Friday Discussion: Racial Diversity in the Church

I’m curious about something. I’ve been curious a long time.

This is not a new subject for me. Over the years my wife and I have visited dozens of churches. We’ve visited in most of the mainline denominations with varied music and preaching styles. We’ve visited predominantly white churches and predominantly black churches. I’m white (in case you didn’t know…and depending on the season, the whiter I become 🙂 ), but some of my very best friends are black. I’ve even been privileged to speak in predominately black churches. I’ve never really understood the whole racial division thing. I love people. I think our culture is, at least in some ways, getting more accepting of other cultures and colors of skin. I know my boy’s generation doesn’t even seem to think as much about this issue as my generation did or certainly my parent’s generation did. I won’t pretend racial prejudice has ended, because I know it hasn’t, especially in some parts of the country and world, but things appear better today than they once were in my lifetime.

But, that’s where my curiosity begins. I see improvement everywhere except in the church. Why is that? Our churches remain segregated for the most part. Recently at Catalyst Conference I spoke with a couple black friends of mine.  I expressed in honesty that many times I don’t know what to say or how to say it when talking about the issue of racial diversity…so I say nothing. They shared they feel the same way. (One of them even took our frank conversation to ask me why white people where long-sleeve shirts with shorts. He said he doesn’t get it. Ha! Love it!) Another friend Scott Williams wrote a book about the subject, because he too sees this divide in the church. Since I first wrote this post, Church Diversity has become a wide influencer of this discussion.

So, today, for Friday discussions, let’s talk about it. Why do you believe the church is still so divided racially? Is it music style, preaching styles, attitudes, culture…what? What can be done about it? What steps can a church take?

Discuss…comment…engage…it’s Friday discussion time!

(It should be noted that some churches are making a difference. Our church is at least seeing some changes and I know our people are open to change in this area. Still there is much work to be done and we know it. We are at least having the discussions. Another friend of mine, Artie Davis, has a church that’s done this well in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Scott’s book engages a dozen or so churches who are doing a good job bridging the racial divide. If you know of a church he should talk to, leave it in the comments and I’ll make sure he gets their name.)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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69 thoughts on “Friday Discussion: Racial Diversity in the Church

  1. Is it slow going in our churches because we have the mentality of trying to fix different people? We see something different, it's unknown or uncomfortable, so that must mean there is something wrong with them & we need to fix them!

    Maybe we should start with what they bring to the table. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) has been a fresh topic on my mind as of late, & I'm sure taking inventory of what gifts "they" possess might begin to catch the church up to the curve.

    You wrote this two years ago, but the only racial diversity you mentioned was black/white. So perhaps our first problem is we have generalized it to just a black/white problem (you can come to Milwaukee to see our segregated black north-side, Hispanic south-side & white suburbs & lakeside for another example, or the Lawndale community in Chicago for a black/Hispanic divide.)…unfortunately Milwaukee is #1 in the country when it comes to segregation.

  2. This is a very interesting conversation. The church my family has attended since January (while in church-planting transition) was featured in Charisma magazine because of this subject. You can search Breakthrough in the Bible Belt at http://www.charismamag.com if you are interested. I disagree with the thought that being intentional is being fake. Don’t you suppose the first century Gentile churches has a Gentile pastor here or there? Didn’t Jesus call us to unity and to evangelize, particularly to those who are not like us? Did he ever call us to a particular worship style? And to paraphrase Perry Noble, did Jesus die so we could find a comfortable church on Sunday?

  3. A lot of good stuff has been said already. i see the problem at two different levels. one is practical and the other is theological. i put worship style, preaching style, homogeneous church leadership, etc as practical barriers. but i think those are only outworkings of deeper issues.

    i'll address the institutional black church for example. in many ways, the black church has been a means of SURVIVAL for black people. one of it's primary functions from the beginning was to preserve African/Black culture and protect/advance the people within that culture. i think that's why you can have so many unbelievers who are still actively involved in the black church. and a lot of black churches still exist for that purpose. it's a core value for the black church – sometimes explicitly so and i think folks just assume it's ok because that's the way it's been, like artie said.

