In America, 92 percent of churches are made up almost entirely of a single race [*]. Religious institutions have become places of segregation rather than unity. Is your church part of that 92 percent?
Yet despite widespread segregation, some congregations are trying something different. Multiracial church congregations have begun surfacing across America. Advocates of these diverse religious communities base their ideal on Biblical examples. The first church, described in the book of Acts, was multicultural and multilingual from the very beginning. Other early churches were multicultural as well.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that early Christianity was a progressive movement that reconciled groups of people. During Biblical times, there were major cultural differences and much tension between Jews and Gentiles. Church congregations, however, became places where Jews and Gentiles overcame their differences and worshipped together in a spirit of unity. This is the model that many modern-day multiracial churches strive to follow.
While in graduate school at Illinois State University, Reneé Prunty decided to study this multiracial church phenomenon. She recently completed her master’s thesis, titled “Racial Harmony in the Church Setting.” Prunty spent the last year conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews at a local church that is attempting to become more diverse. She asked church members and leaders what issues they have faced as a multiracial congregation and what strategies can be used to overcome these issues.
Both the church members and leaders who participated in Prunty’s study believe that diversity within the church is extremely important. Multiracial congregations were explained as being representative of heaven. Following the example of Martin Luther King Jr., it was also believed that the Church has a responsibility to demonstrate unity and lead racial reconciliation efforts.
Though diversity in the Church was explained as overwhelmingly beneficial, this racial integration does not come without challenges.
The biggest issue identified in this particular church was a lack of minority representation in leadership positions and music style. All church leaders were white, and the church’s style of music was also described as being distinctly “white.” Because of this, there was a power imbalance between whites and other minorities in the church.
Church members and leadership agreed that if the congregation really wants to be multiracial, the church must place minorities in leadership positions and better integrate minority styles of worship. However, black church members and white leaders disagreed greatly about whether or not there were qualified minority leaders within the church. The existing leadership said that they wanted a diverse staff, but they could not find any minorities who were qualified. Black church members disagreed. They said there were qualified minorities within the church; these people were just never chosen for leadership positions.
It may be that blacks and whites are defining “qualified” differently in this situation. However, some other possible reasons were given for the lack of minority leadership. For example, it is possible that qualified minorities are simply hesitant to pursue leadership positions since they hold less power in the church. Others suggested that an Anglo-American style of leadership and worship had already been established within the church, and because of this, minorities were not comfortable leading. Still others said that attempts to recruit minority leaders simply were not direct enough.
To overcome these challenges, church members agreed that attempts to find minority leaders needed to be more deliberate. In fact, it was suggested that leaders approach minority individuals and invite them to join a specific ministry team or apply for a staff position. A direct invitation could help overcome any hesitancy or uncertainty.
To conclude her study, Prunty gave the following recommendations for churches that are trying to become more diverse:
(1)Open dialogue about racial concerns is necessary. It is especially important for the Church to consider the needs of minority individuals. Because minority groups typically have less power, their concerns are not always heard.
(2) All programs, events and presentation styles should be analyzed to determine how they are affecting various groups of people.
(3)The Church should make every attempt to include all relevant cultures. As Prunty writes, “The ideal goal here is to create one church culture that is an equal representation of all of the cultures of the Church.”
(4)It should be understood that people enter the Church with racial and cultural identities as well as spiritual identities. An individual’s race or culture will determine how that person perceives the church service and how involved she/he becomes.
(5)And finally, recruitment of minority leaders may be more successful if done through personal invitations rather than broad public announcements.
Racial reconciliation within the Church presents many other challenges in addition to those discussed here. Clearly, this is not an easy thing for the Church to take on. Still, it is necessary for the Church to identify social injustice and racism, and then take steps to create harmony and truly worship in a spirit of unity. As the apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 12:13, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (TNIV).
Are you up for the challenge? What would it take for your church to truly be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17)?