the church and therefore think that churches that are trying to be racially diverse are counterproductive because they end up doing more harm to minorities than good. And, therefore, they view an explicit attempt to be racially diverse as harmful to the mission of the church. Other people who see race as a barrier to the mission of the church are folks who apply what’s called the homogenous unit principle, which is this idea that churches grow faster when they only focus on a particular group of people. And so trying to be racially diverse, slows down growth because it’s difficult and counterproductive.
The third category of people talk about racial integration in the church in an instrumental way. I’d say those folks largely see racial diversity as a kind of attractive commodity in churches, particularly in urban and cosmopolitan settings. Church leaders who see diversity as a selling point, similar to the way that we might see, diversity featured in college brochures as something that’s attractive to people about the church environment. But, oftentimes, people in that category, have a somewhat superficial understanding of racial inequality and are only interested in the cosmetic appearance of racial diversity in the church.
And the fourth category of people have what I call an essential framing of racial integration in the mission of the church. For those folks, they see dealing with issues of racial justice and reconciliation as not just superficial elements of church growth, but as critical to what the church is called to be. They often use the language of the kingdom of God being the place where every tongue, tribe, and nation are part of God’s kingdom, like in the revelation vision. And so the church on Earth is called to explicitly engage with issues of race, ethnicity, and culture. In doing that, the people of God pursue justice together.
So those are the four different categories of people that I interviewed in terms of how they see race in relationship to the mission of the church.
The second and third chapters look at churches who say that they want to take race seriously, that they want to think about issues of racial inclusion and justice seriously. What are the practices that either facilitate or hinder that? Because there’s a lot of churches that will say, in their mission statement, “we want to be a united and diverse community”. But it takes more than a mission statement or an acknowledgement for that to happen in reality. So the second and third chapters of the dissertation look at the things on the ground, that either help make that vision a reality or cause churches to fail to reach that vision of racial integration.
Can we pause for just a moment to focus on the word evangelical? I know, for instance, it means different things culturally in the UK than it does in the US. Can you please explain how you’re defining the term for the purposes of this study?
That’s a great question and can be a thorny one to work out. So there are different ways of defining evangelical. There’s a theological definition, a cultural definition, a self identification definition, etc.
In this study, the way I’m talking about evangelicals is in contrast to liberal or mainline churches. And so I would say that the things that define evangelicals are people who take the authority of Scripture very seriously. People who see the death and resurrection of Jesus as really central to achieving salvation for all people. Evangelicals are people who value living out and speaking about faith in their public lives, and to see a need for personal spiritual transformation as part of their religious experience. And those guidelines loosely correlate to Bebbington’s definition that you’re probably familiar with. He’s sort of THE scholar of evangelicalism. I think those are the traits that would unify most evangelicals around the world; those particular attitudes.
But in terms of your question about the differences between the US and UK, I would say that there are quite significant differences between how evangelicalism is thought of in America because evangelicalism is much bigger in terms of proportion of the population. It gets a lot more attention and, for a number of historical reasons, evangelicalism in the US is much more politicized.
Evangelicals are seen as a voting bloc in American politics, which isn’t the case in the UK, partly because evangelicals are a much smaller fraction of the population and partly because evangelicals here are more politically diverse in their opinions than they are in the US.
What surprised you about the data you found, the stories you heard, and the conclusions you started to draw from this?
One of the things that surprised me initially was the level of ignorance about race and the unwillingness to want to talk about race explicitly. My experience has been that Americans talk about race more explicitly. And, at first, doing this study In England was a big challenge. As I mentioned earlier, I had to figure out how to ask good questions that get at people’s understanding of race.
One thing I realized quite quickly is that, for almost all the people I interviewed, regardless of whether they were white, black, or Asian, they referenced very little actual education about race in secondary school, university, or church. So I think that lack of education obviously leaves people less equipped to know how to respond to issues of racial injustice in their adult lives. And for church leaders who aspire to lead congregations that are racially diverse, if they don’t have any background understanding of race from their education it’s going to be an uphill battle. So it’s not surprising that they end up making a number of mistakes or simply don’t know how to go about addressing those underlying structural issues in their leadership and in the way that they pastor their congregations. So that the level of ignorance surprised me and I had to adapt my questions accordingly.
Directly addressing this issue of people being more ignorant around racial issues than you might have first thought, what do you think it is that allows so many of us to remain in that place of racial ignorance and to be comfortable in that ignorance?
I think there’s probably a few reasons. One, as I mentioned previously, would be around our education systems that we participate in and the curriculum that we are exposed to.
And that starts all the way from children’s books to secondary school curriculum to university courses and to theological training. When we’re talking about church leaders in particular, I think there’s a major challenge in terms of what books are required, what authors are valued, the demographic profile of teachers and professors. And so there’s real gaps in our education systems right down the line.
I think another reason why It’s easier for people to stay in a mode of ignorance in the western context of the UK is that we, particularly white people in the US and the UK, are absorbed in a very individualistic culture and also very individualistic theology in which individual beliefs, individual choices, and individual merits are highly prized. So we tend to then approach social issues, including racism, in a very individualistic manner.