    in light of that, i think it goes beyond the practical factors. i think it comes down to a fundamentally flawed or nonexistent "theology of difference" – be it racial, social, or economic. for example, i don't think most christians can answer the question "biblically speaking, is it ok to embrace ethnic identity?" or "in God's created order, where did race even come from?" now, i don't expect the average person to have answers to that stuff. i didn't for a long time. but i'm hoping that pastors (including myself) will equip our congregations to process race through a biblical framework. because i think that what will filter down is an obvious disparity between how we act/react/feel and what we claim to believe. we have to allow the Bible to critique our presuppositions about race and identity and even our preferences. we have to be willing to admit our prejudices (or at least our ignorance) and allow the Bible to confront them.

    i grew up in an all black church in an overwhelmingly predominant black community. when i graduated from college i went to work for a pretty well-known evangelist in the "CCM-esque" christian world (i.e. white lol) and i got a crash course in all things steven curtis chapman. i remember being the only black guy on our staff in the first few cities i worked and having a really hard time being comfortable around older white people in particular (i think because of images in my head of old white supremacy dudes who were suited by day and hooded by night). i remember being at events where i was the only black guy (and youngest guy period) in a room full of wealthy, influential, older Christian white people and in conversations thinking "you're talking to me but you don't want me here or you wonder why i'm here." i remember being CERTAIN that me and the folks on our staff couldn't possibly have much in common. all of that was rooted in deep-seated skepticism. praise God, He changed me…and i'm glad i did because i wouldn't have lasted now in a predominately white church! lol

    two last random thoughts:
    1 – i think if we want to invite different kinds of people into our churches, we have to be willing to invite different kinds of people into our homes.
    2 – the more exposure i've gotten beyond my preferences, the more my preferences have changed. i like acoustic guitars and romantic jesus songs now. 🙂

    anyway, thanks for bringing this up. really passionate about it.

  4. Many churches have made strides during my generation to where younger adults (about your son’s age) don’t have the “elephant.” However, there is still social discrimination. I’m not referring to any sort of ill-speak. It’s just that the groups only mix at services. I would recommend that your friend speak with staff members at Christ The Rock Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

  5. I grew up in a Church that was, much to my surprise, racially biased. I wasn't aware of this for many years because I just never really paid that much attention to what wasn't there. When I was 12 a group of young people came from a college to perform a musical; in that group of people were 2 Black girls, 1 Hispanic boy, and the rest were white. I still can't forget the words that came out of the mouths of some of the adult leaders of my Church: "Did you see 'em? Some of "Those" people are with them!" When I picked my jaw off the ground, I wanted to cry. Partly because I was so surprised by the reaction of the people I looked up to, and partly because the people doing this were MY church members! It wasn't something I was watching on a movie about racism, it was in my Church!
    We like to talk about being Mission Minded, but the reality of what they said twisted my gut, especially when they went from those performances to a meeting about missions! How they could better reach people! It didn't even register to them that what they said was wrong! It seems we don't mind talking about these things, but never really put ourselves on the line. Unless we are willing to do more than just talk about it; Count the cost, and commit ourselves to this idea of Ministering to "People"; Commit to it much in the same way you would to a marriage. Knowing it will be difficult, but willing to work out the trouble spots; knowing it will take the rest of our lives (lets face it, it took more than a year or two to get here!), but being so in love with Jesus that taking His message to the people means more. I guess that is what it comes down to, in our hearts, what means more?

  6. Thanks for the entertaining and important topic.

    Unlike most public "integrated" environments, church is a completely voluntary. It's fact that when free to choose, people tend to go where they are most comfortable. For most people (including the majority culture, whites) comfort equates primarily to being with people similar to them.

    If you are unsure, go to any suburban mall, restaurant, club, or even many parks. There will be a "majority" culture there (usually seen by skin color) and a small number (10% or less) of others. People, me included, naturally segregate. Most loving normal people have cross-cultural relationships with individuals, usually lived out on fairly neutral turf. But when we congregate, we segregate.

    If churches don't like the natural tendency, we have to be intentional. We must create environments that appeal to multiple ethnicities, and cultivate the welcome to those in the minority. We must be diverse in our on stage look, our leadership, our music, food (big church issue), and talk about our desire to not be mono-cultural. Church cannot "feel" like one culture, or others will remain a minority.

