Thursday, September 18, 2014

Is Segregation in the Church A Serious Problem?

The American church is segregated by race. We have White churches and Black churches, Korean churches and Hispanic churches. In almost all churches, groups of other races are welcome, but a single group dominates the church, gives it its character, and makes it recognizably racialized.

There is no law requiring it. There is no church enforcing it. This has nothing to do with Jim Crow.

In fact, most churches are downright eager to become more diverse.

But the goal remains elusive.

Consider: even if we use a really broad definition of what constitutes a diverse church, only around 3% of American churches are racially mixed over the long term.* A slightly larger number are mixed for a short time as they transition from one group to another. But most of our churches have a single racial group that makes up the vast majority of the congregation.

I suspect that one of the reasons diversity in our churches is so elusive is because it is something that most people support in the abstract, but few churches and church leaders make it an urgent priority.

Is this a problem? Is it sin? Or is it, in fact, just the way things are? Is it an innocuous fact -- no harm, no foul?  Is it God's design?

Does it depend where you live?

If you live in rural Maine, you can hardly be expected to attend a diverse church. It simply isn't possible.

But most of us don't live there. Most of us live in metro areas that are, on the whole, much more diverse than the churches we attend. (Despite the vast rural regions of our country, four out of five Americans actually live in cities or suburbs, where diversity is almost always close at hand). What is our responsibility when diversity is in reach, as it is for most of us? Is racial integration something our church leaders should make a top priority? Is it a nice idea and something we hope for but one that should not get in the way of more important church functions? Or is it not really important at all?

I have a simple premise: Christianity teaches that the racial segregation of the American church is sinful. As such, racial segregation in the church is necessarily harmful, and fixing it is an appropriate concern of every believer. Just as every believer is called to abstain from sins such as lust, pride, anger, and so on, every believer is called to abstain from the sin of worldly divisions. There is a lot more to be said, but that simple premise is more than enough to keep us occupied for now.

Jesus prayed that everyone who would ever believe in him in the future would be united, would be "one" just as he and the father are one. The fascinating thing about this prayer in John 17 is that the purpose of this unity is entirely outward focused: "so that the world may know that you sent me." In a broken world that has always been riven with strife and divisions of all kinds, Jesus intended Christians to come together across those lines of division. This is an act of evangelism. The unity of the church is one of only a handful of ways Jesus said we can practically attest to the truth of the Gospel.

Now, many Christians have spiritualized this prayer into nothingness, in two different ways. First, the prayer is often thought of in the context of doctrinal ecumenism. Christians should agree on a few fundamentals and be willing to cross doctrinal lines in order to maintain the unity of the church. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is not the primary sort of unity about which Jesus prayed. Remember, this is an outward-focused unity. Its purpose is to show the world that the Gospel is true. But internal doctrinal differences are often invisible to those on the outside, if not confusing and irrelevant. Coming together across lines of disagreement that the world does not even recognize has little potential to provoke and amaze the world. We must cross lines of division that the world counts as meaningful. This is where the second means of spiritualizing this prayer into nothingness enters in. Many Christians say, we might worship in different places but the true church is united in spirit. The problem with this second perspective is much the same as the first. This spiritual unity is essentially invisible to those on the outside. As such, how can it be an evangelistic, outward-focused unity? How can it amaze? How can it show the world that Jesus is who he says he is?

The New Testament church came to understand this, though we have forgotten it almost completely. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul urged them to "put to death" their old selves and "put on" the new self given by Jesus. In this new self, Paul admonished, "there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Chapter 3). We can spiritualize this under the rug too, but at grave risk to our souls. We must wrap our minds around the fact that Paul's readers could not have turned this into a vague spiritual point, because he had just named all the starkest divisions in their society. He named groups they disliked. He named ethnic, sectarian, and economic divisions. He told them to stop identifying with one group against another. He told them to be united across the most bitter divisions of their society. 

This was not an isolated commandment. A key subtext of the entire book of Romans is Paul's knowledge that Jewish and Gentile believers are in conflict with one another. He does not simply tell them to get along. He laboriously provides a deep theological grounding for why and how they can be unified. Because if they are not unified, Rome will not be amazed. Because if they are not unified, will the Gospel appear to be true?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounted the story of Peter and other church leaders giving in to worldly divisions and allowing those divisions to rupture the church. What was Paul's response to church leaders who let society's values guide them rather than Jesus's prayer for unity?  He did not think it was merely unfortunate. He did not think it was a distraction from preaching the Gospel. He did not excuse it as just the way things are. He publicly rebuked them for "not acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Chapter 2).

