I have attended black churches for most of my life until recently.
For the past few years, I’ve been a member at a great church—a church that I initially suspected was a film set because of its suspiciously perfect diversity ratio. Diversity of faces aside, the praise and worship is decidedly one style—think Hillsong and Bethel Music-style on a constant loop.
To my surprise, my yearning for some diversity in church music was not unique. Friends in Dallas, New York, Atlanta and other cities messaged me to say “Hey, I have the same problem. I love my church and its diversity. But I want some flavor in the praise and worship music!”
It was encouraging to know I wasn’t alone, but disheartening to realize that there were churches across the country that hadn’t quite figured out diversity in religious traditions. To be fair, any church that isn’t predominantly one race is head and shoulders ahead of others in matching the makeup of Heaven. But too often, it seems we stop there. We don’t take the next step to make the culture inclusive and representative of God’s creativity. I’m certainly guilty of this.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who had recently moved to my city was looking for a church. I was excited for the opportunity to invite her to mine. She laughed nervously, hesitated for a moment and said, “If I come with you on Sunday, will I be the only white person there?”
In that quick moment, I thought back to the several parties she’d invited me to where I’d been the only person of color but I shrugged off the temptation to be defensive and said, “Well, there are usually a few others, but yes, it is a mostly black church.” Nevertheless, she came along with me and afterward, she said, “Wow, that was great!”
And she never came back again.
She eventually found a different church and it seems that despite our genuine friendships with people of different races, both my friend and I chose churches that were the most comfortable, with people that looked like us. This doesn’t make us unique or bad people. The overwhelming majority of American Christians attend churches that are primarily one race/ethnicity or another. Many of us have heard the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “… the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Decades later it still holds true.
I don’t blame any one church for this; I believe most churches are welcoming to all. Who can forget the historic Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina — a black church that welcomed a young white man into their midst, a welcome that was unfortunately met with unspeakable violence.
For the most part, being a part of a diverse church has been an amazing, eye-opening experience. But in addition to missing out on a soulful choir, there is another instance where I miss my own church tradition: during horrific race-related news events, I often find myself wringing my hands wondering what to expect from my church’s leaders.
In 2012, I was attending a black church when the murder of Trayvon Martin swept the nation into a sea of controversy and debate about Stand Your Ground. Regardless of where people stand on the issue, the fact remained – an unarmed black teenager that reminded many black people of our cousins, brothers and nephews was killed and wouldn’t be coming back (and it wasn’t the first time).
When I attended church that Sunday, I was heartbroken, distraught, frustrated and angry. I needed a relevant word that would soothe and acknowledge the tragedy, while inspiring us toward peace and reconciliation. The pastor shared a message I will never forget: “A Rizpah Response.” It acknowledged and validated the pain and anger that many in the congregation felt, used the Word to provide a healing salve, and appropriately called for the church body to pray for Trayvon’s parents as well as the Zimmerman family. Conversely, after the subsequent death of several unarmed black men in the following years, I was attending my church in LA, and each time, no mention or acknowledgment was made.
As my heart broke, my church soldiered on seemingly living in a parallel universe, as if nothing had happened. I learned that in the wake of these events, I shouldn’t look to my church as a place for healing – and that maybe those should be the Sundays I visited elsewhere. That realization hurt even though I knew it wasn’t intentional.
Church for me has been hospital when I was spiritually weak and aching, a refuge during storms, a place to celebrate victories, and a community of people I can depend on for relationship, accountability, and partnership in my faith journey. But because churches are made up of people, they are not perfect; and we have room to grow in getting it right.
With recent elections that have left our country divided and race relations that seem to be crumbling nationally, the Church is an obvious solution as a place to unite others. However, if churches want to show a true commitment to diversity, we will need to do more than just welcome a range of people; we must welcome a range of church traditions that reflect those people.
Chris Tomlin and Lecrae may have different worship styles; but they share the same gospel. More importantly, when atrocities happen in a subset of our community, why not let those folks know you hear them and you are with them? Equip the entire body to be aware of current events and issues in various communities so that we can serve and love each other.
This requires more work, but no one said bringing everyone under the tent would be easy. I truly believe the Church has an opportunity to be a leader in building multicultural community.