Where are the non-white leaders?

Quite a few UK Christians have been praying and talking about a desire to see our churches reaching across cultures and becoming multi-cultural reflecting the many different ethnicities in their communities.

There are two motivating factors. First of all a recognition that church divided on racial lines is not a good witness to the Gospel which means we are all one in Christ Jesus and the future hope we have of people from every tribe and tongue gathered around the throne. Secondly it’s motivated by a desire to see unreached communities hear and respond to the Gospel. 

One challenge raised is that for us to see genuinely multi-ethnic churches, we need to see people from different backgrounds emerging as leaders within our churches. [1] The question constantly comes “Where are these leaders going to come from?” There’s at least a short term gap because where some of us are seeing people from different backgrounds responding to the Gospel, they are still at the stage of engaging. Add to that, I can say that at least from a local perspective where I am, we are often engaging with people who are forced to move on quickly so we only get short periods of time with people before they are relocated.

With that in mind, I began to jot down some thoughts on twitter the other day. Here I want to repeat them for those not on twitter and maybe expand on them a little for those who are. This is my perspective as a white leader working in a multi-cultural context and I would love to hear from people who can give a different perspective.

  1. If there are a shortage of churches in our inner city areas, then those are exactly the places where people from non-white British backgrounds are living. So, it is no surprise that there is a shortage of black and Asian church leaders because we are not reaching communities. To have leaders from certain backgrounds, we need believers from those backgrounds.  This is a point that Stephen Kneale makes here when talking about class. We need to prioritise gospel witness to the places where people are and where there is great need, where people are less likely to have been given the opportunity to hear the Gospel. This of course requires resources, primarily people to go but also financial support too.  This means a change of priority for the UK church in the 21st century from a 20th century strategic of trying to reach those seen as influencers in society.
  2. Sadly, we need to recognise that people from ethnic minorities have experienced racism in the church. This includes being called names either to their face or behind their back, being referred to as “that lot”, being treated as second class citizens, being ignored or excluded, having food, clothes, accent mocked etc. It is encouraging when they tell us that the racism they experienced was eventually dealt with but distressing to know that they experienced it in the first place and for so long. We also need to be alert to the possibility of continuing prejudice, overt and subtle within our churches. Readers will know that recently I wrote about horrendous publicity for the Northern Men’s Convention which focused on immigration as a problem. Again, if you think that the Christians and churches around you see you as a problem then you are unlikely to join with them and get fully involved. I am concerned that this particular issue was not taken anywhere seriously enough. The wording of the publicity was played down as clumsy.[2] I suspect that part of the problem is that the English reluctance to lose face meaning that (to quote Elton John), “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
  3. Often we see examples of churches where there is a gap in terms of second and third generation. This may even link to point 2 above. However, there are one or two 1st generation immigrants who came to the UK in the 1950s and 60s. They are now in the late 80s and into their 90s and so frailty may make participation in formal leadership including the burden of lots of meetings a greater challenge now. However, we may need to stop and ask were they overlooked in the past and if so why? Often we see people who demonstrate great godliness and who are looked up to as an example. Are there ways that we can recognise their gifts more even into their 90s?
  4. There may not be many black, asian or hispanic leaders among us, particularly in the reformed/conservative evangelical context but that does not stop us hearing the voices of those who are. Personally I am a little frustrated that one of the kick backs we get is that we need to have more conferences to understand problems and that we cannot understand the problems because we haven’t got enough people from non-white backgrounds to tell us what they are. This is frustrating when people from different backgrounds have spoken and have challenged us gently and lovingly. It is not that they haven’t been speaking but have we been listening?
  5. There are actually lots of Christians and leaders in the UK from more diverse backgrounds but they are not always in our traditional churches and the way they express belief in Christ may not always fit neatly into conservative evangelical culture. However, they share the same core beliefs. They see Scripture as infallible and inerrent, they believe that Jesus died in our place for the forgiveness of sin, they believe that we are justified by faith alone. They believe that Christ is coming back as judge and king. They often have a passion for the Gospel  that puts us to shame.  Should we be doing more to work with them?  It strikes me that I attend some gatherings that are almost exclusively white, in fact that;s true of the headline conservative evangelical events. However, when we host the Church Planting urban hub, the reverse is true, white British are very much in the minority.
  6. What am I hearing from non-white leaders? I am hearing a sense of bewilderment and frustration. We are seen as those who like our conferences and committees. There’s an impatience for action and they are getting on with gospel work. Here’s how Ashraf Farahat, an Egyptian Gospel worker based in Luton put it when preaching at Bearwood Chapel recently “Jesus sends us out as sheep among wolves. We need to spend more time as sheep among wolves and not always being sheep among sheep. It’s when we are out among the wolves that you can really see that we are sheep.”  Are we waiting for people to come along to our conferences when we should be joining them in their gospel action? This is important. Part of the problem is the assumption that because we are th eindigenous, majority population that it is for us to wait for newcomers/minorities to join with our plans and conform to our way of doing things. We need to realise that whilst there may be “majority” and “minority” cultures in the UK, there are not in God’s kingdom. None of us can claim to be the originals (we are all grafted in)!  So, in terms of kingdom work, my way of doing things does not take priority over someone elses because I’ve lived in this country longer.
  7. Following on from that call to join in rather than always expect to be joined is the need for what is sometimes called “Imbalanced, mutual adaption.” This means that whilst we all have to adapt, the priority is with the majority culture to make the moves. Here is Tim Chester writing on this in terms of Class, however, what he has to say applies as well to ethnicity.“It is not simply a question of numbers. Middle class culture is the dominant culture, not because it is the majority culture, but because it is the culture of success, power and authority. So without imbalanced adaption, the working class will defer to the middle class because this is how everyone is used to things functioning, and middle class cultural mores will be seen as the norm.”[1] Now if we read that again but modifying “middle-class” to read “white, middle class” we might get a feel for some of the challenges ahead if we are to be genuinely multi-cultural.
  8. We need to make sure that the qualities we look for in leaders are Bible qualities not cultural qualities. Should they be an elder? Are they able to teach, do they look after their household well? Are they hospitable? Are they self controlled?  Don’t add other demands onto those qualities.
  9. We may need to look at the structures we have for doing things. Do they assume particular processes for making decisions in terms of meetings, committees, votes etc. that don’t fit the decision making cultures of other societies.
  10. Are we willing to submit to others? This links back to point 6. Dare I ask, the question, do I, do we really want multi-cultural churches with multi-cultural leadership or does it depend on the understanding that I will lead. This is the real test in terms of tokenism. We often worry about this in terms of the person being chosen primarily to meet a quota regardless of gifts. However, just as big a danger is that we think we have diversity on our leadership teams because we have one or two extra people at the table but if they are subservient to us because of class or race issues then it is just tokenism.This list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather a contribution to the conversation.  Please get in touch if you want to add to it.[1] Chester, Unreached, 35.


[1] Most recently, I understand Tim Keller insisted upon this at the June 2018 City to City UK Conference.

[2] https://faithroots.net/2018/05/14/not-just-clumsy-wrong/