Black church leaders attend one conference, white church leaders a different one - not good. Jonathan Oloyede challenges the status quo and suggests practical ways bridges can be built between majority black and white congregations and leaders.
I was almost in tears. I was angry, depressed and confused, all at the same time. It was November 2000 and I was at the Evangelical Alliance Leadership Conference, held in Cardiff. Derek Tidball, principal of the London School of Theology, had just spoken, giving the morning Bible reading for the day, which was wonderful, but it had added to my sense of confusion. 'Where are all my black brothers?' I pondered. As I surveyed the approximately 98% white congregation of over 2,000 church leaders, my thoughts travelled to Brighton four months earlier. I had attended a flagship conference within the Black Christian Community. A rich conglomeration of Caribbean and African Christians had attended 'Faith in the Future', a conferenceorganised by the African-Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA). At that wonderful convention, with all its diversity of Black Christian expression and culture, I vividly witnessed the ominous Black and White divide. I remember questioning my good friend the EA general director, Joel Edwards… "Why are we all meeting in camps?" was my blunt challenge. In his amiable and uncle-like wise way, he replied, "That is one mountain a conference like this seeks to address and overcome. Our heart as an Alliance is to be a movement for change across the plurality of cultural and ethnic diversity within the church." I responded with more questions about why certain core white leaders were prominently absent, who had made the invitations, and a barrage of other queries.
As I travelled back to London from Cardiff, my mind was made up. I was on the phone to Joel at the earliest opportunity with a tirade of questions and protests. He was very patient with me, set out to calm me down and outlined a course of action. This triggered a personal journey of discovery into the depth and breadth of the chasm between the White and Black Christian Communities in England.
I am not insinuating that all is doom and gloom regarding inter-racial relationships in the Church. I know of many wonderful God-inspired ministries that are seeking to build bridges between ethnic borders. Neither do I claim to be an authority on race relations or cross-cultural dynamics within the church, but I do speak from personal experience.
I arrived on an afternoon flight from Lagos Nigeria in the summer of 1991. Fresh from the tyrannical pressure of medical school, I had decided to take a three-month holiday before embarking on my itinerant year at a renowned Baptist Training Hospital in the Islamic enclave of Northern Nigeria. As a convert from Islam, my intention was to practise as a missionary doctor to Muslims. I am still on my three-month holiday! Within days of arriving in the British Isles, the Holy Spirit spoke so vividly to me; Jonathan, you are not here by accident; you are here by divine design. You are here as part of my recruitment to this part of the world in preparation for the coming of my Son Jesus. Drop your agenda therefore and pick up my programme. It was so clear and scary. So much so that I thought Jesus was coming back in 1994!
Looking back, I now have a better panoramic view of a divine conspiracy behind the influx of exotic Christians into the UK. Heaven was responding to years of intercession to send help to strengthen flagging British congregations. Britain was reaping her harvest of overseas missionary work. Throughout the 90s on the back streets of Hackney, Leyton, Walthamstow, Lewisham, Brixton, Stratford, Finsbury Park, Islington and many other districts of London, I saw churches born - shop-front churches, home churches, warehouse churches, school churches, and community centre churches. Wherever there was ample space a church was planted. In old buildings and new ones, in derelict cinemas or showrooms, in old cold and dusty church buildings, on housing estates and even in town halls. I thought it was normal.
African and Caribbean Christians overlapped in this era of frenzied church planting. Every other week we would get glossy flyer invites to a church opening or a new building launch. It was much later that I began to find out that the established churches and Christian networks within the country were writing about the phenomena of the Black Majority Churches (BMCs). By 2000 statistical reports were published stating that 51% of church attendance in London was Black.
