Church diversity is not enough…
The recent protests for racial justice in the world have had Evangelical Christian organizations everywhere scrambling to put out sermons, statements and hold zoom conversations addressing racial injustice. I fear that when we go back to the new normal, churches who have members and leaders from different backgrounds will see themselves as better than those who don’t. Racial diversity in our churches does not always equate to real cultural transformation. Racial diversity is a good and necessary start. What should flow from it should be cultural transformation. By cultural transformation I mean the norms and practices of the church should not favour the powerful group but should reflect the diversity that is in the pews, leadership and communities where churches are based.
Mediated by Whiteness:
Christianity came to Africa in New Testament times. However, since the advent of European colonisation, African people’s communion with God was and continues to be mediated by whiteness. A few examples include but are not limited to, the realities that denominational distinctives are embedded in Western confessional statements; most evangelical churches use English Bibles translated in the West; most evangelical preachers rely on commentaries written and published in the West; most evangelical churches adopt Western ministry strategies, most often we download and teach Western study material to kids; we sing Western songs, and we train our ministry workers in the traditional Western way of treating seminaries like monasteries – far and removed from the general population.
Evangelical churches do not want to decolonize and contextualize Christianity in African because they have faulty views of both Western and African cultures. A Western liberal capitalist worldview is perceived to be closer to the kingdom of God than the ubuntu worldview of the black African. When an African becomes a believer, it is expected of them to turn away from ancestral mediation, but white people are not expected to turn away from their white supremacist ways of engaging with the world. The benefits afforded to Western culture in the world are maintained and unchallenged in the church. It is expected and normalized for a black African to be uncomfortable and accommodating in an evangelical church so that the white person feels at home.
When I became a Christian in 2006 at university, I joined a local church and a Christian student’s organization. Their practices were a cultural shock to me. I had visited churches before in Lusikisiki and Klerksdorp where I grew up but a lot of what I experienced at university was new to me. Apart from never having seen an acoustic guitar as a leading musical instrument during a church worship service, for the first time I had to pray in English so that I could be understood by those around me (as if prayer were a theatrical performance).
We had to take turns to pray when in small groups. We had to listen to someone pray from the front during a worship service. People appeared emotionally unmoved during worship with the exception of a raised hand or two. Our main musical diet was English hymns or modern English songs, and notably, when we sang an African song it was translated into English on the overhead projector. Whilst black Africans like myself had to suffer through Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing with no indigenous language translation.
My spiritual leaders were white and the people they used as theological guides were not only white but either American or British. The economic disparities between my leaders and I were glaringly evident. When we challenged the opulent lifestyles of our leaders on campus, who were American missionaries to students, we were reminded of the sacrifices they had made leaving their countries to come to share the gospel with us. So, we had to be grateful and understand that they came from different contexts. What all of this communicated to me was that I was the one who had to change. I was the one who had to be accommodating. I was the one who had to become “white” because spiritual maturity was closer to whiteness than blackness and Jesus was closer to white culture than African culture. If I wanted a deeper relationship with Jesus, I had to learn from and mimic white Christians.
Diverse but not Equal:
These things happened in a racially diverse church and Christian student organization. They had black leaders in their ranks. Our gatherings were diverse, but the culture was organized along the lines of racial power and not racial equality.
The decolonisation of Christianity in Africa will not happen until we dismantle the power and dominance that white culture enjoys within our churches. We need to question and make abnormal the dominance of this culture as the mediator of our Christian theology and practice. A gospel that will not renounce white supremacy is an unbiblical gospel. All cultures display God’s grace as well as the sin of human beings. To elevate one culture above another as more faithful to the Gospel betrays that truth and does not serve God but rather that culture. White Evangelical churches bring glory to God only insofar as they reflect the image of God. The sad reality is that they tend to reflect the white supremacist values of the world instead.
Daluxolo Gerald Mbebe is a minster at Christ Church Tshwane, a church in the inner-city of Pretoria. He is married to Keolebogile and they have one daughter, Amani. In his downtime, he likes building up his wit by watching episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm repeatedly and figuring out new ways to ruin banana loaf recipes. You can follow him on Twitter @geralddmbebe