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Confronting Segregation on Sunday Morning

church-segregation

Sunday morning’s sermon at Harbor stirred in me the desire for the church to be a place of reconciliation.

Stephen reflected on Revelation 7:9-12 in which people of every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship Jesus on His throne in Heaven and asked us to consider if we would attempt to do the same on earth? We live in a melting pot commununity. Literally, within 5 miles of our church are people of many tribes, tongues, and nations. The question brought forth was, will we intentionally worship together as a community or will we allow a church culture to prevail which prefers to seperate on Sunday mornings along racial lines?

I was reminded of this exchange, in 1963, between Martin Luther King and the one-time president of Western Michigan University, Mr. Miller:

Miller: Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means? This would be a means of seeing just who are true Christians.

King: As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body.

The truth is, 46 years later, not much has changed. Churches are still largely segregated in America. You could argue, as this CNN article points out, that we prefer our Sunday’s segregated.

  • There are major, separate, evangelical movements within the white, black, Hispanic, and Asian communities. There are relatively few places where those churches intersect. I will lovingly say that 5% of churches are truly mixed. But I am probably rounding up.
  • Within my own culture we tend to hold our personal preferences above all else. We are fine with other ethnicity coming to our churches so long as we don’t have to give up our style of worship or preaching. We hold our worship styles as canonical!
  • White males dominate the leadership landscape within American evangelicalism. Look at most conference line-ups or take a walk around a Christian bookstore or look at the top 20 Christian albums and you will see white male dominance. Are white males the only spiritual leaders? I don’t think so.
  • Open a phone book and you will likely see, in most communities, a white, black, Hispanic, and Asian version of the same church. 99% same doctrine, but we prefer to form different churches rather than deal with intentionally segregating. It’s not just a white church issue… it’s evangelicalism as a whole not dealing with this issue!

Something about that is anti-Revelation 7, isn’t it?

A few years ago I was at a leadership retreat in which we were asked to bring up our dreams for the congregation. The small Michigan town we lived in has a vibrant Hispanic population and a historic black community dating back to the Underground Railroad. I said that one of my dreams for the church was that there wouldn’t be three congregations in town separated by race (but not doctrine) but that we would figure our a way to have one church. I was laughed at and mocked for weeks. “We just aren’t ready for that.”

And by “that” I suppose they meant dealing with their racist tendencies for the sake of the Gospel.

In America, lines of segregation are alive and well. We all know it. People use their positions of power to invent new “legal” ways to segregate people all the time. But what are we willing to do about it?

Want to see segregation alive and well in America? Head to a school board meeting when they talk about re-districting. Or head to a planning commision meeting when they talk about building an apartment complex. You will see the dominant culture take up arms so that “they” don’t allow “them” in their school or neighborhoods. Apply some nouns to those conversations and you are right back to Brown vs. Board of Education.

It is amazing to me that no one I know would be upset– or even notice– if they worked with people of another race (or gender.) It wouldn’t even be an issue in the workplace. For the most part it wouldn’t be an issue in our own neighborhood.  Even in our own families race is not much of an issue. Six days per week our society has integrated. It’s not perfect but we’ve come a long way.

And yet on Sunday morning… race (and gender) are major issues! This must change and we all know it. The question for leaders today is simply, “What are you going to do about it?”

I am proud to call Stephen my pastor. He stood up on Sunday morning, not to cheerlead the efforts our church has made in the last two years, but to remind us that we have a long way to go. I hope the small successes we see at Harbor are just the beginning of a wider movement of reconciliation on Sunday mornings for the sake of the Gospel. First in our community, but also in America.

Some questions:
How do I need to be confronted on this issue. This is a “first me, than lead forward” deal.
How does that reflect how I/we relate to Scripture?
How does that limit the effectiveness of the Gospel in the community you/I live in?
What are action items you/I will take to confront segregation in your/my church community?

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

4 replies on “Confronting Segregation on Sunday Morning”

Living in a small town with a 99% white congregation, I know exactly what you are going through. A few years ago we had a girl in our youth who was dating a member of an opposite race. Some people actually stopped being friends with her and her family over it, and that was in the church! We need to stop this foolishness and realize that all people are created in God’s image, and are loved equally by Him.

Adam: Your job as a media professional requires that you generate debate – so I understand you need to be edgy at times. I request that you choose your words carefully to avoid unintentionally harming people from your past or stirring up rumors.

As part of the congregation and now a leader in that congregation in that small Michigan town you were once a part of, I trust that either the leader(s) to which you refer are gone and/or there is another context in which this occured. And if those people who you claim to be racist are still around, shouldn’t you address the issue directly instead of airing it publicly?

Knowing all the present leaders, there is not an ounce of racism among them. And I think just about everyone in the congregation today would gladly have one united body of believers.

When I say “another context” or “just about everyone,” I refer to how churches vary: some churches are more expressive in worship than others, styles differ and unfortunately, yes, this is one of many reasons people choose to worship at different churches.

I long for the day when believers from all nations come together for an eternity to worship our God and King. Until then, we need to press onward, continuing “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph 4:12,13)”.

-sorry for the long reply-

@dan- sorry for taking your comment down temporarily. I wanted to read it before I approved it.

Yes, the people who said that to me long ago left the church.

And yes, I have had follow-up conversations with those folks individually. They wouldn’t see their position as anything other than their personal preference. (See the CNN article linked in my blog post.)

Having been in Romeo for 5 years, there really are racial tensions to deal with. It all gets washed under the table as “well, we don’t have a lot of ____ people.” Again, go to a districting meeting of the school board or the planning commission and you will see racism in plain view. Why do children get bussed several miles further to another elementary school in the district? Race. When those elementary lines moved a mile further to the north… parents were up in arms about it and some sent their kids to Armada schools. When Bruce/Washington had lots of development going on… people in public comment would say, “I don’t want lots of a ___ size or multiple dwellings because the wrong type of people will move in to my neighborhood. I moved here from Detroit to get away from them.” Not sure what else to call.

I’ve got no judgment on the church I used to work with on this issue. At worse, we were nuetral. If there were blame to be had, I bear that as well as I too was a leader! The point of this post is not to cast blame, but to exclaim that there are shining examples of churches laying aside those differences in all reality.

I hope there really is a time in our nations future where churches lay aside racial barriers, admit to their long-term public racial separation, and combine congregations.

Thanks for the response Adam. I’m sure you’re aware of this – but it’s super important what you share publicly.

Side note: Last weekend I was traveling and Saturday night I had an opportunity to worship in a racially diverse church – also expressive. And yes, it was awesome.

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