“Wait, I have to pull over for this.” It was 8:30 on a weeknight, and I was fresh out of my Christian college bubble whispering things I’d never confessed to my closest friends to the editor-in-chief of a popular Christian magazine. Were we really allowed to talk this way? In the dark? On the phone? In a car?
Do you think racism is still a problem in the American Church?
In your Christian circles, have you ever been the victim of racist attitudes?
I sat speechless hoping he wouldn’t notice if I didn’t say anything right away. I knew he was writing a book on racial reconciliation, but did he want to tell the real story? Did he want me to lie and say racism wasn’t a problem, or tell him the truth?
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Finally, I blurted out an eager, “Yes! Racism is still a problem.” Secretly I wondered when someone would jump out of the bushes to tell me I just got “punk’d”—minorities aren’t allowed to complain about their role in the Church. But, the reality is that even within our most progressive and contemporary evangelical circles, minorities are still marginalized.
One particular incident from my past has heavily impacted the way I see the disease of racial imbalance infecting the North American Church. During my sophomore year at a Christian university in Southern California, I overheard a conversation between our chapel leader and a group of his friends. He was discussing a few complaints he received from various students on campus about the format of our required chapel services. Many felt chapel lacked diversity, and as they were unable to worship Christ according to their unique cultural styles, they felt excluded and spiritually frustrated. The chapel leader, with whom I was loosely acquainted, complained to his friends, “What does it matter? They should be able to worship God no matter what the style. It’s not about them; it’s about Him.”
I realize what he was getting at—the rampant existentialist posture with which our contemporary Church approaches God. I get it. I am also certain he didn’t realize the discriminatory implications of his statement. However, I can’t help but feel that he, and others who have expressed similar sentiments, is missing the point entirely. When a minority complains of conforming to worship styles and forms, the issue is not one of preference, it is one of purity.
In the typical evangelical church, we follow conventions that tend to be more compatible with mainstream, Caucasian culture. From the guitar-lead songs to the three-point sermon, the many churches do not make room for cultural variance. My intention is not to argue against these conventions. Even as an African-American female, I love the David Crowder Band, and I was raised in the Purpose Driven Ministries of Saddleback Church. I value these methods and find them so helpful to enter into worship. My focus is on the conventional nature of these activities. In themselves, the conventions we use in church are not Christianity, and they are useful only to the degree to which they allow us to give honor and glory to God. When we sing a Jars of Clay song, the song itself is not the worship. The song is a tool allowing us to enter into worship on a metaphysical and spiritual level. True communion with God is deeper and far more intimate than singing along to words on a screen.
For the minority whose culture may value and encourage qualities that directly oppose the qualities valued by the predominant Christian culture, corporate worship may often feel frustrating. The issue is a lack of authenticity. For example, within my own culture, certain attributes are valued more than others. Community is heavily esteemed, personal or subjective experiences often teach more than facts, and time is viewed as fluid. For this reason, many African-American churches will run two to three hours in length, involve a great deal of singing and rejoicing and lack an overt structure. Culturally, I can relate to these methods of worship, and because I value these motivations for the service, my worship to God feels stronger in these settings. I believe I am giving more honor to Him in services where my general values are reinforced than I would in an alternative setting. Neither is better or worse; they are simply different.
So where do we go from here? If authentic worship can only happen when the style is compatible to the culture, is a segregated church the answer? Have we reached an impasse with integration?
The answer is no. On the contrary, today I am more hopeful than ever. Our generation is uniquely equipped to inject ethnic diversity into worship. Think about it. We are a generation bred on the clash of cultures and synergy of styles. We grew up with a black man playing golf and a white man winning a Grammy for best rap album. We all drink Boba, do yoga and can count to 10 in at least one other language. We are perfectly poised to take on the task of integrating our churches.
And to me, the thought is thrilling. In essence, we are entering a state that is closer to the biblical prophecy of what worship will look like in heaven. No culture will be left behind, and all will bow before God shouting His name in their own tongue. Our call today is to be intentional in aggressively knocking down the walls of racial segregation within the Church. We must rid ourselves of anything that would divide and keep us from pushing one another closer to God.