11AM On Sunday: The Intersection of Ferguson and Church

injustice-filesI can remember the first time I heard the “n-word.”

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.


Keep Your Holy Kissing Hands Off Me: Confessions of an Introverted Former Professional Church Visitor

handshake1I am an introvert. I am also a pastor.

This fact might shock many – particularly my church family – but I assure you that I score completely to the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs personality test. What does mean to be an introvert? Well, it’s not that I have a “deep melancholy” of the soul or weep to Dashboard Confessional tunes encircled by a sea of black candlelight in my basement. Introversion and extroversion are all about energy. While extroverts get energy by engaging a multitude of other people, introverts prefer to recharge and reflect in solitude or alongside one or two other people. To quote Greta Garbo: “I want to be alone.”

How does that mix with being a pastor? Here’s what it’s like to be an introverted pastor:

  • I feel most alone in a gathering of thousands of people, so I’d rather set my hair on fire than go to a retreat or conference.
  • I’d rather be preaching in front of 1000 people than sitting in a crowd of 1000 people.
  • I’m horrible at small talk and I consider networking unproductive fakery (and – no – I probably don’t keep your business cards).
  • Christmas parties and pitch-in luncheons feel like prison cells, and – within 10 minutes – I’m fixing my eyes on the nearest exit door.
  • I need downtime in my personal cave to function. I like to pause and reflect on life and slowly make important life decisions with a Grande Starbucks Pike Place Roast.
  • I like people … But I prefer handling them one at a time or in small groups. I love having coffee with church members, and I’ll probably talk your head off about theology.
  • I’m not shy … I’m not socially phobic … And I don’t have a shell to get out of. I just need alone time to recharge and think.

And as it turns out, I’m not abnormal either. Recent studies show that one-third to one-half of the US population is introverted. That also means that our church pews are filled with introverted believers every single Sunday.

So being an introvert, I wasn’t at all shocked when Thom Rainer’s recent article found that the traditional “stand and greet” time during many worship services was identified as the #1 thing that most first time visitors viciously hated about church. As a new seminary family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, my family visited a lot of churches, because there’s quite literally one on every corner. In visiting a new church every Sunday, there became some church practices that I grew to hate as an introvert worse than water boarding:

  1. The pushy Godfather-esque mob of four or more male ushers blocking the front door to the worship center.
  2. “Guest” name tags. Or – even worse – “guest” ribbons (and I hadn’t gotten a ribbon since 8th grade diving team)! Or being given an easily identifiable fluorescent zebra stipe guest goodie bag. Nothing guaranteed more that I was going to have forced, awkward conversations about daycares, diapers and Mexican food than name tags, ribbons and fluorescent zebra bags.
  3. Middle aged women that literally chase you around an auditorium just to say “hi” and creepily ask whether we planned on having more kids.
  4. Singling out visitors from the pulpit. Or having all visitors stand up. Or having all visitors stay seated. Or – worst of all – having each visitor introduce themselves in front of the entire congregation.
  5. Hugs from strangers. Enough said.
  6. Songs that involve choreography. I love contemporary worship. I was a contemporary worship leader at one time. But I’m not doing the running man during “I Am Free,” making a giant “O” shape during “Happy Day” or interpretively making waves of mercy and grace on my first visit to church.
  7. “Reception time” with the pastor after the service in the “reception room” replete with punch and macaroons.
  8. Sunday School classes that randomly called on people for answers. This was the “kiss of death” guarantee that I’d never, ever darken the doors again.

From this exhausting process, we learned two important lessons that we have carried away to our own church. First, churches are generally great at creating forced times of fake interaction that some church leader probably took straight out of a paint-by-numbers church growth manual (“Unless visitors have five meaningful interactions during worship, they won’t come back!”). Second, church members are pretty unfriendly in their natural habitat. On most Sundays, no one would talk to us as we entered or exited the building except the easy-to-spot “greeters” with wild eyes scanning the crowd. The greeters are the ones ravenously waiting behind the “welcome center” to pounce like a famished tiger on confused, easy prey. We never stood a chance.

So here’s the point: Friendliness and feigned interest are not the same, and most people are intelligent enough to spot the difference. For those of us growing up in the church bubble, we’ve been force fed such fake interaction over the course of a lifetime, so we’re largely inoculated to the insanity. But imagine if you went to Pizza Hut for dinner and suddenly the hostess asked everyone to stand up and tell one another: “Good evening.” Or an usher at a movie theatre asking everyone seeing Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time to stand up. Or the overhead intercom at K-Mart urged all shoppers to give each other a hug in the dairy aisle. Or the DMV lady inviting you to a punch and cookies reception after getting your car registration renewed. Imposing awkward moments on unsuspecting people only seems to be the standard call in the church’s playbook … But nowhere else. To the well-initiated “womb to tomb” church member, the awkward just seems like normal Sunday service.

So should churches eliminate the “stand and greet” time? Do we change our worship seating to reflect a 4 foot personal bubble of space for each member? Do we avoid eye contact with anyone but the pastor? Do we institute a strict “no touching” rule? Before babies and water water get thrown out, I think we must realize that the real issue here is authenticity and not physical contact. Speaking as both an introvert and former church shopper, I’ll tell you that most people (including me) go to a church and want to have real and meaningful interactions with church members. I want to talk to the pastor, worship leader and church staff. I want to hear about the nursery, small group ministry and service opportunities. I want solid information about a new members class or how to join the church. I want to know about the church’s beliefs and doctrine. But I don’t want a half-hearted hello and a clammy, limp handshake from an embarrassed church member whose sheepishly ashamed look simply reads: “So sorry you have to endure this part of the service … I don’t want to do this either … Please help.” I want a genuine conversation and not a perfunctory greeting.

In my personal growth as a pastor, I have learned another important and invaluable lesson: You can’t force people to be friendly. Sweet but crabby, old Suzie Mae probably will complain about people “sitting in her seat” until Jesus mercifully comes back. While we should encourage our flock with the Word of God to be encouraging (Hebrews 10:24-25) and loving to one another (John 13:35), quick duct tape changes to the order of worship won’t force a flock to be friendly. I have been guilty of inflicting the same pain I experienced as a professional church visitor on people visiting my own church simply because the hot church growth book said so. I repent of such wrongheadedness. The key to having a “friendly” congregation is a heart for the lost and a desire for authentic community that can only be generated when the Gospel is thoroughly and repeatedly applied to a life being molded by Christ.

Gimmicks are not a substitute for Gospel.

I am thankful for Thom Rainer’s recent article. As a result, we’ve been having a good conversation in our church community about what authentic friendliness and community looks like in a church. Last night, I had one church member remark offhand: “The ‘stand and greet’ time isn’t even in the Bible, so the church shouldn’t even be doing it!” Well … “holy kissing” is in the Bible, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

Now excuse me as this introvert goes back to his cave to meditate on life with a cup of coffee firmly planted in right hand.