The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation

By Jacqueline J. Lewis and John Janka. Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. 114 pages. $13/paperback; $10/eBook.

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Jacqueline Lewis and John Janka wrote The Pentecost Paradigm to help committed faith leaders and their communities work intentionally and strategically to remove racial barriers within their congregations. The authors are cofounders of the Middle Project, a training institute that prepares ethical leaders for a more just society. Lewis is also the senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church, a congregation in the East Village in New York City that has become multiethnic and multicultural, and works diligently to stay that way.

The authors title the process they are describing as “the Pentecost Paradigm” based on the account in the second chapter of Acts of how a linguistically and culturally diverse gathering of Jews all heard about God’s power on earth in ways they all could understand.

Overall themes in this slim volume are intentionality; reliance on storytelling to understand oneself and one’s faith community; and taking inventories of available assets, constraints, and actions. Worksheets are provided for readers (preferably in company with other committed congregational leaders) to think through their circumstances and plan their work.

The authors lay out five stages, which do not necessarily happen in the order listed. Stage one is “Awareness and a Growing Sense of Call.” Identifying our reasons for doing this work is the first task. One reason could be simply wanting to address the virus of racism and the harm it causes. Another might be not wanting the faith community to be identified almost exclusively with a declining U.S. demographic group. A desire to immunize the congregation against the harm and pain that racism causes could be a reason as well. For some of us, it may be important to follow the example of Jesus and the first-century Christian church. Also, a multiracial congregation could make its social justice work more effective. Once those reasons are understood, it is easier to formulate our vision.

Stage two is “Steps toward Readiness.” A vision needs to be “cast” just as a play is cast to determine who will perform it. Also important is identifying individual, community, and strategic resources that are available to realize the vision. The authors set out a six-step process for involving the entire congregation in developing a vision to become a multiracial faith community. They also describe and provide a worksheet for what they call a “force field analysis” documenting “driving forces” that may be moving the congregation toward change and “restraining forces” that are inhibiting that change.

One chapter is devoted to case studies on the inevitable resistance to change and thoughts on how to respond to it constructively. Another chapter addresses the congregation’s identity. It begins with a focus on understanding how the congregation is perceived by neighbors and other outsiders and then describes how congregations can work to shape their identity.

In addressing stage three, “Leading for Strategic Change,” the authors describe skills that congregational leaders need to have or to develop. These include self-knowledge, self-awareness, and knowing U.S. racial history. Those doing this work need to be willing to take risks, speak out, and be both a student and a teacher. They also need to be regularly training new leaders.

With respect to stage four, “Dealing with Disorientation or Disequilibrium,” the authors recommend developing a “behavioral covenant” for how the congregation will address inevitable conflict. They also urge congregational leaders to be trained in how to work with conflict.

Once a congregation approaches stage five, “Achieving 20 Percent Nonmajority Critical Mass,” continuing to be multiracial requires sustained intentional effort. The authors describe how to use storytelling and careful listening to keep the congregation moving forward. They conclude with a discussion of community organizing and collaborating with outside groups to address systemic racism and to make the congregation’s multiracial identity known to the larger community.

In elaborating on their recommendations, the authors rely heavily on Lewis’s experience in her own congregation, which has a large paid staff. When considered as a whole, following everything prescribed seems daunting and may lead Friends to dismiss it as beyond our capacity. I hope we will resist that temptation and instead be open to exploring just how much we can accomplish with the resources we do have. To paraphrase Robert Browning, our reach exceeds our grasp, else what’s a heaven for?

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