In his foreword to Roswith Gerloff’s 1992 book entitled, A Plea for British Black Theologies, Walter Hollenweger stated that, ‘British Christians prayed for revival, but when it came, they did not recognise it because it was black.’ He was speaking about the arrival of black and brown Christians in Britain and how white British Christians did not recognise it as an answer to their own prayers. It is almost 30 years since this powerful statement was written and, yet, its truth is more evident today than it was back then. The National Census of 1991 tells us that non-white people formed only 7 per cent of the population then — they were at 14 per cent in 2011. Thus, the full impact of migration on the religious landscape of Britain was yet to be realised. Still, Hollenweger was totally right, segregation among Christians is a thing, whether intentional or not, and it is more visible today than it was in 1992. The Windrush Scandal of the past few years reveals the longstanding underbelly of racial segregation that has shaped the life experiences of many black and brown people in Britain from the 1940s.
The migration of many non-Western Christians to Western cities is in keeping with the migratory nature of Christianity while, at the same time, it challenges us to imagine Christian fellowship in a racialised world. The subject of multicultural Christianity is new to most of us. Our theologies, missiologies, and ecclesiologies are yet to catch up with the reality of the culturally diverse world that surrounds us. Religion and race are still two concepts that are yet to be fully negotiated within Christianity. Race relations within Christian communities is a broken area right now, and it will become even more contentious as numbers of non-white Christians increase and as the distance between Christians of different parts of the world diminishes as we go deeper into the twenty-first century that is a century of migration. Today, in 2021, in the wake the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that spread around the world in 2020, the subject of racial segregation in Christianity is just beginning to be explored. In most of western Christianity, to talk about race is to open the scars of the racism of the past—of slavery, colonialism, and the white supremacy that provided the ideological foundation for European domination and exploitation of the world—something many do not want to talk about (since segregated Christianity is working just fine). An overwhelming majority of Christian congregations in the UK are made up of people of one race. Of course, it is unfortunate that British Christianity is more segregated than schools and offices. At least, Corporate Britain has started hiring Diversity Officers, even if it is mere tokenism, it is still a small step in the right direction. Yet, Christian congregations continue to behave as if segregation is normal.
Of course, we are the first generation of Christians on this side of the Reformation to deal with this issue, especially within the geographical limits of western civilization. For the greater part of the past two millennia, Christianity has been a white religion with its heartlands in Europe and, since the 1500s, North America. Even its spread around the world in the nineteenth century is tied closely to the migration of millions of Europeans to the rest of the world. As late as 1950, 85 percent of Christians in the world were white and lived in the West. Today, white people form only 33 percent of Christians in the world. In 2021, there are more Christians in Africa than on any other continent, and we can confidently say that there are more black Christians in the world today than there are white Christians. As a result, black Christians will continue to shape world Christianity.
African congregations in Britain are not just an outcome of the need to create ‘a home away from home’ where they can worship in their languages and eat African food. Many of them have emerged as a result of the need to negotiate the discrimination that immigrants face in western congregations due to various factors like theological differences and lack of cross-cultural leaders. However, for many African Christians in Britain, African congregations help them negotiate the challenges they face in the wider society. Faced with harassment from the government and discrimination from their neighbours, migrants turn to fellow migrants for social support and this is where migrant congregations become helpful.
Now, we need to consider practical ways to get around some of these issues.
- This Christian segregation is not just a social or cultural problem. It is also a theological problem that reflects our understanding of God. We need to develop theological tools that look at faith, race and mission in healthy ways that encourage cross-racial missional partnerships. We need to rethink our theology of race. Theologies of human interaction shaped by racist ideologies of dead white men must be discredited. In Christ, race should not divide us but bring us closer together.
- We need to be intentional about developing new models of cross-cultural leadership. Leaders on both sides of the conversation need to model these cross-cultural partnerships for their followers. They need to show their followers what it looks like to respectfully recognise and work with people that look different from them. White leaders need to go out of their way to make their ‘home ground’ conducive for the immigrants to engage at play. African leaders need the courage to belong and to tone down their condemning rhetoric and begin to respect western Christians even when they disagree with them on some issues. Continuing to label western Christianity as dead will end up discrediting their missional intentions. For Africans to be able to reach out to the West, they will surely need the help of Western Christians.
- We need to commit to learning from and about one another. Of course, that means creating spaces where race and justice can be talked about without shame, guilt, or condemnation. The more we learn about one another, the better our chances of successfully partnering for mission. Mutual love and respect is the only way forward. The Body of Christ is made more whole whenever we learn from each other, exchanging the gifts that God has deposited in us for one another. We also need to be intentional in training our members in cross-cultural intelligence. Welcoming strangers is risky, but it pays off. It may result in a few missteps, but it is a necessary risk if cross-cultural partnerships are to be possible. Remember, we are the first generation to have to do this.
If there is anything that I have learned in my years of multicultural ministry both in Europe and the United States, it is that we need not be colour-blind. Issues of race are deep-seated within Christianity as well as in the general society around us, and they need to be discussed openly. There will be resistance. The work involved will be heavy. Some will argue that it is not really necessary while others will say it is too risky. However, the Body of Christ needs this cross-cultural engagement for it to function properly. Leaders need to tread carefully, but they need to tread anyway. A culturally diversified missional context needs a culturally diversified missional community.