God calls the church in a given society to make a theological statement (singular). But wait, we must be more specific. Many churches seem to think they are simply called to make theological statements (plural). Those churches are hollow, like the "whitewashed tombs" Jesus described. The church is called to embody, to incarnate, a theological statement. Theology that is not first embodied is no theology at all. It will not amaze the world. In fact, it will disgust the world. Jesus came to us. We know God because of the incarnation. Yet the American church wants to pull off a bait and switch that God himself did not dare to try. We want to call people to a Christ who does not appear to solve the most pressing divisions of our society. We want people to be amazed by a disembodied Christ. On the contrary, they are rightfully disgusted. 

When we seek a practical unity that crosses all the barriers of division in American society, we make a theological statement. It is an evangelistic witness that Jesus is who he says he is and can accomplish what he claims. When we do church the way it is normally done in the United States, we simply reproduce the divisions of society at large, and give that society no reason to be amazed. 3% of American churches are racially integrated. Does this have anything to do with the values of the Kingdom? Or does it have everything to do with American society? When was the last time you went to a church where the millionaire and the homeless person worshiped side by side? When was the last time you went to a church that was more welcoming and comfortable for the homeless than for the middle class? How do the values of whiteness and middle classness and upward mobility that dominate our churches fit in with the Kingdom of God? What theological statement are they making? 

How can we break through the complacency and self-satisfaction of an American church that is so far from the heart of God? Our whole pattern of church life and composition blatantly reflects American history, American values, and American social divisions. Yet many well-meaning Christians find little reason to make integration a top priority. We're willing to cast off one of the primary means of being the body of Christ as if it's a stylistic choice. Churches that are eager to "evangelize" often cannot be bothered to embody their message. How can we break through? What will it take? 

In the thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus said that people will know that we are his followers if we love each other. I do not see much love in the American church. I do not see much love in myself. I search my heart and cannot find a good motive. I truly cannot. Am I so much worse than everyone else? Why do we appear so satisfied? Yes, we tend to do a good job loving people in our little congregation in our little corner of the world. We even do a good job of loving people 6,000 miles away! But while we do so we wish to absolve ourselves of all responsibility for why we live and worship where we do, why the people around us are so like us, why the poor in our own country are so far away. We love our congregation in our little corner, while lobbing missiles of misunderstanding and recrimination toward our brothers and sisters in their corners. 

Trayvon. Ferguson. For those of us who long to see a compassionate American church that values Jesus more than whiteness, these were shattering experiences from which we will not recover.

Why do we accept the premise that American society, rather than the values of the Kingdom of God, should structure the biggest decisions of our lives? The segregation of the American church has no theological basis. It is not in the will of God. It is sinful. It reproduces misunderstanding and isolation. It fosters division. It does not amaze the world. It merely shows the world that we are just like them. Though racial segregation in American society has slowly eased a little bit (not by much) Americans are increasingly self-segregating by income and political views. If you're poor, you probably live around a lot of poor people. If you're middle class, you probably live around a lot of middle class people. Will we, the church, join in this trend? Or will we live by the values of the Kingdom? 

In the fourteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, Jesus told a story that the American church desperately needs to hear:
“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
I will leave the last word to Dr. John Perkins. He's a Black man who lost his brother when White policemen in Mississippi murdered him. Perkins got out of Mississippi. But then God called him to go back. He befriended two White pastors, who became convicted that they needed to tell their congregations to love their Black brothers and sisters. Within a short time, both pastors had committed suicide. Such was the strain of fighting against racism. Later, White policemen beat Perkins almost to death as he struggled for civil rights. These experiences caused him to dedicate his life to seeking racial reconciliation among American Christians. In 1982 he wrote a book called With Justice for All. His searing critique of the church might sound angry to you. Or unfair. But it is the critique of  man who loves the church and has given much more for it than most of us.
The only purpose of the gospel is to reconcile people to God and to each other. A gospel that doesn't reconcile is not a Christian gospel at all. But in America it seems as if we don't believe that. We don't really believe that the proof of our discipleship is that we love one another. No, we think the proof is in numbers -- church attendance, decision cards. Even if our "converts" continue to hate each other, even if they will not worship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, we point to their "conversion" as evidence of the gospel's success. We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation.

And how convenient it is that our "church growth experts" tell us that homogeneous churches grow fastest! That welcome news seems to relieve us of the responsibility to overcome racial barriers in our churches. It seems to justify not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from "church growth." And so the most segregated racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself "successful," oblivious to the fact that the dismemberment of the body of Christ broadcasts to the world every day a hypocrisy as blatant as Peter's at Antioch -- a living denial of the truth of the Gospel.

* This statistic is from United by Faith by DeYoung et al. They classified a church as "racially mixed" if no single racial group made up more than 80% of the congregation. That seems to be a generous definition, but even that is met by only 3-4% of churches over the long term.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! (I think enough of my brain is coming back on line that I will be linking to this and your two previous posts; right now my brain is still short-circuiting when I try to think about Ferguson, and not in a good way.)