We Don't Use the R-Word

Let's get honest about race and the modern-day Church.

Rodney King. Reginald Denny. O.J. Simpson. Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman.

The sound of each name evokes powerful emotions and agonizing memories. And with the Martin/Zimmerman case stretching into it’s fifth month without closure, as well as the death of Rodney King this past Father’s Day, we are reminded again that the issue of race in America really hasn’t gone anywhere.

Having a president who sings Al Green, plays pick-up basketball, and once wore an Afro doesn’t change that any of that.

The truth is, we live in a nation with a festering sore that sits just under society’s surface, and these names drag the ugly disease of racism and prejudice out in the open. Every few years, it seems we are right back where we started.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In this barren wilderness of hatred, misunderstanding and pain, the stage has been set for the Church’s prophetic voice to call out.

In this barren wilderness of hatred, misunderstanding and pain, the stage has been set for the Church’s prophetic voice to call out. To speak grace, peace, healing and forgiveness.

Sadly, the Church isn’t ready.

Like Dr. King said in 1968, “We must face the sad fact that at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

In the 44 years that have elapsed since the pastor and civil rights leader made this statement, how much has really changed? Not much.

Kevin Dougherty, a leading sociologist at Baylor University, found that 15 percent of U.S. congregations today are multiracial, meaning that no single group represents over 80 percent of participants. This means, he said, that still more than 8 out of 10 U.S. congregations are largely homogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity. “In the most intimate levels of life (faith, friends, family), we remain a nation divided by race,” he says.

As frustrating as these statistics are, this problem isn’t confined to American Christians or to our epoch of human history. Racism is recorded early and often in the Scriptures. In Acts 11, for example, after experiencing visions, miracles and Jesus’ clear command to be a Church of all nations, a large segment of Christians remained staunch segregationists. In their desire to remain ethically exclusive, those preachers missed God and defied their mandate.

In the 44 years that have elapsed since the pastor and civil rights leader made this statement, how much has really changed? Not much.

Conversely, those that went to all people and shared the message of Jesus experienced the hand of God, and a "great number of people believed and turned to the Lord" (Acts 11: 21 NIV).

The second group received divine blessing and favor, while the first group received nothing. Though they went in the name of Jesus, the power of Jesus wasn’t with them. What’s worse, they didn’t even notice.

Could the same be said of us in the present-day American Church? Have we become so accustomed to ethnic exclusivity and subtle prejudice in the name of Jesus that we don’t even realize when it's happening?

An even better question is: How can we change it?

1. Realize it's not just "them," it’s us

When is the last time someone admitted to you they were a racist? The biggest misnomer is that everyone else has a problem. But the truth is, every one of us has hidden prejudices that have manifested at one time or another. The faster we understand and admit our reality, the faster Jesus can transform us.

2. Expand our circle

Though we have greater reach than ever before through technology, this isn’t always reflected in our day-to-day relationships. As humans, we have a tendency to spend the most time with the people most like us (or those we perceive to be like us). But when we step out of our comfort zone of friendships, we soon find that even though others are different from us—visually, stylistically, culturally, politically—people are just people.

3. Listen more, speak less

Anybody can be an expert on anything nowadays. We just need a blog and an Internet connection. But what if we looked to hear twice as much as we spoke (or typed)? What if we listened to someone’s true perspective without interrupting? We just might discover we don’t know quite as much as we think. When we take a posture of humility, God’s grace is added to us.

4. Pray for change

This is a spiritual struggle, and we need God’s power to overcome it.

This is a spiritual struggle, and we need God’s power to overcome it. As the Apostle Paul writes, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6:12). This is much bigger than any one of us. We can’t make it different by amassing human strength or wishing it away. We need Jesus to help us. When we pray, we bring divine might to the scene and can hope for transformative change.

The Church is destined to be a movement that shakes a generation with the energy of our Christ-centered community—a place where the sin of racism and segregation is no longer allowed to trump the power of Jesus’ love.

Because one day in eternity, there will be Neo-Nazis and Black Supremacists, Jews and Arabs, terrorists and the terrorized, and all will raise their voices in worship of Jesus with hands that are clasped and hearts that are broken. May we give ourselves and our voices to the realization of this vision on earth, as it will one day be in heaven.

Talk About It

What's your response to the problem of race in the modern-day Church? How do you see it crop up? Where do you see efforts being made to break down these barriers?



Jbarnes662 commented…

I was talking about the world in general. Can't deny that there aren't stereotypes


Anonymous commented…

Just this past Sunday at church, my pastor gave a whole sermon about the importance of multiculturalism and diversity (and not just in terms of race, but all facets that make up a culture) in the church. He brought up the exact same statistic: that only 15% of churches are multiracial. He even questioned whether we should even consider a church that is still 80% one race "multiracial."

