We’re on holidays. We wanted to visit another church. I checked out a few on the web. Churches not too far from us, here in Sydney’s multicultural Georges River region.
Churches often put up photos of their congregation. You can learn a lot from those photos. D- Baptist church for example. D- is a very multicultural suburb. D-Baptist’s photo – all anglos. White guys. The whole lot.
C- Presbyterian: same story. Very mixed neighbourhood. Church photo: white guys only.
I wasn’t that keen. So we attended P- Anglican Church. It’s in a very Asian area. We went in. The congregation was nearly all Anglo. One Asian lady. One greek-looking bloke. The rest were white. The greek bloke turned out to be about third generation aussie. Culturally he was Anglo.
I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over again, over the years I’ve been living in this area. It’s the same at church after church. Protestant church, that is.
Does this seem like a problem to anyone? No one much seems to comment on it. Well, I’m commenting today.
There’s the obvious: how long can our churches hope to exist if they remain little islands of whiteness? If they can’t adapt to their localities, what future do they have? In fact, they’re pretty much all smaller now than they were ten years ago.
But to my mind there’s bigger, more important problem than mere survival: what do our congregations say about Jesus? If our neighbourhood is multiethnic, but our church is white/Anglo – what message does that send? What sort of Jesus are we preaching to our communities? Because we are preaching Jesus – every day by existing as the community of Jesus in our suburb we project a message about the Lord who has created us. The hidden wisdom of God is made known to a watching world by who we are (Ephesians 3).
In short, our congregational life is a Christological issue. The ethnic makeup of our congregations is a Christological issue.
Our islands of whiteness – what do they say about Jesus? At worst, they say ‘Jesus is lord of all – all white europeans that is‘. This is a disgraceful heresy.
But lets be optimistic, let’s minimise the problem for a moment. Our Anglo enclaves, what’s the best case scenario for what they tell the world about Jesus?
At best they say, ‘Jesus saves people – but only separately by cultural group. He does not bring people together to make them one.‘ This Jesus is effective at the level of the individual. But at the level of the whole creation – ineffective. The wisdom of God – the secret that the nations are now reunited in Christ (Ephesians 3) – is rendered untrue. White segregation and privilege, and all the violence implied in those things, continue under Jesus’ rule.
I think it’s very likely that people looking at us get that message. I know people from other cultures and religions who think exactly that.
Seems to me that whichever way you look at it, our Anglo-enclaves are a gospel problem.
And I don’t feel that comforted by those who say ‘The unity of God’s people across cultures is a heavenly reality which we will only see in heaven – not on earth.’ It’s not that convincing is it – why would Jesus be able to do something then which he cannot do now? Isn’t it the church on earth which is supposed to make known the hidden wisdom of God regarding fellowship across cultures (Ephesians 2-3)?
No, I fear that our Sydney Protestant churches are in danger of living a heresy and distorting, by their very existence, the message of Christ.
I want to nominate this is the problem facing Sydney’s Protestant churches in the 21st century. Sydney’s future is multi-ethnic. This issue which has so dominated our church life in the Georges River region will come to dominate throughout Sydney before too long.
Possibly the solution is not simple, no doubt there are other problems lying behind this one. But this is the presenting issue, the point at which our troubles are focussed and most apparent.
Unless we can resolve this – I don’t say we will not grow – I say I hope we do not grow. If your churches are islands of whiteness, the last thing you want is for those islands to get bigger.