The Elusive Dream, by sociologist Korie Edwards, puts forward the provocative thesis that even in interracial churches where blacks are the majority “race works to reproduce white hegemony” (p. 17). The book includes some quantitative analysis, drawn from N=701 churches included in the NCS. However, the bulk of the book is devoted to a detailed analysis of Crosstown Community Church, a single, multiracial congregation in the midwest. Edwards develops her thesis based on observations of this church and extensive interviews with its pastors, leaders, and congregants.
– One of the main quantitative findings was that interracial churches fall somewhere between white churches and black churches in measures like “spontaneous worship,” “hand raising”, and “length of service.” “However, once other important congregational characteristics, such as age composition, religious tradition, … and charismatic [beliefs] are taken into account, this balance disappears” (p. 22). In other words, when other factors are controlled for, interracial churches look largely like “white churches,” at least in terms of these measures. Edwards claims that this similarity shows how minorities assimilate to white cultural norms even in supposedly multiethnic churches. The remainder of the book was an extended case study of a one such church.
– Edwards emphasized that Crosstown was a warm, welcoming community that is, in many ways, an exemplar of interracial churches. Crosstown was a majority white church which hired an African American pastor. Eight years later, the church was 65% African American, 30% white, and 5% Latino and Asian, almost perfectly reflecting the demographics of the surrounding towns of Mapleton and Anderson. Including the head pastor, blacks composed 61% of the church leadership.
– One of the primary conflicts revolved around worship. In general, blacks missed more demonstrative and expressive forms of worship that they had experienced in black churches, while whites were comfortable with the more sedate style.
– Edwards focus on one case in particular: one black woman occasionally shouted and waved her arms joyfully during the worship time and continued to do so during communion. Congregants were split in their response to this behavior during a church meeting. Most (but not all) blacks felt that these infrequent episodes were unproblematic while whites generally thought it was disruptive. In the end, the church leadership decided that “emotionally expressive worship” was “most appropriate” during the praise and singing portion of the service (p. 34). The summary of the meeting and its aftermath was a good illustration of how genuine tension can arise when cultural expectations clash.
– Interviews, particularly those with whites, occasionally revealed insensitive attitudes towards cultural conflict. Part of the problem is that “racial identity of whites is peripheral to their sense of self” (p. 84). That is, whites don’t perceive their preferences as ‘white’, but as ‘normal’ or ‘default.’ This unreflective attitude makes them confused or resentful when other cultures try to introduce “unusual” or “ethnic” practices into the church.
– Perhaps the biggest misstep occurred when only one white leader attended only one session of a nine-session seminar on racial diversity that the head pastor had organized and which was attended by over twenty other congregants (p. 47). The white leadership clearly failed to show support for the pastor in an area where it would have been extremely beneficial. That said, while Edwards saw their absence as highly problematic, none of the congregants or the pastor mentioned it as a source of conflict.
– I found it extremely important to distinguish facts from Edwards’ interpretations, which often seemed dubious. For example, in summarizing the “shouting” episode, Edwards says that “The central position of the church leadership ultimately supported the … ‘con’ group… the primary position of whites in the church” (p. 36). But in her actually summary of the incident on p. 34, she said that the leadership officially *permitted* ‘shouting’, merely suggesting that it would be “most appropriate” during worship. Similarly, Edwards criticizes the church for engaging in community events in the rich, white neighborhood of Mapleton, but none in the poorer, black neighborhood of Anderson, despite its greater need (p. 43). What she only mentions later is that the church is physically located in Mapleton. Moreover, the events in Mapleton were planned by other groups and Crosstown was invited to participate. Additionally, she notes that the congregation gave financial support to organizations in Anderson, but says nothing about support of Mapleton. Therefore, suggesting that this difference reveals “racial undertones” is questionable (p. 43).
– The distinction between Edwards’ interpretation and the data becomes particularly important in the final chapter, entitled “Reproducing White Hegemony.” Edwards relies on Gramsci’s model of “hegemony” to claim that “whites dominate society with the consent of racial minorities” (p. 122). Because of this model, she sees whites as (consciously or unconsciously) pressuring blacks to support white norms, white ideals, and white preferences. Unfortunately, this model runs into serious problems when we read the actual statements of black congregants. Even Edwards recognized that the majority of blacks consciously choose Crosstown because they *liked* aspects of the church that they felt were missing from “the black church.” Expositional preaching was one commonly cited reason, as well as the shorter service times. They were attracted to the church because of “religious practices they prefer” (p. 132), not out of a desire to integrate or please whites. The next largest group did place weight on the presence of whites, but were “not inclined to sacrifice [the] beliefs and practices they prefer … to sustain racial integration” (p. 133). Only the smallest contingent of blacks, which Edwards estimates at around 7% of the congregation, are “willing to acquiesce to white attendees’ desires” (p. 133). One has to wonder, then, how Edwards can maintain her model of ‘hegemony.’ If only a tiny fraction of blacks are concerned with appeasing whites, why should we believe that “African-American attendees [are] complicit in the perpetuation of whiteness” (p. 131)? Perhaps black congregants have their own agency and their own preferences and truly enjoy the aspects of the church that Edwards deems ‘white’.
– By far, the book’s biggest problem was its failure to engage in theology. For legitimate reasons, sociologists tend to speak of ‘black practices’ or ‘white beliefs’ as a short-hand way of speaking about practices and beliefs in which blacks or whites participate. However, this is a sociological convention. Theologically, we shouldn’t speak about ‘white beliefs’ or ‘black beliefs’ but about ‘true beliefs’ and ‘false beliefs.’ Scandalously, this truth means that if a ‘black belief’ and a ‘white belief’ conflict, the Christian’s job is not to decide which belief he prefers or which belief matches his race, but which belief is actually true.
– Edwards’ omission of this vital point leads her to a major hole in her analysis. For example, she notes that many black congregants praised the pastor for his expositional and logical style of preaching, which contrasted with the topical style that they saw in black churches. Edwards also notes that the head pastor does not have total control over his congregation as he might in a black church but functions within a plurality of elders and a system of congregational voting. Edwards’ model forces her to see these practices as pernicious examples of ‘white hegemony.’ Consequently, she never asks the more important question: are these practices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Are they biblical or unbiblical?
– Of course, some issues are matters of indifference and here Christians need to show far more charity. Following Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor., we should never let our freedom cause another Christian to stumble. If we’re called to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, surely we can lay down our preferences and our comforts! But when it comes to central theological truths, we cannot take the relativist’s approach and blithely affirm “diversity.” A diversity of answers on a math problem is only a diversity of error. All cultures, whether majority or minority, are called to reform themselves to God’s revealed truth.
Edwards’ book gives important examples of the kinds of conflicts that can arise in multiracial congregations. Because of such conflicts, both groups need to bear one another’s burdens in love, constantly engaging in honest dialogue and listening to each other’s concerns. Where the book falters is in its use of power dynamics to explain the church’s culture. Ironically, this approach greatly undermines the agency and dignity of minorities. What can be more dismissive than to insist that blacks have become the witting or unwitting tools of white supremacy? Perhaps we should take them at their word: despite their unfulfilled preferences and occasional tensions, the people of Crosstown have chosen to come together as one body not because they have “assimilated to norms of whiteness,” but because they are united under the preaching of God’s word in the community of fellow Christians.