Our family would take regular road trips to visit relatives in the “low country” of South Carolina just past the Francis Marion National Forest. I was just a young kid back then, but I remember hearing the “n-word” whispered from the mouths of older white folks at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The word seemed more shocking when it rolled effortlessly off the tongue of a church-going white Southern belle. Regardless of who said that word, the tone was always horrifyingly the same: Vulgar, condescending and hate fueled. Even as a child, I remember my breath being taken away by the venom and malice with which the word was applied: “Those (n-word) are ruining the town.” …. “I hate those (n-word) that moved in next door.” … “There was a (n-word) talking to me at the grocery store.” Segregation may have ended but the social circles remained unchanged as whites and blacks largely ate, shopped and worshipped at different places. Black BBQ joints and white BBQ joints. I vividly remember hearing several adults telling the story of a church splitting because a black family asked to join the church.
The recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri remind me that America hasn’t really progressed much over my lifetime in terms of racial reconciliation. If we need any evidence that we’re still largely segregated as a society, we need to look no further at our local churches. On March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, jr. famously preached at the National Cathedral that “we must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” Nearly 50 years later, our churches are no less segregated than during the civil rights movement. According to the 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, researcher Michael Emerson and Christian Smith determined that “ninety percent of all American churches are 90 percent racially homogenous.”
The segregation in our Christian worship is often tied to a dark denominational history. The dirty open secret of the Southern Baptist Convention (my denomination) is that its formation was largely based on a pro-slavery position in the 1840s. The SBC also held a pro-segregation position and opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The first steps of racial reconciliation amidst the SBC were only recently taken in 1995 when the SBC formally renounced slavery and segregation. Only 150 years too late. The Southern Baptist hope (including mine) is that the election of Rev. Fred Luter, Jr. as the first black SBC president represents a historic turnaround from its segregationist past. Nonetheless, a 2002 report of the SBC North American Mission Board determined that the typical Southern Baptist worshipper overwhelmingly remains a middle class white person. For all of the discussion of racial reconciliation in our denomination, our Southern Baptist churches are only 4% black. The same 2002 NAMB report takes the train to obvious town when it matter-of-factly states that “Southern Baptists are less diverse than worshipers as a whole and less diverse than the U.S. population.”
Even worse, our churches die over issues of race. In Thom Rainer’s recent book on church death, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, the researchers determined that one of the principal reasons why churches die is “the church refused to look like the community.” As a pastor, I’ve heard this tale more times than I can count: A formerly suburban white church becomes surrounded by a racially diverse community and struggles to survive. When I lived in Fort Worth, TX, I served on staff of a church wrestling with this very issue. A church split served as the impetus for the church’s formation. The largely white church bought an empty field in the suburbs to erect a church building. Over time, the other empty fields around the church were filled with largely hispanic neighborhoods, middle schools and multi-lingual shopping centers. One by one, the older white founders of the church began to leave the church. After hitting rock bottom, the church began to make a turnaround by reaching out to the multi-racial middle class families surrounding the church. Unfortunately, the church ultimately died for a variety of reasons. This church is not an oddity … And the fact that churches are shuttering the doors and turning off the lights simply because the racial composition of the community changes is telling.
Our consumer attitude towards church life only reinforces the racial divide in our churches. Most reliable SBC research will tell us that the unchurched choose things like the pastor, doctrine and church friendliness when picking out a new church to attend. But most research doesn’t ask what we already intuitively know: Most people choose to live in neighborhoods and worship at churches that racially look exactly like them (again, see the 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America). People want churches that reflect their neighborhoods and personal preferences. In the end, that’s what the recent “worship wars” that plagued our Southern Baptist churches were really all about. “Worship wars” was really about homogeneity in tradition and not really about music.
To a large extent, I think that most white Christians are comfortably numb to how racially segregated our churches are. We don’t bat an eye at the notion of separate black and white churches, because that’s just how things are. We don’t find it odd that our church pews look exactly like us. Or that two different worship services two blocks away look completely different. Or that we even use different terminology about worship. When I was called to serve at my current church, an African American friend told my wife: “That’s great! You’re going to be the ‘first lady’!” Neither one of us had any idea what she was talking about. We discovered that we even had two completely different vocabularies for Christian worship.
I ran across an article yesterday on AL.com discussing how a predominantly white Southern Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama had hired a black pastor to lead them. The headline of the article was (and I quote): “A black preacher at a white Southern Baptist Church — surprising, but God’s leading, Southside leaders say.” The word “surprising” made me cringe. The fact that the content of this article is even newsworthy seems crazy.
As long as we are planting, revitalizing, re-planting and attending churches that are racially homogeneous, I wonder whether we are really mirroring Paul’s mindset in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And if we’re taking Galatians 3:28 to heart, racial diversity in our churches should not be treated like a curiosity piece that we press our noses to the glass to take a good look at. Just thinking out loud here: If we really believe that we are one in Christ Jesus, do our churches reflect that belief? If the Heavenly choir will be composed of members of every tribe and every tongue, maybe our churches should reflect that Heavenly reality. As long as “all are precious in His sight” is treated as the juvenile lyric of a children’s song instead of a core Biblical truth, our churches have more work to do.
In 2010, I was called to pastor a church in Martinsville, Indiana. When I was called to service, I had no idea that the town had a reputation for being a “sundown town,” meaning a town unwelcome to blacks after dark. The reputation was largely reinforced by the 1968 death of Carol Jenkins, a black door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman murdered on the streets of Martinsville with a screwdriver. In 1998, ugly racial epithets and violence in a local basketball game between Bloomington and Martinsville received national attention in Sports Illustrated. In 2002, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote an extensive report of the legacy of racism in our town. Most residents balk at the “sundown town” label as an unfair stereotype. If it’s simply a bad reputation, somewhere in time the reputation stuck. Our town of 11,500 people only had 24 black residents according to the 2010 U.S. census. We are an island in the midst of a sea of growing racial diversity in Indiana.
I don’t want our community to be an island. And I’m proud that our church has racial diversity in its attendance. But I’m not satisfied. My hope and prayer is for more racial diversity in our congregation. And my prayer is that believers throughout Martinsville will stand up to oppose any known racism in our community:
Too often, I think that white churches take the passive approach to racial reconciliation: “If a black person walked through the doors of the church, we’d treat him no differently than anyone else.” Well, that’s swell. How are we actively seeking to promote racial diversity in our churches? If we’re just waiting for diversity to walk through our foyer and blend in to our stale pipe organ hymns, diversity in our white churches will probably never happen. But if we seriously consider Christ’s commands to go out of our literal and figurative sanctuaries to make disciples and to lay down our man-made worship traditions at the foot of the cross, diversity will flourish because the heart of every man needs Christ.
My prayer is a new discourse about race will lead to a renewed burden for racial diversity to begin in our local churches. I am burdened for mine.