My church (it's called Ethnos Community Church, for anyone who is curious: http://www.ethnos.us) is in San Diego, which is a very diverse city, so that definitely contributes to why we're a multicultural church and we're so blessed to be one. However, there are tons of churches in SD that are still predominantly one race.

In short, I completely agree with the author on the importance of multiculturalism in the church. Jesus was very adamant about welcoming people of all backgrounds into the church.


Anonymous commented…

It is a good issue to address, because it has to do with validity. We all know the goal of most religions as written is peace to all, but how many actually live by their words? You see kids that don't try at school, because they know that many of the adults they encounter in their experience do not live by their word. They lose faith. You see at schools and in prisons that people tend to naturally segregate themselves into groups, so there is something innate, against the grain, to be overcome. Although there are many different kinds of christians, in my experience conservative christians are among the most racist people that I have encountered, both black and white. I grew up in majority black pentecostal churches, and have a fair amount of experience in the typical 90% white churches, and I definitely see a certain worldview and politics portrayed in the conservative style caucasian ones. I have noticed the russian immigrant churches are more blatantly racist and hateful of other groups, which at least has a certain honesty to it. They're not hiding it. Some of the comments I have heard could be shocking to some, normal to others.

I definitely do get the sense and feeling in many churches of "going around in circles". For example, a preacher preaching a message of goodwill and to show concern for others, which lands on his flock, and perpetuates his small group, but does not interact with the world outside this small circle.

I saw a nasty-looking prostitute walking down the street today. With a feeling of empathy, one might wonder, who is keeping this woman safe? Who is making sure she eats, who is caring for her? Who is showing her God's love? The answer that we do not want to admit to ourselves is that no one is.

Laura Cox


Laura Cox commented…

No, racism definitely exists with the church. Certainly not all of the time, but it is there-- generally it is unconscious and/or a reflection of the institutional racism found in society.

As an example, you mentioned that people tend to go to church near where they live, and they happen to live in more homogenous communities... well think about why that happens, why are our communities more segregated now then they were in 1968? personal choice certainly doesn't account for all of that difference. Instead of stopping at the surface, let's examine the root causes of our separation and make an honest attempt to heal.

Let's try to reflect the heart of God. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 2:28) The greatest sameness we should need is that we are all God's children.

(PS I am really sorry if this seems like a personal attack! It is NOT. I just don't have a lot of time to type this!)

Phil Aud


Phil Aud commented…

I'm very thankful for this post and would like to add my two cents.

First, I am not America. I live and work in the US (at a church) and have for the past few years. Before coming here I worked at a church in the greater Toronto area. It should be noted that what this is post articulating (on the front end of the article, at least) is to be understood within US history. I'm 34 years old and have had the opportunity to speak to senior citizen African American men and women. In the US, in their lifetime(!), they were made to sit on the back of the bus, couldn't sit in the same sections of the theatres that the white kids could...drink from the same fountains...I could go on. This is recent history. Not hundred's of years ago, this was a reality for many of our Grandparents, and some of our parents. In Canada - in , with a few exceptions, there are not "black" churches, and "white" churches in our more populated cities like there are here. Many (most?) of the churches in the Toronto area are highly diverse. Ironically, the music in those churches may be very "Hillsongish". Music is not a big factor like it is here. There is, however, an exception to this which is in Nova Scotia. What is the difference? The history of "Africville" in Halifax is very similar to the history here in the US. The point is that you are not dealing simply with generic principals, but people within a specific place with a specific history. The point of the article stands - much needs to be done, and much healing needs to take place. By the way, it's not that Canada doesn't struggle with it's issues of race and class, it's just that the issues look very different due to the different history and context.

The second thing that I will bring up is with the comments on "demographics". First, we should not expect a church in Arizona to look like a church in New York City. This is okay. A church needs to pay attention to it's place (a lost art in our time). That being said, I believe that if we are to use "demographic studies", they should probably be done in reverse. Paul, in 1 Corinthians uses the analogy of the body for the church. The context of this writing is with regards to "race" and "class". It is clear that the attention is not to go to the majority, but to those who are the minority among us. This does not mean that the minority are to become the majority. Rather, it means that we are to pay special attention to those who need it - within the context that Paul has already provided!

Finally, the idea that there is no race is absurd and unfounded. To add to this comment, the Biblical idea is not that we become one race. While Acts 2 is a reversal of Babel, it is a reversal with an exception! Miroslav Volf writes,"Pentecost overcomes the "confusion" and the resulting false "scattering," but it does so not by reverting to the unity of cultural uniformity, but by advancing toward the harmony of cultural diversity". This of course point the book of Revelation as one commenter already noted.

Sorry for the lengthy comment :)

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