One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past year has been Church Diversity by Scott Williams (the link will take you to my review of the book). I say influential because it’s caused me to seriously reflect on how I view the issues of ethnic and age diversity in church congregations. Living in the South (but coming from the North), I have noticed the deep racial divide here in many ways, but perhaps none so more obvious as church attendance.
Over the past five months we’ve visited a lot of churches, and this issue of diversity has been something we’ve talked about a lot. To highlight how bad of an issue this is in the South (my friends from the North may not believe this story, but it’s true), let me quickly tell the story of what we noticed several weeks ago while visiting a church…. One of the things about Greenville is that there are lots of new church plants around (I don’t mean plants like those things that grow out of the dirt that you have to water, I mean plants as in start-up, new churches). Many of these plants do not have home buildings, so they meet in schools, hotels, or even homes. One week we visited a church that was meeting in one of these non-traditional locations and as we walked in I saw a really good mix of both black and white people walking in the door of the building. I actually thought to myself, “Wow – now here’s a church that’s started to become more integrated! Praise God!” But then I got in the building…
I kid you not – there were two different rooms setup for two different churches. All the black people went to one and all the white people went to another. Now don’t misunderstand me – this was not one church with two different rooms for worship, it was simply two different churches that happened to meet in the same physical building in two different rooms. But the contrast could not have been more severe – I actually had the thought in my head, “What is this? 1960?”
Now I don’t know what effort these two churches have made towards attracting and maintaining members of other races in their respective congregations, but I did have to wonder about it. In the South it is very common for people to say that the racial division in churches is a result of the culture down here – and I believe there is a lot of truth to that. But it’s not an excuse. I was having a conversation recently with someone about this and asked about their view on reaching out to people from other backgrounds, specifically blacks, to bring them into the church. This person responded to me that while they thought it was a great idea, they felt it would be a better idea to actually train up a black minister to go and reach black people with the gospel because as a white person he wasn’t sure he’d be able to connect with blacks and be respected by them.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Or does it? I’ve also heard people say, “I can’t reach out to older people because I’m so young I’m just not respected and accepted, so I need to find an older person to reach them for me.” Or, “If that person just had a white teacher instead of a black teacher he’d learn better.” So let’s take race out of this discussion and replace it with any word that represents a portion of culture: food, music, whatever you want. Haven’t you talked with people regarding music programs at churches who will tell you, “We have to be traditional/contemporary because that’s who we are and if we choose the other we will offend this particular group?” (or something along those lines?)
But here’s the bottom line: anytime, or perhaps I should say every time, we make a comment that because of our cultural background we can’t reach a certain set of people from a different background, we are limiting the power of God. That’s right. In essence, what the person whom I talked with that I mentioned earlier was saying was, “The power of the cultural barrier in Greenville is more powerful that the God I serve.” What those who argue over music are saying is, “The power of musical style to divide us is greater than the power of God to unite us.”
And that’s a problem. The problem ultimately isn’t our view of race, culture, music, or what-have-you; no, our problem is our view of God. For me the main issue is not so much that we have segregated congregations (it’s an issue, but it’s not the main issue) – the main issue is what are we doing about it? I get concerned for those who don’t recognize it is a problem that needs to be addressed. I’m not saying I have the answer as to how to address it, I’m just saying we need to stop hiding behind the excuse of “that’s the culture here in the South” and start recognizing that the power of God to unify and reconcile is greater than the power of the enemy to divide.
Go back to the example I shared at the beginning of this post about the two different churches worshiping side-by-side in two different rooms… I’m in no way suggesting I wouldn’t have been allowed in the room where the “black church” was meeting or that if a black person had tried to enter the room where the “white church” was he would have been turned away; I truly believe both sides would have welcomed a person of the different background into their group without making them feel uncomfortable. I’m just wondering why it was up to me as a white person to enter the “black church” or for one of the black Christians to enter the “white church”. Why do we always put the onus for change on the other person and rarely (if ever) ask, “What can I do to reach out to someone who is different from me?”
Does this mean the church we ultimately end up at will be a perfect representation of all the races and ethnicities found in Greenville? No. Does it mean the church we ultimately end up at is willing to start talking about this problem and acknowledging that it is a problem? I certainly hope so. Churches need to be asking the question – just start by asking the question. And then let God take us where he wants us to go.