Recently I was asked to contribute a commentary on the website of the General Commission on Religion and Race. I reprint it here, as a thought piece on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.
When I saw the racial composition of the delegates to the Republican National Convention I saw a political party that was sadly out of touch with the future of this great democracy. In that vast throng of delegates, no more than thirty-seven were African Americans! Any party that so limited in diversity was doomed to failure in the election.
And yet, as a United Methodist, I grieve that our church is steadily looking more like the composition of this secular political party and less like the Body of Christ – racially speaking. During three decades of programs, agencies, and millions of dollars of funding to foster greater racial inclusiveness in our church, we have proportionally become less racially inclusive. I consider this to be one of our greatest scandals and an affront to the gospel.
We have made some remarkable progress in addressing historic patterns of racial exclusiveness in our church. In the past few decades we have shown growth in the number of Bishops, District Superintendents, General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegates, and Directors and Staff of General Boards who are persons of color. The trouble is, in all these categories, the percentage of people of color represented is much greater than the presence of people of color in the membership of the denomination.
Therein lies the problem. We have tried to address the issue of “racial inclusiveness” in an exclusively top-down fashion – electing and appointing persons of color in a high proportion to positions of authority in our church while failing to make racial inclusiveness a bottom-up phenomenon. The statistics suggest that we’ve got “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” only for people of the racial group that is in decline of the percentage of the American population. Years ago, Bob Wilson and I said (in Rekindling the Flame ) that our church loves slogans about African Americans more than we appear to love actual United Methodist African Americans! African American United Methodists are a shrinking proportion of our church. In my own Annual Conference, 25% of my Cabinet is African American. Yet we are struggling to have thriving, growing predominately African American congregations. The rate of death of our African American constituency is about five times higher than our rate of new African American members.
True, our church shows decline in many segments (though our Korean and Spanish speaking congregations appear to be happy exceptions). My worry is that my African American congregations are declining faster, proportionately, than my non-African American congregations. The age of the average African American United Methodist appears to be even higher than the average age of United Methodists in general (which is already terribly high). We are losing our African American constituency — particularly African Americans of the generation of our new President. Obama is President, in great part, because he marvelously succeeded in appealing to the generation that my church has (be they white, black, or brown) excluded – people under forty.
Though my immediate concern is reaching a new generation of African Americans, I fear that we are having similarly poor response from some other racial minorities. According to a breakdown of conference statistics by GCFA, since 1990 the conference that showed the greatest decline in average worship attendance was the Rio Grande Conference, declining by 30.14%. This decline is particularly sad because this geographic area has been the beneficiary of dramatic growth in Spanish-speaking people.
I therefore find myself in agreement with Dr. Lovette Weems, Jr. of Wesley Theological Seminary who, last fall, told the Council of Bishops, “We need an affirmative action program for ethnic minority United Methodists!” Our church has proved that having more bishops and denominational executives of color, while enriching the quality of leadership of our church, has no positive effect on the number of members of our church who are persons of color. It seems that no African Americans become United Methodists simply because we have slogans about racial inclusiveness and a few persons in top positions. We need a church wide effort to do what we need to do to increase the number of professions of faith by people of color.
Weems noted that, “All mainline denominations have wonderful statements about racial inclusiveness but no mainline denomination has demonstrated that it can reach any racial group other than whites at the same rate it can reach white people.”
If one examines the website of the General Commission on Religion and Race one searches in vain for emphasis on increasing the diversity of our church through making our church more accessible, attractive, welcoming, and inclusive of a new generation of persons of color. It as if the Commission has not heard that “making disciples for the transformation of the world” is the bishops’ priority for this quadrennium. (To be fair to the Commission, most of the other agency websites are guilty of the same omission.) Sadly, it is easier to elect and appoint a few persons of color to leadership positions in our church than to welcome new United Methodists. I wish the Commission on Religion and Race would show the same commitment to set goals and monitor diversity in the areas of evangelism, new members, baptisms, average attendance, and professions of faith that it has shown in monitoring delegates to G eneral Conference.
My friend Nathan Hatch, great American church historian, notes that in the Nineteenth Century, “More African Americans became Christians in 10 years of Methodist preaching than in a century of Anglican.” Our movement, in its first years in this nation, showed a peculiar genius for reaching African Americans for Christ and Wesleyan Christianity. A gracious, ever seeking God can use us again if we decide that reaching a new generation of Christians and making disciples is a priority. We do have a few congregations and pastors who know how to do this crucial ministry. They must teach the rest of us. In my experience, persons of color are attracted to a congregation and decide to join that congregation for exactly the same reasons as anyone else – vibrant, Spirit-filled worship, engaging preaching, a warm, exciting congregational culture, and opportunities for service and witness in the name o f Christ. Though it pains me to admit this, I have never met a single person of any racial group who became a United Methodist Christian because of bishops!
The way to be a more racially inclusive church is not through monitoring, slogans, or the election of bishops – it is by being more racially inclusive in our membership. The youthfulness of the growing racial ethnic diversity in the United States makes its impact even more significant for the future of an aging denomination. Our church’s vitality in the next century will be dependent upon its willingness and ability to respond to the changing face of America.
I would love to see our church move from a vague statement like “making disciples” to set specific goals for reaching persons of color as members of our church. Then we should commit to give pastors the skills they need to lead toward that goal. We should hold bishops like me, churches and pastors accountable to those goals, and we should appoint and deploy pastors on the basis of how well God uses them to reach a new generation of United Methodists who will enable us to be a church that not only talks about racial inclusiveness but embodies, practices, visibly demonstrates inclusiveness in our membership.
William H. Willimon
P.S. Next week, I’ll return to and conclude my messages on A Short Account of a Continuing Journey and focus on how our world is changing and how we as a church must change.