In their study of race and American Christianity, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith observed that 90 percent of American churches are 90 percent composed of people of the same race. Brenda Salter McNeil helps churches beat the odds. With her colleagues at Salter McNeil and Associates, she works intensively with congregations and institutions that want to make a successful transition to multiethnic leadership and membership. In such an intrinsically countercultural line of work, hopefulness and a sense of humor are priceless assets, and Brenda possesses both in abundance. In this response to our year-long exploration of the question, How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?, Brenda outlines some reasons cultural isolation is no longer viable for Christians who want to serve a society where soon no ethnic group will be a majority.
In 1986, I discovered that the world was changing. That year my husband and I traveled to England, along with a team of seminary students and pastors from Fuller Theological Seminary, to lecture at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies on the history of the black church in America.
Then as now, the Church of England was facing unprecedented institutional challenges and numerical decline. Beautiful gothic churches were closing their doors as places of worship and being used as office spaces, turned into libraries, or simply left vacant. The staff of the Oxford Centre, convinced that these changes were occurring in part because of urbanization, wanted to learn from churches that thrived in these conditions. They had discovered that the black church in America excelled at dealing with the challenges of the urban environment, growing strong, vibrant churches ...1