Race is the thing we seem to obsess about these days. That, in part, is because Americans on both sides of the political and religious spectrum have hung their hats on it, either explicitly (on the left) or implicitly (on the right). Looking at the results, the conventional wisdom on the subject has been unhelpful either in righting past wrongs or (more importantly) moving things forward for everyone.
I worked for the International Offices of the Church of God from 1996 to 2010, when my department was abolished. In that time I got a chance to get out and look at this denomination from a broader perspective than most lay people get to do from a local church viewpoint. In the process my idea of many things was changed, from the way church politics really work (I find a great deal of the CW on that subject hard to take) to what it really means to be a part of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural institution that the Church of God is. It’s the latter I want to concentrate on, because what I experience will probably upset some people, as it doesn’t fit with their conventional wisdom.
The Church of God, more so than some other Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God), is a distinctly “Southern” institution. That may seem odd since part of the “heartland” of the church is in the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, which was not a slaveholding region and generally favoured the Union during the Civil War. (In the case of West Virginia, they seceded from Virginia to become their own state). It’s easier to understand the culture if we focus on the ethnic origins of the people: the majority of people in these areas (and other places) are Scots-Irish, and they brought their culture to the church they became a part of.
Now I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog on the subject of the Scots-Irish, with controversy following. The point I want to make on that subject here is that, as my Russian friends would say, the Scots-Irish are a very “specific” people, with some very unique cultural qualities that have moulded the life of the church. Don’t drink alcohol? Best way to deal with serious binge drinking. “Clothesline” religion? A counter to provocative dressing from Colonial times to the days of Andy Capp. Like preachers to holler? The custom from the “old country”. Bringing the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to a people for whom “moderation” was a dirty word was tough, but it was done, and you really have to admire the people who did it.
The Church of God is also a Pentecostal church, and in its early years it reached out both domestically and internationally to the extent its limited resources allowed. It did so to many different types of people, especially black people. At the turn of the last century, this country wasn’t ready for a truly integrated church, and the early Pentecostals found themselves up against it early. In the case of the Assemblies of God, they were set forth by the Church of God in Christ; in the Church of God, a black “church within a church” was started, one which wasn’t officially integrated back into the church until the 1960’s (there are vestiges of this still, such as the situation in Florida).
Outside of the U.S. the usual pattern emerged: Pentecostal churches appealed first to those at the margins of society, and they tended to be non-white. But missions begat missions: as people in the Church of God from places such as the Bahamas (the church’s first mission field), Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and even India began to move to places such as the UK, Canada and the US, they took the church with them, and the countries they came from became (to varying degrees) the “home front”.
This was the situation I found when I came to work. Our department, which was charged with promoting men’s ministries and personal evangelism, would go out to an ethnic kaleidoscope of people and churches. I got to know some really fantastic people with whom I would not have associated with otherwise. It even got humorous at times, when the head of Black Ministries quizzed me down about growing up in Palm Beach. And these people were loyal to our church: they were interested in what we had to offer and welcomed us into their churches and states.
Many of these people had excellent jobs working for either themselves in successful small business or some very large corporations. In 2007 I got to preach in a New Jersey church whose pastor is a medical doctor from Granada. Many of these people had accomplished more in 25 years on these shores than some of my own ancestors did in 250. Now I came from working in a family business where, when you had a customer base, you treated them right and they in turn would treat you right. Since they liked our program, were and are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in many cases had the material success that has become the obsession of Full Gospel churches, it would make sense that they would be encouraged to take a larger role in leading our church.
But just because something makes sense doesn’t mean that’s the way it gets done, especially in this country. To this day the Scots-Irish still dominate the life of the Church of God in a way that belies the multi-ethnic reality of the church, especially if you look at things with a global view. The obvious question now is why.
