We don’t need to grow in diversity—our church is fine just the way it is. At least that’s what the majority of churchgoers believe.
Segregation within the Church will remain as long as we are content with the status quo—which we are. According to the findings of a study conducted by LifeWay Research, 67 percent of American churchgoers believe that their church has done enough to become racially diverse. That mentality would be acceptable if the church in America resembled the picture of the Last Days, where every tribe and tongue is gathered to praise in unity…but we’re far from this picture today. Sunday morning remains the most segregated hours in America.
Where does such a disconnect come from? Could it be that those surveyed attend churches that are indeed already racially diverse? Or perhaps the view is that if a church is doing service projects they are achieving racial reconciliation. I’m unsure what motivated the opinions from this particular study but after spending a year speaking with various churches and people around the country, there are a few reoccurring themes I hear that could shine light on why our churches do indeed continue to be segregated.
1. Apathy and Busyness
This survey affirms to me one of the reasons I believe that our churches are not diverse—we are apathetic in regards to the topic of race. Apathy by definition is a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, and concern. It’s a state of indifference, or even the suppression of emotions. We think that because the Jim Crow laws are now overturned, we have somehow magically become a society that is unified, equal, and desegregated. But just because we can now eat and drink and share pools by law doesn’t mean that we are actually doing it or celebrating the image of God in each other. Because worship is available to us freely doesn’t mean that we are choosing to join one another across racial lines. We are a society not willing to continue the fight like our ancestors because from a legal standpoint everything seems okay.
The problem with our apathy is that when people do rise up to discuss the continued racial struggles, concerns, and problems within our churches, many cry out the second reason:
2. We are past race and talking about it only rehashes the past.
I have heard time and time again that if we simply stop talking about race then all the struggles we see will disappear. I can understand why someone might think that bringing up the need for racial reconciliation can rebirth old wounds and therefore cripple the progress of racial reconciliation. The problem is, race continues to be talked about because there continue to be problems. And there continue to be problems because often conversations about race revolve around racism. And these conversations centered on racism happen because people are racist. So, until we see an end to racism, both personal and systemic, we will need to continue this conversation. The conversation about racial reconciliation must also take place because the gospel so clearly addresses it.
Because this conversation seems difficult, it is much easier to maintain the status quo rather than press into relationship and conversation with one another. Because we know that the gospel transcends race and we have the Spirit of God, we should be able and willing to take off the blinders that are hindering us from seeing the problem and the need for reconciliation. The conversation doesn’t have to be difficult.
3. History is easily forgotten or perhaps not known.
Part of the definition of apathy is a desire to suppress emotions. We don’t want to deal with the past, so instead of looking it straight in the face and standing arm-in-arm to deal with lingering hurt or learning from our past to continue a way forward, we want to forget about it. It’s easier that way…the past is ugly. Slavery was an abomination and this country was built upon it. The unjust Jim Crow laws, separate but equal, were disgraceful, and our churches’ history of using Scripture to justify sinful racism is grievous. But this our history and regardless of the pain and emotion that might rise to the surface of your heart—it’s worth engaging with our history for the purpose of unity and understanding.
We don’t want to forget our shared history, we want to learn and grow from it. We want to understand how our past continues to affect communities today so that we can have informed conversations and equipped churches that are truly pursuing racial reconciliation. This isn’t about guilt. No one should walk around feeling guilty for sin they did not directly commit. Rather it’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves. Remembering the past will inform the future and will equip us for service to others.
Get Ready for Change
It has been widely reported that the United States that we once knew with majority Anglo and minority-majority African American will no longer be. In May 2012 the Washington Post reported that minorities now account for more than half the babies born in the U.S. This change, they suggest, is due to immigration. But this change isn’t only affecting the landscape of our country; it may very slowly change the face of our congregations.
Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, wrote that denominations are seeing greater diversity within their congregations. His report does not suggest that these congregations are multi-ethnic, rather that the percentage of all white congregations within a certain denomination is decreasing. As the ethnic landscape of the United States continues to change, I imagine there is a greater possibility for more ethnically diverse churches. If the leadership of many of these churches remains white, these leaders need to take note of such changes. If you find yourself apathetic or unknowing, it might be the time to dig in, read, and ask good questions.
We all need to reflect on our own apathy and ask the question: Do we really care? And then, we must die to ourselves, break free of our self-absorption and learn about others. This will not only impact our own hearts and souls but also the Church. Your congregations may change whether or not you desire it and whether or not you are pursuing it. You will want to be ready. But let that readiness be motivated out of a God-glorifying excitement for the diverse kingdom—that is already present in heaven and throughout the earth—to be displayed and enjoyed within our local churches.