Book Review: United by Faith, by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, et al

Review
09.25.2015

Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, Karen Chai Kim. United By Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race. Oxford University Press, 2004. 240 pps.

 

As racialized incidents continue to flood headlines, sincere Christians wonder how they can bring biblically faithful solutions to this conflict that plagues American society. Local churches have tried to implement new programming to address the issues. Local pastors have attended conferences, read articles, and tried to raise awareness through social media. Many Christians desperately feel the need to do something about the problem.

However, these efforts have barely made a dent in the dividing walls that defy cross-cultural community. Scripture clearly communicates that the scope of God’s kingdom includes people from all nations. But what are we to do about the nagging racial tensions that persist in our cities and neighborhoods? How can we participate in the healing of these divisions? For the authors of United By Faith there is at least one viable way forward: “Christian congregations, when possible, should be multiracial.” Stated plainly, United By Faith proposes that Christian individuals and communities can participate in addressing the problem of race by building a multiracial vision into their own local church.

To some, this may appear to be an overstatement or the result of “politically correct” ideology creeping into the Christian faith. However, in roughly 240 pages, this multiracial team of writers gathers interdisciplinary insights that lend compelling support to their thesis. United By Faith is an easy, thought-provoking read. The work is written with an irenic tone and the authors advance their case for multiracial congregations.

OVERVIEW

There are four major sections in this book. The first aims to develop the biblical arguments. The remainder of the book builds upon these foundational principles with historical and sociological analysis. Primary emphasis in the first section comes from two major themes: 1) how the Gospel writers frame the life and example of Jesus, and 2) how the life and example of Jesus came to be expressed in the congregational life of the “New Testament church.”

Particular attention is given to detailing how this multiracial framework, present in both the Jerusalem church and the Antioch church, shaped how early Christians encountered various challenges to gathering a diverse Christian community in a socially sectarian context. The authors conclude that the cultural inclusivity modeled in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ developed into a culturally diverse church, a “house of prayer for all the nations.”

After establishing these biblical grounds, the second section of this book takes a decidedly historical and sociological turn, exploring the differences between the cultural composition of these New Testament churches and American congregations established between the years of 1600-2000. Given the vast historical period that is covered here, the authors give a relatively brief overview. Nevertheless, this whistle-stop tour is very well done, providing an accessible narrative that helps to make sense of the racialized past and present of the American church. There are thoughtful, clarifying moments in these pages that give the reader a better understanding of how these over-arching themes played out within localized situations and particular denominations.

For example, readers may be surprised to learn that “segregation by race with whites in the dominant position was not predetermined to become the identifying feature of social life throughout the history of the United States.” Instead, the authors identify race-based chattel slavery as the practice which institutionalized this rupture, eventually developing it into a full-blown racially prejudiced worldview—the effects of which we still feel today.

It should also be noted that the authors do a fine job of navigating the tension between heartbreaking stories of violent racism in God’s church and hopeful moments of reconciliation that pointed to restorative possibilities. This section closes with an analysis of four contemporary multiracial congregations. The main function of this contemporary analysis is to simply demonstrate to the reader that the multiracial congregation, even if flawed in its various expressions, is indeed possible and desirable. In addition, the authors are demonstrating here that there is “no set formula or ideal setting for developing multiracial congregations,” which pastors will find to be freeing.

In the third section, the authors do the reader a great service by providing an insightful sociological development of why the American church is segregated and how a multiracial perspective effectively addresses and rebuts argumentation for maintaining racially segregated congregations. They categorize arguments in favor of racially segregated congregations into five broad categories: 1) pragmatic reasons, 2) theological reasons, 3) cultural reasons, 4) activist reasons, and 5) sociological reasons. Of particular note in this section is how the authors thoughtfully expose and dismantle the homogeneous unit principle espoused and advanced by the church growth movement and made popular in the writings of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. The reader will appreciate the detailed, winsome, and thoughtful responses that the authors give to each of the five kinds of arguments advanced in favor of racially segregated congregations.

In the final section of United By Faith, the authors recap their core belief in a “theology of oneness,” which they suggest should be the fundamental reorientation of all Christians as they consider what the racial make-up of their local congregations ought to be. They aim to provide a sort of roadmap for new and existing congregations to begin heading in the direction of becoming a multiracial community. Here, they draw from three years of intensive research on multiracial congregations across the country in order to answer key questions on the basics of this commitment.

Based on their research, they create three helpful categories for analyzing congregational culture and the degree of racial integration:

  1. Assimilated multiracial congregations—“in which one racial group is obviously the dominant group” and non-dominant groups assimilate.
  2. Pluralist multiracial congregations—in which “physical integration has occurred in the sense that members of different racial groups choose to gather in the same church and the same worship service” but “members do not move beyond coexistence to real integration of social networks.”
  3. Integrated multiracial congregations—the “theological ideal” in which the “congregation has developed a hybrid of the distinct cultures that have joined together in one church . . . the new hybrid culture is an expression of the congregation’s unified collective identity.”

The reader will find these categories helpful in addressing true and false senses of racial progress and discerning what next steps a congregation may need to take in order to express these commitments in a healthy way.

It should be noted that the authors admit three valid exceptions to their thesis, adding explanatory comments. These exceptions to multiracial congregations are valid when:

  1. Only one racial group lives in your area. Yet, they suggest that churches should still work for ethnic diversity.
  2. When there is a lack of a common language, though they suggest that affordable technical possibilities for simultaneous translation may eliminate this exception in the future.
  3. In unique circumstances of first-generation immigrant groups. The authors allow for the possibility that challenges of crossing cultures may be too great for the first generation living in the United States.

