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August 31, 2011

Race Relations, Affirmative Action, and the Church: More Reflections on The Help

As noted in my review of The Help, the movie brought to mind many issues about race relations in the South. But, my thinking was moved in a more personal and practical direction: race relations in the church.

Why is it that we still seem to struggle with this issue 150 years after slavery and nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act? Why can conversations with those of different races be so stilted, appreciation of our cultural differences so hard, and inter-racial friendships feel so forced?

Why is it that so few African Americans go to white churches and vice versa? That so few churches reflect the racial demographics of their host community? That so many white parents would still rather have their daughter marry a non-Christian white man than a godly, Christ-honoring African-American young man? Why the judgment on Mexicans? Are we concerned at all that certain areas of our country may be creating another generation of "helpers" out of Latin immigrants?

The church is trailing society in an area where we should be setting the pace. Followers of Jesus Christ, for whom there is "no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" should be leading the nation in racial reconciliation, not being dragged kicking and screaming by unbelievers into a life the Kingdom anticipates. Too often, the church trails the culture. For that matter, too many "Christians" were holding the hoses at Selma, not standing for equality. The church still trails.

According to research from Dr. Michael Emerson, recently shared by Mark DeYmaz in our Church Planting Leadership Fellowship:

  • 92 1/2 % of churches in the US are racially segregated (with 80% or more of the congregation comprised of a single race or ethnic group).
  • Churches are 10x more segregated than the neighborhoods they're in ...
  • 20x more segregated than nearby public schools.

So, what do we need to do?

There are many things that can and should be addressed. Congregations need to be filled with people who are living in relationships with people of other races. Christians need to value such relationship. For example, my family loves the fact that Anglos are a minority on our block.

Yet, the church needs to change as well. Denominations need to change. And, I have a suggestion...

I believe fervently in congregational and denominational Affirmative Action.

The words have come to mean something else in our political discourse and that is not my agenda here.

The words are defined more than one way, but in this context it is clear:

  • Affirmative = positive
  • Action = something done or performed

I think it is absolutely necessary that predominantly white denominations intentionally take "positive" action to be more diverse. In other words, we must integrate for the agenda of the the kingdom of God. We can no longer act like it's the days of Leave it to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show when it comes to race.

Not long ago I was asked to consult with the Foursquare Church denomination. In their polity, a handful of delegates from each meeting are sent to a national meeting that I facilitated (related to the search for a new President) that would impact the direction for the denomination. In order to increase representation, we discussed that each group would send at least one person who was not a white male. The room was filled with new faces, and I am sure some people were mad that they were not invited, but after this was implemented, they told me it had made a huge difference in the way their denomination was functioning. They took positive action.

You can't ignore race and expect the racial status quo to change. In an article I wrote a few years ago for the 9 Marks Journal I explained:

Race matters.

I planted my first church among the urban poor in Buffalo. Having been raised in a racially isolated community near New York City, I never thought much about race--but in Buffalo we had little choice. We were forced to address issues of race because our community was a multicultural milieu. It forced us to read the Scriptures with more awareness of race--and an acknowledgment of its challenges.

We found that race matters in scripture. Even though few Anglo churches seem to notice, Scripture frequently demonstrates God's concern for race and ethnicity.

Luke illustrates the coming of the Spirit with diverse expressions of tongues (Acts 2), even identifying the languages being spoken. And a glimpse of eternity in Revelation shows that men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation make up the choir of eternal praise (Rev. 7:9). If the writers of Scripture take notice of ethnicity, so should we.

Scripture not only identifies race and ethnicity, but John hints at prejudice concerning Jesus in John 1:46, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Furthermore, Jesus intentionally offends ethnic and racial sensibilities with both the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Why go to so much trouble to emphasize their ethnicity if it does not matter?

Yet the same Spirit that inspired the Scripture to identify race also provides the strength to overcome its challenges. Both our worship and our witness are made more perfect when we model gospel-centered diversity.

At the cross, there is "no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female." Yet at the throne there are men and women from "every tongue, tribe, and nation." We would do well to remember both.

Race does matter... and I think that churches and denominations need to be much more intentional-- to take positive action-- on being more racially inclusive. You can do that in your hiring, leadership development, and denominational development-- and it will be the kind of positive action many churches and denominations need.

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