Wheaton College, Karen Johnson

Wheaton, Illinois

To study Christians who have historically worshipped together across racial lines, using case studies to explore how thinking Christianly and historically about race’s effect on American worship might help churches foster reconciliation in the present.

Researcher(s): Karen Johnson 
Academic Discipline:  History

Project Summary 

My goal is to study Christians who have worshipped together across racial lines historically, using case studies of interracial churches and Christians working for civil rights from the 20th century United States to explore how thinking Christianly and historically about race’s effect on American worship might help churches foster reconciliation and work for justice in the present.  As I do this, I want to show how systemic racism developed that made the subjects of my study unique.  Ultimately I hope to help foster contemporary conversations by reflecting historically and Christianly on people who did the hard and often uncomfortable work of interracial worship, going against both their cultural contexts and their personal inclinations. 

What questions have you asked about worship in the past year?  

How did church leaders structured interracial worship so that it reached out to a local (black) unchurched population while also ministering to the black and white members of the church? 

What is the significance of white people worshipping under minority leadership, rather than white people welcoming people of color into a majority-white congregation? 

How does offering where you live as an act of worship change your perspective? 

In what ways has or will your project strengthen the worship life of congregations? 

I conducted workshops on chapter drafts with churches in Mississippi, Chicago, and a Chicago suburb, and conducted oral history interviews for my research. he workshops provided a time set apart to think together. People reflected on how they rarely had an opportunity to reflect on the significance of their history and how to address race as Christians today.  We wrestled together with the implications of the narrative I had written, and what it meant for the past and the present.  The workshops gave people a chance to remember.  One workshop participant reflected how she avoided talking African American history with her kids because of the pain, but our discussion made her want to have those conversations because of the freedom she found.   I hope the book does the same. 

 The workshops helped me decide to include discussion questions for each chapter.  My hope is that people will read the published book together and can use those questions to experience a similar time set apart. 

What have been your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)? 

Letting so many other people read my work at such an early stage.  I did not anticipate my resistance to letting so many people read it, but the feedback was valuable and affirming. 

What advice would you like to share with other Teacher-Scholars? 

*Deadlines are a gift (although most people know this already).   

*Writing for a non-academic audience is different than writing for other specialists and it takes practice. Your work matters--keep pushing through when it's hard.  Ask others to pray for you.  Ask God to help the words of your mouth (or fingers) and meditations of your heart be acceptable and pleasing in his sight. 

*The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship team is helpful--I had to change my budget a few times and they were great about it. 

*God will surprise you as you seek to strengthen congregational life with your work--but he's made you for such a time as this. 

*When working with others, schedule early. 

What products will emerge from your project? 

The final product will be a book published by a Christian press.