Like it or not, perception matters and it is often formed by experience

I remember when the story first emerged regarding Judah Adunbi. For those who don’t know, Adunbi worked as a race relations officer in Bristol, seeking to improve relations between the police and the local Black community. Which begs the question why the police decided it was a good idea to taser him as he tried to enter his own house!

If you are offended by bad language, don’t watch the below video. But it bears watching for a few reasons I will expand on shortly.

The story has come back into the news because – as if that video weren’t bad enough – the police have gone and done it again. Only this time, instead of tasering the man, the police officers harassed him. Despite obviously knowing who he was, not least given that video has been widely circulated and I’m fairly sure the police would have been made to watch it to avoid that sort of embarrassing thing happening again, the officers decided to question him again and laugh about doing so. You can read the report here.

Anybody could pass off the first encounter as a case of mistaken identity. That would, in no way, undercut the disproportionate reaction from the police tasering an unarmed man, not being violent, trying to get into his own house. But to do it a second time, when the man is obviously known to you, rather hints at the underlying racism that many presume (not least the Judah himself) was behind what went on.

I am reminded of the comments from a recent episode of Question Time

You can read my comments on that video here. I am similarly reminded of the comments, from members of my church, who recall the signs in local shop windows reading ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish.’ The church needs to be aware of these things going on in our communities.

I have made the point before, but it bears repeating again, when people are coming into our churches having faced these sorts of experiences – or knowing all too well that family members and others face these experiences – we need to be careful about getting defensive when those same assumptions are made about us. Here is what I said in my previous post following the Question Time video:

In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether we think Britain is characterised by racism and xenophobia or not. What does matter is how the people coming into our churches perceive things. If their perception of Britain is that the country is xenophobic and racist, and potentially our churches by extension, then we need to take that seriously. Simply rebuffing their perception, or offering figures to suggest they have it wrong, is perhaps not going to incline them to the gospel. If they are faced by majority white, middle class churches with exclusively white middle class leadership teams, we are inevitably going to be starting from behind on this issue irrespective of how woke and right on we are trying to be. It doesn’t matter whether our church is racist and xenophobic (I trust it isn’t), we have to be prepared for the fact that we might be perceived that way based on our culture, style of music, leadership teams and any number of other measures.

Imagine Judah Adunbi walks into your church. He has just faced the police tasering him, despite the fact he wasn’t being violent and he works with the police. He is working between the police and black community to try and improve relations and even he gets harassed and tasered. He then wanders into your church full of white people, almost entirely middle class to a man, and perceives the culture and makeup of your church is entirely alien to him. What presumptions do you suspect he might make?

Those presumptions may be entirely untrue (I don’t know, it’s your church!) But if we are entirely unaware of those potential presumptions, we may insist we’re different and our place isn’t like that, but we may just find our defensiveness mirrors the response of the police any time they are accused of the same. What is more, those presumptions may mean that we don’t even get the opportunity to be defensive or even show them by our actions that we are different. It is entirely possible someone coming with those experiences wouldn’t hang around long enough to be dissuaded. If they sense yours isn’t a place for people like them – and experience tells them that large groups of white people together rarely works to their good – if it were you, would you stick around?

The point here isn’t to suggest that your church may be tacitly racist. I’m in no position to say one way or the other. I hope it’s not. The point is that whether your church is tacitly (or overtly) racist or not, we need to accept that our culture, makeup and profile of people ever let near the front of a service may compound the presumption that you are. If people have that presumption reinforced before we’ve had any chance to convince them otherwise, what hope have we got of reaching them with the gospel and expecting them to stick around? We can decry those presumptions and insist on their wrongness all we like (hopefully rightly) but we have to accept that people’s perception of what we are and what we’re like matters otherwise we’ll never get an opportunity to share the gospel with them – they’ll be off before their presumptions can prove true.

We need to ask ourselves these sorts of questions:

  • Does the makeup of our church reflect the area we are in, the people we are trying to reach and the people likely to come in?
  • Does the leadership of the church represent the both the makeup of the church and the people we are wanting and likely to reach?
  • How many different kinds of face and voice do you have in your service? Is it all white, middle aged, middle class men (or, in some cases, man) or do your services welcome a wide range of different voices and faces up front?
  • Is your church culture dominated by one particular voice? If you think your church has no particular culture, that’s probably because you’re part of the dominant culture.
  • Are all different kinds of faces and voices given an equal say in things in your church or not? If not, why not.