Church Leadership Social Action

Confronting Segregation on Sunday Morning


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?
Church Leadership

Multi-Generational Communication

multi-generationWhen I was in New Jersey, I had an intriguing conversation about communicating to multiple generations during the Sunday morning sermon. Kristen’s uncle, Fred Provencher, is a senior leader and one smart cookie. I loved this conversation on a lot of fronts. Fred is a great communicator, he is a great pastor, and yet he is doing bucketloads of research to try to figure out… “How do I become a better communicator and pass on some best practices to others?” How many senior leaders are really wrestling with this? I think most feel that their messages aren’t that effective, but very few will actually take the time to learn why and how to fix it.

The task is nearly impossible!

When I was on staff at a church we always had this feeling that Sunday was-a-coming. Like clockwork. It was always in front of you like a ticking time bomb. The local preacher has to prepare 50 messages a year, keep the attention of loads of different communication preferences, evaluate the effectiveness of last weeks message, prepare this weeks message, begin planning for stuff 6 weeks out so the worship team is can prepare, on and on. On top of all of that the preacher must try to factor in a way to communicate to builders, boomers, and all the rest of the generations… all of whom have strong preferences for how the sermon should be delivered. You can see why some teaching pastors just give up and do what their talents and preferences dictate. Which is why I’m so excited for Fred’s research.

The task is wholly necessary!

For 2000 years the Sunday morning sermon has been the primary communication tool of the church to the church body. Going forward I think it’d be hard to argue that the sermon will be less important in the future. The real question is, will it be as effective in leading the church going forward as it has been to date? Or will it fade into a tradition we do but see little fruit from?

It’s about technology!

The sermon is not about video, audio, big screens, dramas, special music, or even a talented speaker. But it is about finding the right technology for each audience. A communication style is a technology. Adapting to your context is a technology. The words you use to convey biblical truth are technology. The Bible is the content and the technology is how the communicator delivers that content.

Context, context, context

As I think about this I think about it as 3 contexts.

Context of where you are: If your church is in suburbia and your audience is hooked on Facebook, YouTube, and are business people I’d think that you’d want to communicate differently than the church I go to which is mostly working class poor. I’m always shocked to see people emulating the communication styles and technologies of churches that just don’t fit the local context in which the church operates. That’s why Erwin McManus’s stuff is so powerful in his context but falls flat in other places. In the context and shadow of Hollywood, storytelling and visual arts are powerful technologies. I don’t think that would fly in rural Kansas.

Context of the passage: I’ve been shocked to see misuse of technology in relation to the passage of Scripture the preacher is teaching. How can you teach the beatitudes… blessed are the poor, blessed are the meak… while using a $100,000 A/V system and by hiring professional actors to do a skit? Sometimes we get so worried about being hip and relevant that we actually offend the context of what we’re trying to teach. Imagine you are a working-class poor person attending a service that is supposedly teaching me that its OK to be poor. How can I undertand that message in a $20 million building from a pastor who makes $100,000 more than me! Sometimes we forget to look at the context of the passage through the lens of the the technology we use to deliver it.

Context of who you are: Another shocker is seeing a communicator try to go outside of themselves. I’ve seen communicators put on a public persona or try to communicate in a fashion that just isn’t them. We visited a church in which a very type A, direct and to the point preacher tried to close his message with an artsy prayer experience. He fumbled through the instructions. He felt awkward telling people to get up. And he never stopped talking while people were supposed to be praying. The biggest thing a preacher should do is to be who they are. If you are hip, be hip. If you are a nerd, be a nerd. If you are artsy, show us. But if you can’t send an email don’t try to tell us you found this video on YouTube. When you do things that are out of context for you, it doesn’t matter if it was done to appease a generational expectation.. it just makes you look stupid.

It matters who you are the other 6 days.

The Sunday morning sermon is important. But it is validated by who you are when you aren’t preaching. Otherwise, they are just words. We live in a high expectation, low trust world. The true measure of your Sunday morning words must be lived out through your actions. That communicates to every generation that your message is worth listening to.