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 cross.
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 you know.