The first thing to note is that the Scots-Irish don’t self-identify as an ethnic group. They’re just “Americans” or “white”. That means that everyone else are “ethnics” which tends to create a “hub and spoke” concept of ethnicity. This is not a good thing, especially in a Pentecostal church. What many overlook is that white people are not a homogeneous group either. Scots-Irish preachers can talk all they want about being all things to all men, but the peculiarities of Scots-Irish culture mean that focusing on this one ethnic group leads to the neglect and/or alienation of the others. I know of at least one well-known denominational official in another Pentecostal church whose family was driven out of the Church of God when one of our ministers came to the cold country to preach “Southernism” and all that went with that rather than the Gospel. Many of our pastors who are from the North and ministered there had the same tug of war. It was all to easy to allow our churches to become “Southern culture clubs”, which was fine for the Southerners but not so hot for everyone else. But this pattern has been repeated by our other ethnic groups as well.
As a South Floridian who grew up away from the remnants of “cracker culture” in that area, I found myself having more in common with our non-white people than with our white ones. A large part of that is because our non-white people–especially people from the Caribbean–tend to be more urban in outlook than our white ones (Scots-Irish tend to countrify the town and not urbanise themselves when moving there). And the cities, for better or worse, are where it’s at these days.
But another looming reality comes from the history not only of the Scots-Irish but the Celtic peoples who either inhabit or have ancestors in the extremities of the British Isles. In terms of setting their own destiny their interaction with the English put them in one of two positions: either they were completely independent or in abject submission bordering on slavery. As is the case with many things Celtic, there’s no middle ground: the enclosures, the Irish potato famine, the suppression of Roman Catholicism, you name it. That’s why the wars between Irish and English, for example, or between Unionist and Republican in Ulster, are so bitter. In many ways the United States is the Celtic dream come true: free from the English, free to roam and make your own destiny, which is why our elites, who would like a more centralised Anglo-European way, have come to dislike things traditionally American.
That historical memory–something that has outlasted even a good grasp of their origins–drives a great deal of the way the Scots-Irish interact politically and culturally. It explains the reflexive cultural imperialism, the aversion to consider themselves another ethnic group, the tenacity to hold onto power. Having dealt with the “my way or the highway” English for centuries, the idea of sharing it with others–even within the confines of a church called by God’s name not theirs–is hard to take. (The Baptists tipped their hand by calling their recreation of the Confederacy in ecclesiastical form the “Southern Baptist Convention”).
That’s really at work when the Scots-Irish go into “suicide-panic” mode, as they did during 2006-8 in the “Missional Revolt“. What detonated this “Braveheart” event were financial weaknesses at the state and international levels, and there was certainly room for improvement here. (I also found that the biggest difference between government and NGO non-profits was the source and size of funding; the former could waste more because they could coerce more). But another issue was to keep the funding for World Missions, an objective that ultimately failed because cutting the general remission from local churches “upstairs” cut missions as well. It never occurred to these “leading edge” pastors (who were almost all white) that what we needed was not a preservation of the existing system but a paradigm shift where both the source of funds and the distribution of control in the church shifted away from one ethnic group to a more even balance among the church’s constitutive elements.
Given this “the more things change the more things stay the same” attitude towards ethnicity and the life of the church, when my department was abolished in 2010 I took my leave, although I could have put forth an effort to stay in some capacity. One reason why I did not was that I saw no progress on this front from any side. There was no game plan to turn the Church of God into a truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural institution from top to bottom.
A large reason Pentecostal churches grow and others don’t is because Pentecostal churches expand among non-white groups in a way that others don’t. Many want to turn this in to another “moral crusade” but the simple truth is that hindering multi-cultural growth is just plain stupid if we’re serious about expanding our church and fulfilling our mission.
It’s a two-way street though. We should certainly have all of our ethnic groups better represented in the leadership of our church but we also need to realise that all who lead must also in measure contribute to the finances of the church. Getting rid of the “hub and spoke” system of ethnicity must be accompanied by getting rid of it financially. My experience in the Church of God tells me that this is not only possible but in the long run will result in greater resources for God’s work.
And then we will be closer to fulfilling the mission God put us here to do.