A Reflection on Racial Diversity in our Churches
With your blood you [Jesus] purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. Revelation 5:9
There’s only one place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist, and that’s in the Everglades. The park’s fresh waters, in which gators dwell, mingle with Florida Bay’s salt water, which crocs need, providing the perfect environment for both of these reptiles.
My husband Joe and I saw plenty of alligators when we visited the Everglades—not surprising, since there are over a million of them in Florida alone—and we were fortunate to spot a crocodile in the Flamingo area (they’re an endangered species, with only an estimated 500 in existence in the U.S.). We were able to tell the difference between them, even from a safe distance (highly recommended), thanks to a tutorial in a park visitor center. We learned crocodiles are olive-colored, with pointier snouts, and their lower teeth are visible when their mouths are shut (the preferred way to observe them, in my opinion).
You might say Joe and I live in a croc and gator world. We look quite different from the majority of residents around us—we’re Caucasian, and most of our neighbors are African-American. Our church is similarly mixed. Living and worshiping in integrated settings has been one of the richest experiences of our lives.
I also realize it’s not the norm, especially when it comes to church. It was Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike who first said, “The 11 o’clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life” (quoted in the May 16, 1960 issue of US News & World Report), a phrase echoed later that decade by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University, mentions that same axiom in his conclusions from the National Congregations Study:
Congregations have become more ethnically and racially diverse even since 1998, [when] 20 percent of attendees were in congregations that were completely white and non-Hispanic; in 2006-07, 14 percent were.
Let me be clear about what this means. We do not see significant increases since 1998 in the proportion of predominantly Latino or Asian or African American congregations in the United States. Nor do we see any significant increase in what we might call deeply diverse congregations…What we do see is a significant increase in the presence of some minorities in predominantly white congregations. Fewer congregations, in other words, are 100 percent white and non-Hispanic.
I do not want to overstate the significance of this trend. It definitely is too soon to discard the old saw that 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. The vast majority of American congregations remain overwhelmingly white or black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever...Somewhat like black-white intermarriage, which is increasing even though it remains rare, increasing minority presence in predominantly white congregations represents some progress, however small, in a society in which ethnicity and, especially, race, still divide us.
Race still divides us in America, even with our election of a black president? You bet. Joe and I have seen it first hand, and perhaps you have too. But is it really an important issue within the church?
I believe it is. If you want to know why, I recommend three books: Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith; United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation As an Answer to the Problem of Race, by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim; and One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches by George Yancey.
Here’s a thought: Wouldn’t it be a powerful testimony to the Gospel to be able to say that another place crocs and gators gather is in church at 11 o’clock Sunday morning?
As we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., today, and our first African American President is sworn in for his second term, what are your thoughts? Are we making progress toward integration through our churches…throughout our nation?
Penny Musco is a freelance writer with a terrific family—husband, daughter, mom, two brothers, and an assortment of in-laws, nieces and nephews. Her first passion is living for God as His child, redeemed from my “empty way of life…with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19). A second is being with her family. Creating stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a third. And then there’s travel, especially to places where she can get up close and personal with the natural world. Trekking through the national parks is the best way she's found to combine all four.
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