They also leave room for unique situations that might qualify as exceptions, but they note that these special cases are a small percentage of total churches.

EVALUATION

I hope that it has become clear through this review that there are many good and fruitful components to this work. Nevertheless, there are two major weaknesses that should be noted.

First, the biblical and theological groundwork in this book leaves much to be desired.

A quick perusal of the authors’ biographies is very telling. Three of the four demonstrate expert-level facility in sociology while zero of the four authors demonstrate expert-level facility in theology. This is not to say that Christians who are trained in sociology are incapable of penetrating theological reflection, nor am I suggesting that a PhD in theological studies is required to understand this discussion doctrinally. However, the theological depth of this book does not come close to its sociological depth. 28 thin pages out of 240 are devoted to expositing the biblical and theological antecedents of their thesis and the vast majority of those pages are devoted to discussing the example of Jesus Christ rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The priority given to Christ’s example over his gospel results in a sort of “What would Jesus do” motive for cultivating multiracial congregations, a mere emulation of Jesus that lacks the power to sustain this labor.

The problem with this surface-level theologizing does not come in what is actually said, but with what is left unsaid. What the authors say is indeed true: we should follow the example of Jesus and obey his teachings. No Christian would disagree here! But to paraphrase B.B. Warfield, if we center our vision on Jesus as an exemplar, he shows us what we ought to be, but could never actually become due to our weakness and sin. However, when we center our vision on Jesus, not just as our example, but as our Savior, we see in him not only what we should be, but what we shall be by faith and transforming grace.

In the same way, when the authors come to describe the church in the book of Acts as a model for contemporary churches, they leave us with a simple command to follow the multiracial discipline of the apostles, but they leave the multiracial doctrine of the apostles largely untouched. To my mind, this is a massive oversight.

The outworking of our faith in multiracial community building should not rest upon the social emulation of the apostles, though this can be instructive at times. Rather, the outworking of our faith in multiracial community building should rest upon the christological exposition of the apostles. The explanation for why we see cross-cultural and multiracial phenomena in the book of Acts is explicitly related to, and drawn from, the apostolic understanding of the cosmic realities that took place in the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ who, even now, sits at the right hand of the Father pleading the merits of his blood for people from every tongue, tribe, and nation!

The apostles issued the imperative of reconciliation to the church because of the indicative of our reconciliation with God the Father. The apostles issued the imperative of peacemaking in the church because of the indicative of our peace with God through the cross. The apostles issued the imperative of border-crossing love to the church because of the indicative of Christ’s border-crossing love for us. Furthermore, the apostles proclaimed the indicative of our corporate solidarity and identity within the body of Christ. We have been called to corporately express, in sanctification, who we are by virtue of our justification. Added to this is the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ in the life of the church for the sake of continuing the cross-cultural ministry and mission of Jesus Christ through the church. Sadly, these truths were left largely untouched, save for a few short lines in the beginning and end of the book. The authors include a chapter entitled “The Truth of the Gospel” but they fail to mine the riches of the gospel that strongly support their conclusions. They would have done much better to root their convictions in a more robust exposition of the cross.

Second, the authors fail to make the explicit goal of diversity clear.

Most people in our culture are calling for diversity and would consider it a goal. Sadly, news media, institutions of higher education, and major corporations are actually more vocal about diversity than the church. However, there should be one primary distinction between the world’s vision of diversity and the church’s vision of diversity and it is this: the church is to pursue diversity distinctly through doxology and for the sake of doxology.

It’s through rightly ordered affections and rightly centered worship that diversity is to result, and it is explicitly for the glory of God that we are to pursue it. Diversity without doxology is of limited value and will have limited staying power. The fact of the matter is that diversity was never meant to be an end in and of itself. Diversity is an important means to the chief end of man: “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Given the pervasive lack of clarity in the cultural discussion on race and multiculturalism, the authors should have explicitly stated what the intended goal of diversity should be in the church.

That said, to be fair, the authors state at the very end of the book: “We are not claiming that becoming multiracial should be the primary goal of the church, but it must be a goal, or perhaps better yet, a means to reach its larger goal.” Nonetheless, they simply leave this “larger goal” ambiguous.

CONCLUSION

To put it gently, the amount of biblically healthy, theologically incisive, sociologically nuanced, and historically reliable literature on cross-cultural and multiracial matters within Christianity is underwhelming. Yet, although it leaves much to be desired in terms of theological depth, United By Faith is a very welcomed contribution and a worthy read, particularly for American Christians.

Though published in 2003, there is still plenty of value in the thought-provoking ideas presented within these pages, and certainly their research is still relevant. The sociological and historical analysis of racial segregation in American congregations presented here is worth the price of the book. In addition, one can appreciate the accessibility, tone, and clarity with which the authors handle the subject and, in my estimation, they convincingly support their thesis: “Christian congregations, when possible, should be multiracial.”

The tension at the intersection of our ever diversifying culture and the pervasive homogeneity of American churches is not going away. But the question remains: will American Christians and churches embrace the eschatological vision of all nations gathered around the throne of God, allowing that future reality to refashion our present pursuits, passions, and policies? I commend United By Faith to all who need a clearer understanding of the dynamics involved in advancing the multiracial vision of Christ within their own local church. This book will serve as a helpful guide, providing rich insights for individual and community reflection.