The thing you’ll hear a lot, particularly from white people and white Christians, is “I’m personally not actively mean to black people or discriminatory in my words or behavior. So, therefore, I’m not racist. And if we’re all just nice to each other then we can move on and it’s not a significant problem. That kind of individualism seeps into our church life as well and makes it harder for white Christians, in particular, to be able to understand the world in a more structural way because we tend to think of life as just a series of individual choices and individual relationships.
That makes it much harder for us to see racism as embedded in institutions like our criminal justice system or schools or even our own churches. So I think that’s one of the factors that keeps many of us in ignorance, struggling to appreciate things on a structural or historic level, opting instead to be future oriented, saying, “Let’s move forward and let bygones be bygones.” Which completely fails to recognize how centuries of oppression and injustice don’t just get wiped away overnight, but continue to have major effects in all areas of society.
What would you recommend in terms of next steps for people reading this who are saddened, surprised, or want to see change in how the church handles all of this?
There are a number of different things that churches can do. Coming back to the point about education and training, I think that a relatively accessible step that churches can take is to begin to diversify the voices that they read as part of sermon preparation, feeding into sermon illustrations, small group studies, and staff development. Beginning to read from church leaders and theologians who are outside of a church’s particular subculture is really helpful in the process of developing greater understanding and awareness of historical and contemporary issues that affect different parts of the body of Christ in different ways.
I think a real challenge that churches face is the unequal representation in leadership positions. This is something that others have been pointing out recently as well. The fact that even in churches that aspire to be racially integrated still tend to present an overwhelmingly homogenous leadership team is an issue. Churches need to be much more deliberate about how they’re identifying, recruiting, and developing talent outside of their existing mold of leadership because, ultimately, true racial integration can’t happen unless there is a distribution of power within churches. That requires a willingness to recruit people who look and think differently, a willingness to diversify all of your committees, and the people who control decisions, finances, and other types of power, which is a long process.
That’s not not something that churches are able to fix overnight. because it requires thinking in depth about your own biases, your own subculture, your own social network, and then trying to reach beyond those things. It can take years but that’s why churches need to start moving along that journey now so that more meaningful integrations become a reality in a few years time.
Another thing is churches need to become more aware of their own cultural practices and how genuinely inclusive the environment of the church is to people from different backgrounds. That includes everything from the style of music, to the style of clothing, the way of speaking, the use of sermon illustrations, what kind of food is served, I mean, it’s all kinds of differences; cultural practices both big and small. Churches often make decisions which reinforce one dominant culture but they could make decisions that open church up to be a space where people of many different backgrounds not only come together to be in the same space, but are actually valued, heard, and integrated into the wider culture of the church.
Again this is something that takes time. But the first step for churches who want to change is to do a ban audit around their existing cultural practices and all those different areas. And being willing to recognize, “Oh, yeah, we are actually kind of imposing one way of doing things in our music or in the topics we include in our youth ministry, our conversations, or whatever else is at work.” And then they need to be willing to listen to the voices of different people in the congregation to find out how they should change. So it requires time, it requires humility, and it requires a willingness to repent of the ways in which churches have reinforced the dominant culture and excluded people who don’t conform to that dominant culture.
You mentioned that you had to spend a lot of time reading through various materials for this project. Are there any of those books that you’d recommend for church leaders and laypeople?
There are a few books I would recommend. One is a book called Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, which speaks largely into the US context. But for me, that was that was an initial text that helped open my eyes to some of the underlying reasons why we continue to see such division along racial lines in the church.
Another, more recent, book that’s been helpful for me is Willie Jennings book The Christian Imagination: Theology And The Origins of Race. He’s a theologian but gives a really helpful historical context that helped me to understand the ways in which Western theology, in particular, has been shaped through the colonial enterprise and has resulted in a distorted understanding of church and of social issues in the present day. That was really helpful for me. book for me.
Finally, I think a very accessible and helpful text in the UK context of churches is Ben Lindsay’s recent book, We Need To Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches. And so I would definitely recommend that and I know a number of church leaders who have recently started to read it. Those are the ones that I would start with that are very helpful for people to get going.
As a final question, is there anything we’ve not touched on that you think is important to bear in mind when approaching this issue?
Given the the context in which we’re having conversation now, with recent events and the growing protests and activism around racial justice more generally, I would say that I think this is a historical moment. It’s a real opportunity for the church to speak into this issue and, not merely speak but act and change and pursue that biblical vision of a people who pursue justice and reconciliation. I think this is a unique cultural moment where the Black Lives Matter movement, and that activism that we’ve seen globally seems to have gained wider attention and participation than many protests that have happened over the last 5-10 years. And there’s a growing recognition of the scale of the structural injustice at play. I think this is a real key time for the church to be stepping into that space, through its words and its actions, and it’d be a real missed opportunity for the church not to be involved.
I think it’s important for the church to not only to speak out in general terms about Black Lives Matter, but again to do that harder work of self reflection and that painful process of recognising the ways that we, as an institution, have contributed to the problem of racial injustice, and be willing to make sacrificial change in the right direction. Not just sort of pacifying words, but making decisions that can genuinely facilitate sharing of power and greater representation in the way that we do church. I think that’s what I would end on, in light of our current context, as a window of opportunity for churches who may not have been involved in this space to be willing to take that first step. And then to continue down that path as far as they’re willing and able to go.
If you would like to contact Jessamin for more information on the work she’s doing, you can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org