I know many fellow black Christians and even ministers that do not believe there are any significant indigenous Christian mission efforts within the UK. When you ask a black Christian to name a 'good' white church or ministry within the Capital they generally fumble for a name and may come up with Holy Trinity Brompton, Kensington Temple or the Alpha course. The same can happen in reverse. Recently at a leaders planning meeting which included some core Evangelical leaders, I asked if they had heard of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and their Festival of Life prayer nights. They looked at me blankly. Someone asked if I meant to say 'Festival of Light'! I went on to explain that Festival of Light meetings were held two to three times a year in London with an average attendance of 15,000-17,000 per night. They thought I was exaggerating, but actually my estimate was conservative.
Why do we have such a breakdown in communication across the cultural and ethnic divides? At a National Leaders Conference and then at Spring Harvest 2004 in Minehead, I challenged Evangelical and Charismatic leaders to adopt the spiritual Sons that God himself had brought to their shores. Reverend Terry Diggines, one of the founding fathers of the multicultural Newham Christian Fellowships (NCF), a central hub for the diversity of churches in East London, is a great model. A towering man in his 60's, he has a big heart. With open arms, and a disarming humility of spirit he embraced both me and the Glory House family that invaded the urban hamlet of Plaistow where he has lived for decades.
"You have brought fresh oil and fire from Africa. Thank God you arrived," he bellowed one summer afternoon, while we had tea in his home. He meant every word, which was a real miracle for me. I remember looking quizzically at him. I couldn't help reflecting on whether, if I were in his shoes, I would be so enthused that a church with thousands of members had swamped my neighbourhood. Without Terry and Joel Edwards, I would not have made it this far in the pursuit of church unity. Once you step out of the warmth and safety of your own Church, the Christian community can seem very cold.
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory, which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one as We are one. John 17:20-22
I leave you with one assignment. As a Christian leader, layperson, minister, pastor or bishop, please make some good friends with those outside your cultural or ethnic identity. Get to know their homes, the names of their children, eat with them and make them part of your life. Jesus said 'if you greet only your brethren, what more than others are you doing?'
Adapted from an article that first appeared in Focus magazine August 2004, the magazine of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance.
How do I start to relate?
Practical pointers for church leaders:
- Organise a minister's get together and suggest that the African or Caribbean church in your neighbourhood host it.
- Rally a good number of leaders you know and go attend the Black Pentecostal Church convention. Ring up ahead of time (a day or two before) and speak to the Pastor. Do not write or send an email!
- Take the other church leader out to lunch and use it to welcome and affirm his ministry within the context of the borough or area.
- Walk over to the new church in your ward and introduce yourself. Make it a casual visit. If the pastor is not around, leave your card with warm greetings and go back again, even if you don't get a response.
- Send over a nice greeting card with comments from several leaders in the area welcoming the church into the locality. Leave a contact number.
- Arrange for the ethnic church leader to attend your local ministers forum. Make it a priority that one of you arranges a subsequent lunch, visit or appointment.
- Find out if the local Black Majority Church has some particular needs (e.g. asylum seekers, building problems). Use your network to help alleviate or support that need.
- Black communities are very communal and relational in their approach; writing to invite or inform concerning an event does not connect like a phone call or visit.
These are generalisations and not applicable in all cases.
- Africa is very tribal; therefore emphasis is placed on leadership.
- High premium placed on seniority/ hierarchy-age, status, class, education and wealth.
- When you relate with a black leader, he/she wants to know your affiliation and status.
- Respect is high on the agenda, the more your members respect and honour you, the more a black leader can relate with you.
- Black leaders do not fully understand what they consider to be the British aversion to money and wealth.
- Many Black leaders take their financial cue from North America because they believe Americans have a more healthy approach to finances.
- Black leaders are attracted to confident (not proud) leaders/ ministers.
- Black leaders place great emphasis on the authority of the word of God. To them it is infallible. Insinuating that parts of the Scriptures are flawed puts you on the fringes of paganism.
- Do not want to be patronised (at all!)
- The Black church is looking to the indigenous Church to provide pointed, strategic leadership. They don't want to be seen trying to dominate the Christian landscape. They want to support what exists here.
- Dress smartly (not expensively) and don't be too self- effacing. Don't be stroppy!