The always-challenging Efrem Smith recently pointed out the "missional" movement's whiteness:
[T]he missional church conversation is mainly a European-American conversation and to this degree is presented as if the European-American Church is the pioneer of missional ministry in the [U.S.]. I also have an issue with the lack of focus on issues of justice and racial righteousness that is avoided in much of the missional conversation. But, what is really troubling, is that the Black Church and the Urban Church in the [U.S.] is ignored as the true pioneering and Christ-centered forces behind a historic and present model of the Missional Church. Ignoring these church models makes it seem as if an emerging generation of European-American evangelicals discovered a missional approach to ministry through theologians such as Bishop Leslie Newbigin.
A main reason for ignoring black churches is white evangelicals' complicated, uncomfortable history with their black neighbors. We don't come to a historically-neutral table, even if many white evangelicals claim "It's not my fault, I'm not a racist! I wasn't alive in the 1950's and '60's!"
The circumstances behind the creation of the white suburban middle class shouldn't be ignored if white suburban Christians want to be missional. And, once white suburban Christian realize they should partner with Christians of color rather than exclusively with whites, the suburbs' history still can't remain unacknowledged.
The mass migration from urban areas between the mid-1950's and the 1970's was largely fueled by white privilege, economic injustices, and institutional racism. As a white suburban Christian myself, I wish more of us acknowledged the ugly past that formed our residential and worship communities.
Anecdotally, I know many white families moved from "the city" to the mostly white town I grew up in when city schools were de-segregated. White parents did not want their children attending schools with black children, so part of my town's growth was fueled by racist responses to integration.
On a broader scale, only the economically privileged had the wherewithal to move to suburbs. Initially, living in suburbia necessarily meant commuting back to the city for work, so an automobile was a must. And newly-constructed highways cut into urban neighborhoods, whose residents lacked political connections to fight the construction. Such an imposition "was a traumatic and oppressive event for the people uprooted by the highway's swath."1 I've discussed the conspiracy behind the beginnings of our "car culture," which suburbia depends on.
Suburbia wasn't only fueled by injustices, but it perpetuated racial and economic inequality. Racially restrictive covenants in deeds prohibited white buyers from renting or selling to blacks, which made many suburban areas racially homogeneous and kept many blacks from pursuing the economic mobility that whites enjoyed.
What does the church have to do with the history of the suburbs? Willow Creek, Saddleback, and countless less prominent churches saw corresponding growth by virtue of their suburban location. This growth, and megachurches' later influence in evangelicaldom, is not neutral.
When many well-meaning suburban churches approach the "inner-city" or their low-income suburban neighbors to minister to them, many use simplistic, individual-level solutions that ignore the very reasons behind poverty.
There's nothing wrong with feeding the homeless, conducting toy drives, or renovating a blighted home, but I would love to see recognition of past harmful structural forces. Maybe then the church can creatively come up with solutions beyond the individual level. I like what Shane Claiborne describes here - while still an individual-level response, it allowed a suburban congregation to serve inner-city folks in a dignity-preserving way. Smith himself provided suggestions yesterday for churches seeking to be missional.
Also, it's disingenuous to benefit from suburban growth--growth fueled by institutional racism--to enjoy the benefits of participating in an economically-successful Christian movement, and then to turn around and expect our black fellow Christians to simply start over with a clean slate.
It seems disingenuous to expect to effectively evangelize or serve low-income populations and/or people of color while ignoring the privilege from which white suburbanites benefit.
It seems odd, too, that it rarely occurs to white suburban churches, when they want to focus on the Gospel's economic-justice facets, to partner with black churches, even though black churches have been articulating these facets for years. (I recognize white suburbanites and black Christians are not monolithic, but use these designations for the sake of critiquing evangelicalism's general historical naivete and homogeneity).
Listening to and joining with a marginalized group, which has often articulated the justice-seeking heart of the Gospel better than white evangelicalism has done, is an important step in addressing historical and current injustices. It will be more crucial as suburbs become less racially and economically homogeneous. The poverty rate in the suburbs is on the rise, so the traditional urban-suburban divide is fading.
Rather than moving even further out to the exurbs or simply shuttering their doors, it would be exciting if white suburban churches acknowledged they benefited from a history of racial and economic injustice. It would also be exciting if these churches determined not to repeat past mistakes, and resolved to face present-day changes in the suburbs head on.
1 Kevin Douglas Kuswa, Suburbifcation, Segregation, and the Consolidation of the Highway Machine, 3 J. L. Society 31, 45 (2002).
Photo credit - 1st photo (Map of Chicago. Red dots = white population, blue dots = black population)