  7. As a black woman who is also in upper management in Corporate America, I find that the only time I'm around other blacks is Sunday Morning. When I first moved to Washington state 6 years ago, I was attending a predominately white church and didn't have a problem with it. Because, at the time, my work environment was much more diverse. It's not the case anymore. I started going to a predominately black church. I love my culture and need to around it from time to time. And when I've gone to a racially diverse churches the music/culture leaned towards African-American.

    A good message is a good message. It doesn't matter what race the person is. But I do think the segregation in the church is mirroring America.

  8. I’ve struggled with this issue for some time. I attended an all black church early in my Christian experience. It bothered me so much that after a regional church service I asked my pastor why all the leadership and congregation is black. He responded that it wasn’t by choice. This segregation was rooted in this particular denomoniations 100 years history.

    Back in the denominations beginnings, racism hadn’t gone underground yet and the white people who were getting saved under this black mans ministry didn’t sit well with thier “brothers” in the South. So they (white brothers & sisters) simply separated themselves and started their own ministry, leaving everyone who wasn’t white.

    Over the years the particular denomination I write about is still thriving and is known as a predominately black church – as I learned not by choice.

    I read some good points in earlier reply’s in terms of culture, familiararity, and worship and service styles, but I think we need to revisit history and not forget, as some have suggested, that some of our predominately black churches are that way because historically they were not allowed in “white” churches.

    I think we are making progress in the greater body of Christ but have a long way to go….

  9. Perhaps intentionality and a church’s target audience play the biggest role in newer churches. Older churches definitely have history working against them.
    Twitter: Jeremy_riggs

  10. Ron,

    It was good talking to you at Catalyst about this. I have a new project that I am working on concerning this. I would love to include you and talk to you more about it.

    To answer your question, I really agree with Artie Davis. It has always been that way and we are too lazy (Artie said complacent) to change. But also, this stuff is not easy and hard to do it intentionally everyday. So, it is easier to stick with what you know. I also know that many of us are not honest about our prejudice. My first year attending Catalyst, I took a group of about 20 people from my church (which is an urban, African-American church of about 6,000). They came back and told the senior pastor they hated it, mainly because of the music and presentation styles. My question is, at what point do we stretch ourselves beyond preference to build authentic relationships and work together? I am going to be a champion for this cause!

    Thanks for your thoughts, Ron.

    Joshua

  11. Did you see the recent article on CNN on this? They point to several culturally divisive reasons: worship style, leadership style (can be a big deal), how inter-racial dating is approached, an how the community is ministered to. Different races have specific answers to each. Sadly so many aren’t willing to either leave preconceptions behind or try and meet in the middle. My congregation is very diverse, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have issues. I think it would be even harder if we were in an urban environment. We definitely qualify as the ‘burbs. Great topic.

  12. In our editorial meeting this morning, we were batting around this very discussion. I'm not sure we got anywhere, except to say (1) that for a lot of churches, this is not surprising, because geographical locale plays a major part in their "segregation"; but (2) for those churches who do live in more "cosmopolitan" areas and have no racial diversity among their congregants, they ought to ask themselves seriously why that is.

    To my mind, however, the issue of socio-economic diversity is slightly more important.

  13. It is a great question. Perhaps one that is more controversial in the U.S. than here in Canada. I am blessed to be at a church that has approx 80 different nationalities represented. For about 10 years our Associate Pastor was a man from Iran. He had a heart for the immigrant community and our diversity today is probably a direct result of his influence. He is now pastoring in an area of Toronto with a large Muslim community. Our Senior pastor is white, our worship pastor is black (from Uganada), and there is a good mix on our worship teams. A guess would be that our congregation is about 65% white, our board is 4 white males, one female, a man of African heritage and a man of Chineses heritage. While we are not the most diverse congregation around we do celebrate our diversity and strive to continue being diverse.

  14. Ron….this is Tim from New Jersey. Maybe we can get some coffee when I'm back in Clarksville!

    I had to comment since this is very relevant to our area here in New Jersey. We live in one of the most diverse areas in the country. Our little elementary school was named the most diverse school in the country about 5 years ago. For this reason, it has bothered me a lot that our church has failed to capture the diversity of our area. I have learned over the years that it's not enough to think about "small tweaks or changes" in order to become a multi-ethnic church. For us, we realized that it would take drastic and intentional steps in order to truly become diverse. We are in the midst now of making some pretty drastic changes.

