According to recent research, 8 out of 10 churches in America are made up, predominantly, from only one people/racial group. 11am on Sunday, it seems, is still the most segregated hour in America.
Unfortunately, that's not all the research found.
The report also found that two thirds of church communities felt they were 'doing enough' to be ethnically diverse, and over half felt that no further diversity was needed in their congregation.
Good Church, Bad Church
In The Reason For God, Timothy Keller notes that Christians have frequently been on both sides of historical injustice.
Many church leaders supported chattel slavery of African slaves in Great Britain, but it was an anti-slavery coalition led by Christian activist William Wilberforce which saw the practice outlawed after long and passionate struggle.
When Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian minister, helped to lead the American Civil Rights movement, he had to respond to white ministers that tried to convince him to stand down from his work.
In the letter King wrote from a Birmingham jail and in multiple sermons, King argued that Christianity demanded that injustice must be resisted.
In South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid while Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu was a powerful voice in the protests which led to the downfall of the institutionalized bigotry. After elections ousted the oppressive government regime, Tutu advocated for and participated in a reconciliation commission which helped avoid a bloody civil war of reprisal which many anticipated.
While Nazis attempted to co-op the church in Germany to give approval to their actions, it was Christian beliefs that led people like Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to speak and act out against the regime. In the case of Bonhoeffer, he would pay for his actions with his life.
Keller's point here is that the Christian faith actually contains within itself the tools necessary to self correct wrong ideology and theology.
Those who (mis)use scripture to oppress others based on nationality, gender or social status can be confronted with the message of radical acceptance described by Paul whereby all are equal in the light of the redemptive work of the cross of Christ (see Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11, for example).
Likewise, Peter declares that "God shows no favoritism" after the Holy Spirit instructs him to show value to 'outsiders' which he would previously not have thought eligible for any sort of relationship.
The Culture War Within
Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthians 6 that Christians are supposed to keep ourselves accountable to the standards of scripture. We cannot be the salt of the earth unless we refine from ourselves the impurities that would render us useless to society.
It seems clear that we are failing to fulfill the diversity which Paul and Peter envision in the scriptures cited above, yet the fact that believers are disregarding this shortcoming is where we must invest as a church.
The responsibility for correcting this issue falls to us. How can we rouse our fellow believers to address this issue, which we have been dealing with in the church from the beginning when accusations arose that Greek speaking widows were being ignored in favor of those who speak Hebrew the first documented internal church crisis (Acts 6)?
How Can We Address This Issue?
1. Humility, not Deniability
The result of the study which I find most frustrating is the fact that over two thirds of respondents felt their church was doing enough.
That's like me saying I'm doing enough to get in shape, but I still gained 10 pounds. At some point, you don't get to 'feel' like you're doing a good job when the actual results reveal that no progress has been made.
If we're not getting results in this area, our first step needs to be a willingness to take a hard look at what is leading to the results.
Are we playing music which communicates that we are only interested in particular type of person?
Do we use media or artwork or language which only reflects one group of people?
Do the people on our stage reflect who we are, or more importantly, who we want to be?
What is leading to these unhealthy results?
A friend of mine told me of a ministry who used old naval terms for their giving support levels. Their entry level was 'powder monkey'. In context, it has no inherent prejudice, but my friend told the ministry that they may not get many black people willing to provide that level of support and getting a label with the word monkey in it. The ministry defended their choice and made no change.
As ambassadors of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must remember that our preferences are not sacred. We are told, very clearly, that anything we do which is not filled with love is worthless.
2.Unity in Diversity, not Conformity
When Paul speaks (as previously noted) that there is "no longer Jew or Gentile,slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus", he's not advocating that we become genderless, identity free people without a defined role.
Paul is saying that the identity which Christ provides - a new creation harkening to the restoration of all things which the resurrection of Christ began - cuts across all those identities.
A Jew and Gentile can each have that equal value in the midst of their different ethnicities.
The privileged and the unprivileged in society have equal value in the eyes of the faith community.
Both genders have equal standing before God.
We must not seek to become 'colorblind' in our churches - we must rather see that the God who declares he will have every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping together before him wants a blended community rather than a merging into neutral existences.
Rather than negating the existence of different cultures and skin tones, we should see the value of each exist in its fullest form through the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit in us as individuals and communities.
3. Relationship, not Platitudes
People will not show up where they do not feel they belong or are welcome and wanted.
We can talk about diversity in our churches a great deal, but at some point we will have to be intentional about inviting those who are not a part of our community.
Church leaders can choose to use a sermon series directed at reconciliation, arrange a pulpit swap or joint community outreach with a church predominantly of a different primary makeup, intentionally build a relationship with a school or organization that connects with a different primary people group; but if the attenders and volunteers of that church do not create an atmosphere of sincere acceptance for any guests who arrive, such efforts will simply be pandering to a noble idea, and result in a worse condition than before.
We must each be willing to see Christ in another believer, not matter what physical differences exist, and to embrace the love Christ has for those who have not yet discovered the redemption of the cross - again regardless of physical attributes.
Jesus made real connections with the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Demoniac in Gerasene and he had valuable interactions with a Syrian woman and a Roman centurion.
What lines of normal social behavior are you crossing to build connections with other people?
It may be hard to have hope that the church will one day throw off the status quo of self segregation based on the fact we are still dealing with these issues after two millennia, but we must embrace the reality of the diverse crowd worshipping God in Revelation 7 to give us hope in our efforts today.
Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew who has affected the lives of Chinese believers, Syrian believers, Canadian believers, El Salvadorian believers, Ukrainian believers, Argentinian believers, and every corner of our world.
If his Good News can transcend the border and divisions our world tends accepts, surely it calls us to do the same.
The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in you. He also lives in every other believer in Jesus. If we can't make genuine connection to others across that bridge, then we are missing out on a big part of the abundant life which Jesus has called us to: being part of the Body of Christ.