According to recent research, eight out of 10 churches in America are made up, predominantly, from only one people/racial group.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, it seems 11 a.m. on Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.
Unfortunately, that’s not all the research found.
The report also found that two thirds of church communities felt they were ‘doing enough’ to be ethnically diverse, and over half felt that no further diversity was needed in their congregation.
Good Church, Bad Church
In The Reason For God, Timothy Keller notes that Christians have frequently been on both sides of historical injustice.
Many church leaders supported chattel slavery of African slaves in Great Britain, but it was an anti-slavery coalition led by Christian activist William Wilberforce that saw the practice outlawed after a long and passionate struggle.
When Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian minister, helped lead the American Civil Rights movement, he had to respond to white ministers that tried to convince him to stand down from his work.
In South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid while Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu was a powerful voice in the protests which led to the downfall of the institutionalized bigotry. After elections ousted the oppressive government regime, Tutu advocated for and participated in a reconciliation commission which helped avoid a bloody civil war of reprisal which many anticipated.
Keller points out that the Christian faith actually contains within itself the tools necessary to self correct wrong ideology and theology.
Those who (mis)use scripture to oppress others based on nationality, gender or social status can be confronted with the message of radical acceptance described by Paul, whereby all are equal in the light of the redemptive work of the cross of Christ.
Likewise, Peter declares that “God shows no favoritism” after the Holy Spirit instructs him to show value to ‘outsiders’ which he would previously not have thought eligible for any sort of relationship.
The Culture War Within
Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthians 6 that Christians are supposed to keep ourselves accountable to the standards of Scripture. We cannot be the salt of the earth unless we refine from ourselves the impurities that would render us useless to society.
It seems clear that we are failing to fulfill the diversity Paul and Peter envision in the writings cited above. The responsibility for correcting this issue falls to us. How can we rouse our fellow believers to address this issue, which we have been dealing with in the church from the beginning (see Acts 6:1)?
Humility, not Deniability
The part of the study results I find most frustrating is the fact that over two thirds of respondents felt their church was doing enough.
That’s like me saying I’m doing enough to get in shape, but I still gained 10 pounds. At some point, you have to face the actual results, which, in this case, often reveal that no progress has been made.
If we’re not getting results in this area, our first step needs to be a willingness to take a hard look at what is leading to the results.
Does the music we play communicate that we are only interested in particular type of person? Do we use media or artwork or language that only reflects one group of people? Do the people on our stage reflect who we are, or more importantly, who we want to be?
As ambassadors of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must remember that our preferences are not sacred. We are told, very clearly, that anything we do which is not imbued with love is worthless.
Unity in Diversity, not Conformity
When Paul says there is “no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he’s not advocating that we become genderless, identity free people without a defined role.
Paul is saying that the identity Christ provides cuts across all those identities.
A Jew and Gentile can each have equal value in the midst of their different ethnicities. The privileged and the unprivileged in society have equal value in the eyes of the faith community. Both genders have equal standing before God.
We must not seek to become “colorblind” in our churches—we must rather see that the God who declares He will have every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping together before Him wants a blended community rather than a merging into separate, neutral existences.
Rather than negating the existence of different cultures and skin tones, we should recognize that the value of each exists in its fullest form through the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit in us as individuals and communities.
Relationship, not Platitudes
People will not show up where they do not feel they are welcome and wanted. We can talk about diversity in our churches a great deal, but at some point, we will have to be intentional about inviting and including those who may not already be part of our community.
Church leaders can choose to use a sermon series directed at reconciliation, arrange a pulpit swap or joint community outreach with a church predominantly of a different race or intentionally build relationships; but if the attendees and volunteers of that church do not create an atmosphere of sincere acceptance for any guests who arrives, such efforts will simply be pandering to a noble idea.
We must each be willing to see Christ in every believer, no matter what differences exist, and to embrace the love Christ has for those who have not yet discovered the redemption of the cross.
Jesus made real connections with the Samaritan woman at the well, the man with demons in Gerasene. He had valuable interactions with a Syrian woman and a Roman centurion.
What lines of normal social behavior are you crossing to build connections with other people?
It may be hard to have hope that the Church will one day throw off the status quo of self segregation. But we must embrace the reality of the diverse crowd worshipping God in Revelation 7 to give us hope in our efforts today.
Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew who has affected the lives of believers in every corner of our world. His Good News transcends the borders and divisions our world accepts. Surely, it calls us to do the same.