    Here are some of the things we are looking at for 2011. Would love to hear any thoughts…
    1. The biggest move is that we have developed a great relationship with a 2nd gen Chinese church that is also a church plant. They also have a real heart to be multi-ethnic and share our heart for being missional in our community. For this reason, we are actually joining together in January. We, of course, both recognize that this is just a first step and 2 groups don't represent "every tribe." But it's certainly a step in the right direction.

    2. We recognize that worship style can be a huge barrier. I'll never forget when one of our Korean woman came up to me a couple of years ago and said, "You know your worship is really white, right?" It totally caught me off guard but she was right. I think it was Tim Keller who once talked about the mild form of racism when whites think they have regular culture and everyone else has "Korean culture" or "black culture." For us a good start is to realize that we aren't "normal" but have very white, influenced styles. We have to ask if we are willing to give those styles up in order to be an "every tribe" sort of church.

    3. One of the things that has been modeled so well in Fellowship Church in Memphis is the idea of intentionality on a staff level. When my wife and I visited last Christmas, we realized they had actually thought out what diversity looked like from greeters, to Kids ministry, to the stage. They were intentional on every level and thus communicated to their folks that diversity was a value for them. We are looking at adding staff with the same level of intentionality.

    Great discussion…look forward to reading more thoughts!

  15. I've never posted here before but after being involved in a multiethnic church for 3 years, I think I can provide a little insight to what it takes to bring the races closer together. For the sake of the discussion, my church is 65% white 35% black, located in Memphis a city of historical racism of the worst degree. Also, I am white.

    Artie hit one point perfect, to achieve diversity, it has to be visible at the highest levels. Gords church sounds like a good example here. But the point is, if people are going to buy in from different sides of the fence, they need to SEE it as a priority every week.

    I also fully believe that the overwhelming majority of white people do not understand the reality of systemic racism in our country today. Not "I hate you cuz you're black" racism, but the racism that creates the disparities we see in education, housing, and employment. The fact that most whites do not acknowledge the advantage they have just for being white, further widens the gap to reconciliation because whether or not we believe it, it's true and people of color know it.

    I also don't think we see things appropriately sometimes. The comment above that nothing about the all white church would drive a person of color away is extremely myopic. He points out why in his own post. No, white people may not be rude to black people in the church, but the very fact that there are only 12 people who look like him, along with church traditions that are different than what he is used to, being preached to by a man who doesn't understand what it's like to be a person of color, gives him every reason to go somewhere else.

    Finally, true unity is just messy. Paul dealt with it in Ephesus and Galatia. Until we lay down our "have it your way" mentality of church consumerism, we will always have more reasons to be in the more monochromatic comfortable church. But, if we strive for something greater, something like the picture we see of heaven in Revelation, where people of every tribe nation and tongue worship together, things will get uncomfortably messy. And in my opinion it's of incredible worth to display a greater picture of just how great the Gospel is.

  16. We live in a world that has come so far as it relates to race relations. We will play together, eat together, ride the bus or train together and even stand alongside one another cheering and worshiping our favorite entertainers and sports teams. Standing alongside one another in God's house to worship the God of the Universe — Not So Much!

    Race is always an awkward subject and people just don't want to talk about it. I mean seriously if we scour the thousands of Christian Blogs today, I bet you will on find a few people that have ever talked about what Ron is talking about today. We have to start not only talking about it… we must do something about it.

    It's time that we Confront The Elephant In the Pew:

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly confronted the elephant in the pew in a speech over 40 years ago when he said this, ”We must face the sad fact that at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing… we stand in the most segregated hour in America, and the most segregated school is Sunday School.” Here we are over 40 years later and not much has changed and no one wants to talk about it. Seriously, the topic receives a colder shoulder than a black man gets at a Ku Klux Klan Rally.

    It's time to confront the brutal facts and begin having the bold conversations. It starts with Senior Leaders of Churches around the globe having a heart to embrace diversity and not simply tolerate. We must be intentional and make race an issue. The only way race will be a non-issue, is if we make race an issue.

    It's time to move past the platitudes of hope and change… we must become it. The Local Church Is the Hope Of The World and We Are The Change!

    Ron, thanks for the mention and thanks for the discussion.

  17. I think there are two barriers that have to be overcome:

    1. Culture – People are drawn to what is familiar. Honestly I got to a mostly white (about 80%) church and whenever a Spanish or Black person comes in, I am instantly drawn to them. We have more in common culturally.

