Church in Color
Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.
- ISBN: 9781481312219
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: September 2020
There is a significant history of youth work in the Protestant church. For most of that history the church relied on anecdotal evidence to gauge the efficacy of its work with adolescents. As youth work matured, churches learned how to turn research from the social sciences, educational theory, and marketing into both understanding and practical tools for work with adolescents. In spite of a proliferation of academic programs, it was the large publishing and nonformal training pipeline that shaped a youth ministry that was generally theologically thin and entertainment driven. The most strategic criticism of youth ministry even through the early decades of the 2000s, according to Mark Senter (When God Shows Up, Baker Academic, 2010), is that it remains firmly planted within the dominant culture, that is, too white, despite increasing racial diversity. Enter here the very fine work of youth worker turned academic Montague R. Williams and his Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.
Williams’s project is significant for a number of reasons. His work addresses a serious weakness in the youth ministry literature. There just is not a body of work that takes seriously the experiences of youth in multiracial youth ministry. In the early nineties William Myers’ Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry was published (Pilgrim Press, 1991), with a fascinating compare-and-contrast of youth ministry in two congregations, Black and white. Myers was important at the time and in some ways foreshadowed the work of Williams. A little more than a decade later, Evelyn Parker wrote theologically about the problem of hopelessness found in the life stories of twenty African American teenagers from the Chicago area (Trouble Don’t Last Always: Emancipatory Hope among African American Adolescents, Pilgrim Press, 2003). Parker took seriously the experiences of youth. While these and a few other works are helpful, they primarily describe or reflect on youth ministry and race from the view of assuming a homogenous group of youth within a congregation. They point toward the kind of practical theology that Williams does in this work by engaging both the work of theology and the experiences of youth by listening to and relying on the voices of young people in multiracial and multiethnic congregations.
This work is about race, racism, racial identity, and postracialism in the church as experienced by youth and the hope offered by the theological vision of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community. This volume is bookended by a public discourse centered on race: bracketed with the summer of 2014 and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and ending with the public responding to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, giving this book an added layer of depth and significance.
How is an interracial community experienced by youth in the church? And how does Christian discipleship contribute to racial understanding and harmony? These are questions that animate the heart of the book as Williams tells the story of three congregations through ethnographic methods of inquiry. It is this empirical and sociological study of these congregations that yields a kind of practical wisdom that is significant and sets this book apart from most youth ministry literature. Chapter 1 tells the youth ministry story of Beachland Community Church (church names are pseudonyms). The church leaders, who are white, underestimate race and racism’s influence on their students’ lives, and dismiss students’ wonderings and experiences by giving no room for discussion. Chapter 2 then discusses the major finding of the Beachland story, which is the problem of colorblindness leading to inattentiveness with youths’ struggles with racism.
Chapters 3–4 tell the stories of Cityland and Southland Churches, both of which are dominated by postracialism, the sociopolitical belief system that finds colorblindness necessary for the world’s progress. The narrative here is about how youth are concerned about racial violence and struggle with their racial identities, and how the Black youth ministers from both churches leaned into colorblindness implicitly by forgetting the stories of race, racial identity, and racism. Chapter 5 then unpacks postracialism as habitus and aesthetic, and the interconnection of race and racism as anti–Christian discipleship.
This book is further significant because Williams brings theological depth to the experiences of youth and advances appropriate practices for multiracial and multicultural youth ministry. Chapter 6 uses King’s notion of the beloved community as a critical resource. This community is characterized by reframing the power that demands justice and correcting that which stands in opposition to love. It is a countercultural community pushing against racism and poverty. Williams underlines the development of a posture of “somebodiness”(“a recognition that everyone’s whole life matters,” 157) and reframes youth ministry in a multiracial context by pushing past racial colorblindness, rejecting it in a move to raise the critical need for “somebodiness.” Chapter 7 turns to practice and a move from a postracialist framework to an antiracist framework, and to the practices that can be engaged in making that move in a variety of youth and young adult ministry contexts (critical storytelling, collaborative sombodiness, and cruiciform creativity).
William’s contribution to the field is academic in depth, practice oriented, theologically rich, and empirically grounded. There is much here for professor and practitioner alike, and the work is a fine example of growing ethnographic work in the field of practical theology. Recently I was having a beer with a friend, a former student, who was previously a youth pastor, and now has left the church. He was talking about his father, his own story, and how the church has so terribly mistreated indigenous people and just does not seem to understand issues of race. I pulled from my backpack Williams’ book and said, “This is something that might pique your interest.” He thumbed through the book as I paid for our drinks. As we put on our masks to leave he looked at me and said, “This, this here, is hope.” Hope indeed—a hope to remove the lens of racial colorblindness, and a hope to really see the church in color.
John Berard teaches in the sociology department at the University of Winnipeg and is completing a PhD in practical theology at Durham University, UK.John BerardDate Of Review:January 24, 2022