The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches by Korie Edwards

The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches cover imageSummary: An ethnographic study of an interracial church with context from national church research. 

A friend of mine recommended The Elusive Dream a year or so ago, and since then, I have listened to several interviews with Dr. Korie Edwards as well as most of her podcasts from this year. This allowed me to be familiar with the rough outline and look forward to reading the book. The Elusive Dream is an adaptation of Dr. Edwards’ dissertation. A second edition of the book came out in Oct 2021, but the copy I read was the first edition from 2008.

The Elusive Dream is an ethnographic study of an interracial church at its heart. Most interracial churches are white-led (70% according to recent research by Michael Emerson), and most multiethnic churches (where no racial/ethnic group has more than 80% of the congregation) are still majority white. Dr. Edwards chose a church to study that was Black-led, not a recent church plant, and when she started her research, was still majority white. This means that even among multiethnic/interracial churches (which are 16% of congregations according to Emerson’s research above), Edwards chose a church that was unusual. But during the years of her study, the congregation shifted from majority white to majority Black. That shift is central to the reality of interracial churches. Even with Black leadership, and especially with white leadership, interracial churches tend to center white cultural expressions of church.

As discussed in Myth of Colorblind Christians, many churches in the US have focused on church growth through the Homononous Unit Principle, a concept that advocates churches orient around a single cultural expression for the purpose of better evangelizing people of that culture.  That principle still has some influence in interracial and multiethnic churches because many of these churches tend to not have diverse representations of class, education, or culture, even if they are racially or ethnically diverse. This is how Dr. Edwards describes it early in the book:

However, as I continued to visit interracial churches across the country, I noticed a pattern. Nearly all of the churches, regardless of their specific racial compositions, reminded me of the predominantly white churches I had visited. Generally, the churches were racially diverse at all levels. Whites and racial minorities were in the pews and in leadership. There were sometimes cultural practices and markers that represented racial minorities in these congregations, such as a gospel music selection, a display of flags from various countries around the world, or services translated into Spanish. Yet the diversity did not seem to affect the core culture and practices of the religious organizations. That is, the style of preaching, music, length of services, structure of services, dress codes, political and community activities, missionary interests, and theological emphases tended to be more consistent with those of the predominantly white churches I had observed. These churches exhibited many of the practices and beliefs common to white churches within their same religious affiliation, only with a few additional “ethnic” practices or markers. It was like adding rainbow sprinkles to a dish of ice cream. In the end, you still have a dish of ice cream, only with a little extra color and sweetness.

One of the most important things to state clearly is that segregation of churches was the result historically of white racism. Churches were generally integrated prior to the Civil War, although they were white-controlled. After the Civil War, Black congregants were no longer required to submit to white leadership and began to form new Black-led congregations to fully express their Christian faith. According to Edwards by 1890, it is estimated that 90 percent of Black Christians attended a Black-led congregation. Again, this is not because Black Christians were resistant to worshiping with Christians of other races, but because they were segregated within other churches or excluded from churches completely.

Elusive Dream refers to the dream that Martin Luther King Jr spoke about in his famous speech. That dream remains elusive not just because of differences in worship styles, although there are differences in aggregate between racial groups as a result of historic segregation of worship. That dream remains elusive because culturally, white Christians as the demographically and culturally dominant group within the US leave congregations when the worship and church activities as a whole do not center white comfort.

As part of the ethnography, there is a detail of two white pastors leaving the church relatively close together and the controversy over hiring new associates. Several white families left when the two white pastors left. Additional families left when there was an attempt to hire a Black associate pastor. But most importantly, it appears that white families tended to leave the church when their children hit teen or pre-teen ages. Some white families that were interviewed after leaving left the church preemptively because so many other families left when their children became teens.

Another part of the book details the differences in orientation toward worship and the ways that controversy erupted over the desire among some African American worshipers to “shout” or have other examples of more expressive worship. The Black senior pastor attempted to stop these expressive worship practices because of the discomfort of white members. As detailed later by Edwards, it appears that even when the congregation became majority Black, a small group of Black members that were concerned about the departure of white members would side with white members against proposals popular with most Black and some white members. While there is a lot of detail and discussion in  the book, this is the summary finding:

I have argued that interracial churches work to the extent that they are, first, comfortable places for whites to attend. This is because whites are accustomed to their cultural practices and ideologies being the norm and to being structurally dominant in nearly every social institution. What this means is that, for interracial churches to stay interracial, racial minorities must be willing to sacrifice their preferences, or they must have already sufficiently acculturated into and accepted the dominant culture and whites’ privileged status. Consequently, the chances for a widespread movement of interracial churches are slim.

In the end, Edwards suggests that interracial churches have to reject white cultural normatively to be successful in the long term. And while she thinks that is possible, she is not particularly hopeful.

If churches want to realize Dr. King’s dream, they must first embrace a dream of racial justice and equality. Interracial churches must be places that all racial groups can call their own, where all racial groups have the power to influence the minor and major decisions of the church, where the culture and experiences of all racial groups are not just tolerated, but appreciated. This demands a radical approach and is certainly a high calling. Whites and racial minorities will have to resist white normativity and structural dominance and fully embrace the cultures, ideas, and perspectives of all racial groups. Otherwise, the dream will remain elusive.

I have 16 quotes saved to my GoodReads account from The Elusive Dream. If you attend or are interested in racial issues within the Evangelical church, I highly recommend this book to raise awareness of the potential for problems and how the church may (even if unintentionally) maintain a culture of white superiority, white cultural normativity, and white comfort. While this is not the only book that details the difficulties of interracial churches, the ethnography focus is helpful to follow a single church over the years to illustrate real problems.

The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches by Korie Edwards Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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