    2. Community – If you only "go to church" with people, you're never going to form authentic relationships. There's only so much you can learn from someone in a few minutes before and after service or at a church picnic. Small groups help but they tend to end up being affinity groups in most churches which stifles diversity.

    One of the biggest reasons it is easy for me to feel comfortable in my church is our home fellowship groups. They are completely organic and not focused on any likeness. Since they are each like mini churches, there are families, singles, young and old people. In that intimate environment, it makes it easy to get to know people that aren't like you and form real relationships.

  18. Wow, you are pushing the envelope on this one 🙂

    The church that I attend is mostly white. Part of that is because the community that it is a part of is mostly white. We have probably 500-600 on a given Sunday morning and of that number, probably less than 12 are black. Having said that, there is nothing about the church or about the leadership or the members that would drive a black person away.

    I don't know that I have the "answer' to your question, but here are some possibilities. And I need to paint some broad brush strokes in this answer which I will acknowledge up front are probably not completely accurate.

    When I think of a "typical" black church I think of more of a "holy roller" type of environment. Not that everyone is speaking in tongues, but there is more "amening" and "yessing" and the minister is more likely to be yelling from the pulpit. Personally, I have nothing against this type of worship service, but I would probably be very uncomfortable in that environment. "Typical" white church is more subdued from all sides, although there are obviously exceptions to both of these views, and subdued doesn't necessarily make for a good worship experience. I personally like something in the middle where I can freely express my love to the Lord in worship, but don't feel yelled at from the pulpit.

    Even with the more integrated lives that we all lead, I still think that the average white guy would feel very uncomfortable being the white guy in an all black church and vice versa. I think some of that is cultural, some is historical, and some is realizing that racism is still a thing. You'd hope that would not be transferred to the church, but do you really know the person sitting next to you in the pew? Do you REALLY know them?

    I think to solve the issue the church needs to make sure that it's as open as possible to all believers. I know that there are churches in my area that advertise on TV; inviting all to come. I'd have to say that they are probably more structured like the "typical" black church I mentioned at the beginning, but their membership is made up of a good mixture of races and cultures. I think that community involvement by predominantly white or black churches that extend beyond the immediate community is a way to foster a better look into those churches by those that might not normally attend.

    And I think the issue of racism in general needs to be addressed. People need to stop grouping themselves in terms of race. We need to stop seeing ourselves in light of things that happened decades ago. Not that we should forget, but there is no one alive today who either ran the slave trade or was a victim of it; we need to move past it; there are enough divisive issues today without digging up ones from the past. We need to stop walking around thinking we are owed something; and this applies to all races. We need to see each other as people, as brothers and sisters in Christ. I work with people from many different countries and races and I always think of them as just work associates. I don't weigh my actions to them in terms of their skin color or country of origin or their gender. And I think that is the biggest obstacle to overcome. If we can't do it in our own lives, how can we as a collection of lives known as the church?

  19. Hi Ron!

    I didn't noticed you're white. Hahaha!

    Church is divided racially because of culture and music, I think. So the idea of formatting each services according to age groups is becoming prevalent. For instance here in the Philippines, we usually have three services. One for the traditional type with hymns and just the piano playing. Second service would be for the people aging 40 years old and below is the conventional type of worship with a complete and lots of dancing . Third would be for people who would like to have a service using our own cultural language which is Filipino Tagalog.

    So in conclusion, no matter how different people are, for as long as the Church is One with one vision and mission and aims to be suitable to marry Jesus, then I am happy. God Himself will be most happy.

  20. Thanks for talking about this Ron. If the question is why are we still so divided racially in the church, I have a quick 3-point answer:

    1. That is the way it has always been. Very few are willing to make the necessary changes to bring change, i.e., a white or black pastor bringing on staff a fellow pastor of another race and sharing the stage time. If it's not up front, it's a FAKE!

    2. Not being intentional. Diversity just doesn't fall out of the sky because you put on a good show! It takes incredible sensitivity, planning and intentionality. There must be an agressiveness about learning other cultures and reflecting them in your church.

    3. Complacency. "Hey, we have 2,000 people, it doesn't matter they are all white, and the community we live in is 40% African-American. As long as we "feel" we are being successful (and numbers can hide a lot), we become content. We have to do church biblicaly, not just numerically!