Why is the Church So Segregated?
By Brad Bellmore
January 18, 2011
As part of a congregation that set out to be a multiracial church as
we were planted, we ran into significant problems. Despite being planted
by a Latino congregation with a mixed group of people, we grew to
become another white suburban church. We decided to ask some other
pastors in our area and in our denomination how to bridge this gap.
Is There a Problem?
In order to approach and resolve any problem we need to define it.
With that in mind, I asked all the pastors I spoke to what they thought.
How would they define the problem of racial diversity and
cross-cultural ministry within the Church? Is there even a problem? In
1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “At eleven o’clock on Sunday
morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand
at the most segregated hour in this nation.” Would he find enough
change to make a different assessment today? The majority of pastors
responded that Dr. King’s assessment, although improved over 40 years,
still holds true today. A few felt that it had improved significantly
enough that it no longer defined the situation. Those that claimed
improvement felt that we needed to continue to improve. A couple of
pastors made the case that segregation isn’t always a bad thing. People
tend to choose to worship with people with whom they are most
comfortable. Much of the church growth boom in the '80s and '90s relied
on homogeneous groups, the principle of like attracts like. Many people
joined the Church because of this and, hopefully, many of them found
their way to Jesus as well.
As we are trying to decide if there is a problem, perhaps we need to
define what our problem is. What is a racially mixed congregation? Until
we come to agreement on this point, we may never agree about the
problem or its resolution. The most common response was that a church
should reflect its local demographic, that the congregation would have a
decent representation of the neighborhood where it worshiped.
The next most popular answer went along the line of enough people of
various races that a visitor of any race wouldn’t feel different, or
“like a fly on the chowder.” Some were reluctant to set a number. They
felt that if it became a matter of headcount, a goal could be reached
and then the issue could be put away. Others resisted setting numbers to
keep things nebulous. One pastor even stated that such a goal made the
issue too big. The point of the Church is “to bring the Gospel to people
and lead them to Christ. This should naturally lead to a demographic
representation in the congregation as those around respond to the
Gospel.” His concern was that too strong a focus on any issue such as
integration would take the spotlight away from Jesus and His work on the
The first pastor I interviewed told me that he had recently read a
statistic that showed how much integration improved. It used as a
benchmark churches with at least 5 percent of the people attending not
of the majority race. To both of us that seemed ridiculously low.
Certainly 5 percent is considerably better than 0 percent, but claiming a
number like that almost feels like a church is integrated because it
has a token black family. Or Asian, or Latino, or white. Several pastors
gave numbers, ranging from 20 percent of the people not of the primary
race to the largest group being no more than 50 percent. The sense was
that numbers like this felt more integrated and more welcoming to people
of various races. The problem with defining numbers is that we
sometimes forget about people in the process.
Bishop Keith Russell Lee of Destiny Church in Hoffman Estates, Ill.,
says, “If you say you have a church of all one race because your mix is
only one percent or two percent, those in the minority are told that
they are not counted, that they are not present. Perhaps they are
pioneers and you are telling them that their effort is not recognized.”
With that in mind, I have to redefine the church I attend which I
labeled just another white suburban church. That is unfair to the few
people of other races that regularly attend.
Can It Work Here?
The most common reason I heard for not integrating, or the difficulty
in integrating, was demographics. As much as pastors want their
congregations to represent the local demographic, that also limited
their ability to reach out. “There just aren’t that many people of other
races this far from cities,” says Dr. Michael Love, the pastor of
Trinity Baptist Community Church, a large, predominantly black church in
Crystal Lake, Ill. “We get a lot of people attending here, because we
are a commuter church. People come from six counties to worship here.”
That weighed against several churches that claimed to be a local
church without much hope to gather demographics beyond their immediate
neighborhood. The implication from both instances is that one must
travel far to mix with other races. Or, this is really just an urban
option. Granted, demographics do play a certain roll. Churches in a more
rural area may have a harder time gathering people of various races
simply because they are not represented.
The other side of the demographic question is reflected in more
urban areas, like Chicago. Churches there stand mere blocks away and
collect congregations exclusively of one race or another. The situation
usually reflects the neighborhood, where a certain street will define
the boundary between two races or ethnic groups. People may work
together, go to school together, and ride the same train or bus, but
still worship in different places. While we can never impose an
Affirmative Action imperative on how people worship, the need to change
stares us down. A variety of answers were offered on this front. Many
churches partner with churches of other races in attempts to cross this
divide. They held joint services, or did outreach projects together, or
picnicked together on holidays. Sometimes pulpit exchanges accomplished
the same effect.
What We Have Learned?
I think the hardest part of all of this was having these discussions
without using generalizations. Although we head down this road with a
good intent, it is the road that leads to racism and exclusion. We need
careful and generous application of love to avoid this. After all,
generalizations may be generally true, but they are specifically wrong;
they don’t fit everyone and everyone, somehow, doesn’t fit a
generalization. An example of this is one pastor’s attempt to make his
congregation more culturally accepting to blacks. He asked around for
ideas to accomplish this. A congregant told him, “Black people don’t do
Starbucks. We drink juice.” So a selection of juices was added to their
fellowship time after the service. I am uncertain if this generalization
is true, but I do know this: I know white people that prefer juice to
coffee. I also know blacks who enjoy coffee.
Brad Swope, pastor of Horizon Community Church in Calif., discussed
the outreach attempts that churches make to reach other races near them.
Often they bring food or other items of need to the poor in their
areas. “Perhaps when we deliver food we are reinforcing stereotypes," he
says. "Maybe we need to go to their stores and their restaurants so we
can get our food from them." He went on to propose that this approach
allows us to develop natural relationships that lead more easily to
integrating them into our congregations. Many of the black pastors that I
spoke to said they were tired of being apologized to for slavery. It
was a great gesture when initially made, but we need to move beyond
that. One even told me that he asked the white pastor who apologized to
“stop being sorry and come over for dinner.” It never happened.
Love Your Neighbor
One pastor pointed out that merely because we had achieved diversity
in the pews didn’t mean we had achieved integration. Segregation might
still exist. It’s still easy to avoid people of another race. Many
churches have a variety of races represented in the congregation, but
they do not interact outside of church. Some have successfully mixed
racially in a structured environment—small groups, ministry teams,
outreach events. A few churches have held progressive dinners that have
had families of various races meeting at each others' homes to eat.
Steve Nicholson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Christian Church in
Evanston, Ill., says, “It’s easy to think that we are racially open, but
if you aren’t spending social time with people of other races, you’re
not. Invite them over for dinner; get to know them; get to know their
joys and their hurts. When you do that, then you are a body.” This
brings it to a personal level, interacting with people. This moves
beyond the problem with generalizations. It is much easier to hate a
“them” that is unknown. To love someone, it has to be a “you”—someone