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A Journey of Dis-Empowerment:

By Susan Stevenson.

Two stories and some questions

For the last 18 years I have lived and worked as pastor of a south LondonBaptistChurch. Currently, among a congregation of 200 or so, we have about thirty different nationalities and many more different cultures. At times it's been tough: constantly negotiating difference and seeking to interpret people to one another is exhausting. So why do it? Why keep battling on, when less diverse situations seem to thrive?

A story that inspires

the Azusa Street Revival.  [1]

In May 1870, in the bayou country of Centerville, Louisiana, William Joseph Seymour was born. In this centre of Ku Klux Klan violence, as a black man, any education Seymour got, he found for himself. As soon as he could, he left the south in search of greater freedom and by 1906 he was in Los Angeles, serving as a pastor and preacher.

These were times of intense spiritual searching, and in April of that year a spiritual breakthrough occurred in the prayer group Seymour led. One of the group, Edward Lee, "burst forth in ecstatic speech." That same evening in the larger prayer service, the whole meeting "was swept to its knees amid an outpouring of tongues and sudden joy." Such was the beginning of the Azusa Street Revival, the fountain-head of a world-wide Pentecostal explosion, to which many in the modern-day Pentecostal movement trace at least part of their origins.

Yet Azusa Street was never primarily about tongues and supernatural phenomena. "Rather, it was about the birth of a revolutionary new type of Christian community." In a segregated and racist society, the Azusa Street Revival created "an all-inclusive fellowship that broke racial, gender and nationalistic barriers. In so doing it offered the world a historic opportunity for genuine healing and reconciliation. As one journalist who chronicled the events of Azusa Street exclaimed, "The 'color-line' was washed away in the blood".

Seymour himself connected what was happening at Azusa Street with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, where the result was a reversal of Babel, a God-given reconciliation between nations, races and cultures. In December 1906 he wrote, "The people are all melted together made one lump, one bread, all one body in Christ Jesus." In those early years, large numbers of white leaders also came. Indeed, probably never before had any such leadership flocked into the church of a black pastor.

But Seymour's story does not have a happy ending. Seymour needed white partners in the leadership of such a movement; in such a dominant white society there were some things a black leader simply could not accomplish. However, like Martin Luther King and others, he was deeply disappointed in the lack of positive response, and eventual rejection, by many of his white brother ministers.

Charles Parham was a well-known white evangelist and Bible teacher of the day. Seymour invited him to Los Angeles, hoping he would assume a leading role with Seymour and others in guiding the movement. Parham did indeed go to Los Angeles, but, steeped in the culture of the south, he just couldn't cope with the racial inter-mingling he saw there. Instead of working with Seymour, Parham took between 200 and 300 of Seymour's followers and opened up a rival campaign at a nearby hall. Gradually the white leadership found reasons to remove themselves from Azusa Street. They could live with ecstatic experiences of the Spirit, but not with the revolutionary inter-racial fellowship that followed from it.

Richard Foster writes: "Some have suggested that Seymour's decline was due to limited or weak leadership. Yet the real reason for his decline lies in precisely the opposite direction: his leadership was too effective, too successful. He had called for an all-inclusive community of loving persons beyond the colour-line. In 1906, Seymour's way was a direct challenge to the prevailing white supremacy For this reason, and this reason alone, Seymour was rejected and forgotten by the movement he created."

A story that continues

The story of William Seymour, which we first discovered about five years ago, has become special for some of us here at ChatsworthBaptistChurch, because it helps us interpret our own story as a church and read it in a wider context.

ChatsworthBaptistChurch was founded in West Norwood in 1878, one of a series of churches sponsored around a growing metropolis by C H Spurgeon. The original building was destroyed in September 1944 by a V2 rocket, which landed on the spot where, in the new building, the pulpit was later erected. Chatsworth has always been a church with a big heart and a wide vision. D J Hiley, minister from 1907 to 1925, appears in 1909 on the same billing as F B Meyer, John Clifford, J H Shakespeare and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a protest against the outrages in the Congo. I am also pathetically proud of a photograph from the late 50s of two little African Caribbean boys, resplendent in jackets and short-trousers, among the Sunday School class whose cups, judging from the action-shot, were then 'full and running over.'

The story is told of a deacon of the church who, in those years, worked for an Estate Agent in nearby Brixton. This deacon got a reputation at work for being 'good' with the new families arriving from the Caribbean. He was drafted in to help one young couple, recently arrived, to find a house. A few years later, when they needed a larger house for their growing family, they remembered that man. He found them their second home, in the expanding West Norwood. Children and grandchildren of both the deacon and the home-buyers, are still active at the heart of the church.

By the time my husband, Peter, now Director of Training at Spurgeon's College, and I arrived as Joint Pastors at the beginning of 1990, the church had been through some hard times. Social change had led to many of the middle class young families moving out of the area for work, affordable housing or decent schooling. The church had been for over three years without a pastor and the congregation was ageing, demoralised and declining.

At that time we did a projection, which predicted that if the current rate of decline continued, by 2007 we'd have minus 50 members. The congregation was predominately white, with a number of black members, mainly African Caribbean, who tended to sit towards the back. They were people mainly of a generation which was comfortable with power being in the hands of white people. 

Now in 2007, we have a membership of nearly 200, with a pastoral list of over 350 adults who look to us as 'their church'. Of the 28-30 different nationalities, we are approximately 1/3 African Caribbean, 1/3 African of different nationalities, and 1/3 the rest of us, including various European, Latin American and Asian nationalities, as well as British. The diaconate of fifteen are equally split male and female (7 and 8), range in age from late 20s to early 60s, and include two Nigerians, one Ghanaian, one Ugandan, one Angolan, one South African, five white British, three African Caribbean and one New Zealander. In recent years we've also planted a Spanish-speaking Latin American congregation who use the same building for services and activities.

New people arriving at Chatsworth habitually find three words to describe us. We are diverse, not just ethnically but socially; we are complex; and we are challenging. We're a church where everyone is a minority and where we're all a bit outside our comfort zone a lot of the time.

Observers of multi-cultural churches tell us that once a church becomes 80% black, they usually fairly quickly become almost exclusively black. We have experienced some 'white flight', as people come and see too many black faces and a woman Pastor, and go in search of somewhere where they feel 'more comfortable.' We've also experienced black rejection, because we're not loud enough or expressive enough: we're not like 'back home'!

So how does a church like ours hang together? By working hard at relationships; by seeking to model our diversity, not least in worship, but also in every other way we can imagine; by journeying together and breaking through stereotypes and caricatures; by having a biblical vision;[2] by gaining a reputation for being welcoming to all; but supremely by a daily, weekly miracle of God. Week by week people come together to worship God who have pretty much nothing else in common, except that they know, love and seek to follow Jesus Christ, and know His call upon their lives. 

We are acutely aware that only God's Spirit can make church happen. However, it also happens because God's Spirit enables people to be willing to make what at times is an uncomfortable journey together.

A Journey of Dis-Empowerment

A couple of years ago the Baptist Union organised a conference on multi-cultural church, 'Leadership in a Mixed-Up World'. Organised by the Racial Justice Department, it was led almost exclusively by black pastors and Christian leaders. Eight of our deacons attended the day, and it was interesting to listen to their responses. Those who were white came away feeling quite uncomfortable. "We came away feeling guilty that we were white", they said. It seems that when black Christians are empowered, white Christians feel as if they're being dis-empowered. 

This initially made me want to pay tribute to those long-standing white members of our church who have been willing to take an uncomfortable journey with us over these last years. Yes, it is probably good for those of us who are born with more power than we realise, simply by being white, to experience a bit of what it's like for others. However, dis-empowerment isn't comfortable, and they could have fled from it. I honour them for not doing so.

But then I realised that actually, in a multi-cultural church, all cultures need to be willing to live with the discomfort of some degree of dis-empowerment. Perhaps when you haven't had much power, it's even harder to let go of what you've got and to make that journey. So I honour them equally.

I often say that one of the things I love about Chatsworth is that we have no pretensions. We know that we're very flawed, often-failing Christians, who have an extraordinarily gracious God. It is humbling and awe-inspiring to recognise that God lives in and with and through such ordinary people as we know ourselves to be. We don't pretend to have spiritual giants among us except we do have spiritual giants don't we? What greater spiritual giants can there be, than those who are willing to experience the discomfort of dis-empowerment?

All these stories leave me with some questions -

        How much is power an issue in our being church, and in our relating together as churches, given that power isn't something we realise we have until we're losing it, or in danger of losing it?

        How do different cultures perceive and handle power, and what does the Gospel have to say to us in this?

        How much is the Atonement the story of God being willing to experience dis-empowerment?

        In a world where the centre of gravity in terms of world-wide Christianity is shifting to the global south,[3] what does the future look like?  And what does that mean for all of us?

Conclusion

'..mission is not primarily about going. Nor is mission primarily about doing anything. Mission is about being. It is about being a distinctive kind of people, a countercultural, multinational community among the nations. It is modelling before a sceptical world what the living God of the Bible really is like.'[4]

The supreme question is about how we discern what God is doing in all this, and how we co-operate with Him in that. And that's a question we can only begin to explore together. I wonder how many of our lesser agendas we're willing to give up to ask that question..........

[1] For this whole section I am deeply indebted to Richard Foster's 'Streams of Living Water', (HarperCollins, London, 1999)

[2] e.g. Galatians 3: 28  Revelation 7: 9 & 10  Luke 6: 13 - 16

The drawing together of a community of people including Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Collaborator.

[3] 'Over the past century, the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably Southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.'

Philip Jenkins The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: OUP, 2002)

 [4] Vinoth Ramachandra The Message of Mission p123

Susan Stevenson

Minister of Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood

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You are reading A Journey of Dis-Empowerment: by Susan Stevenson, part of Issue 40 of Ministry Today, published in July 2007.

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