I don’t know whether Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I do know that lots of people say it’s so, and they say it to make us feel guilty about our Sunday mornings, and they rarely if ever feel the need to back up their claim with facts.
Whether the facts back up the literal truth of the statement, at least we can agree that the general sentiment rings true: congregations tend to skew toward one skin color or another. Okay.
But you know what else rings true? The general sentiment that your local grocery store skews toward one particular skin color. Yet, no one is walking out of grocery stores in a huff, lamenting that grocery shopping is the most segregated activity in America.
That’s because when we see a horde of pasty white Caucasians swearing at the self-checkout machines at the local Sam’s Club, we’re allowed to consider causes other than racism. Maybe Sam doesn’t hate black people, after all. Maybe the store just happens to be located in a predominately white community. When you’re in a rush to pick up dinner for your wife and four children, convenience trumps diversity.
We give grocery stores the benefit of a doubt. Why, then, do we give Christians the “guilty until proven innocent” treatment? Is racism the only explanation for our arrangement into homogeneous congregations? Is it possible those pale-skinned catechumens bending their knees at the cross don’t always harbor a secret yearning to toss gasoline on that cross and launch it blazing onto the lawn of the colored folks next door?
This is not just a theoretical question. This is about walking into a sanctuary, seeing a bunch of smiling white faces, and instead of feeling encouraged by their smiles, feeling an urge to recoil from the unspoken racial animosity behind the masks. This is about growing weary of the self-loathing and trying to figure out if we can free ourselves from this disgust, this shame, this sadness that defiles our holy celebrations. This is about waking up from a trance in which we’ve been flagellating ourselves like penitent monks who see the devil crouching in the margins of their prayer books or leering up at them from their breakfast bowl. This is about being comfortable enough in our skin to say, “Hey, it’s a bunch of white people! So what?”
Tellingly, conversations about segregated churches always omit the most obvious targets. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, literally identifies itself in its very name with Africans. Or how about the Greek Orthodox Church? If there is any religious practice designed to cater to one ethnic group while alienating all others, it’s the Greek church’s habit of performing its liturgy in Greek. And now with our nation’s large influx of Hispanic immigrants, some churches even offer alternate Sunday services just for Spanish-speaking people. If you want to divide your church by racial groups, segregating your Latinos into a different time slot with a separate Latino pastor is a great way to do that.
But the people who wring their hands over segregated churches don’t cite these examples. Their target is always the Evangelical megachurch in some upper middle-income suburb, or the historic Baptist congregation in some sleepy town of farms and picket fences. Or if we really want to be trendy, we fuss that the cool new multiracial church in some hipster metropolis doesn’t yet have enough diversity or enough minority-focused programming to earn absolution from the charge of secret unwokeness.
Of course, once upon a time, churches were filled with racists. Back in the 50s, nobody was arguing whether racism was common. The argument was whether racism was right or wrong. That’s the environment in which Martin Luther King shamed Americans with his statement about Sunday morning segregation, and he was right to do so. But when the battle shifts from a campaign against an open enemy to a campaign against a secret enemy, you’ve got to be cautious. We all need to be cautious what we assume.
That being the case, let me suggest potential non-racist explanations for the demographics of America’s churches:
- Theological preferences.
- Worship and liturgical preferences.
- Religious upbringing.
- Cultural differences.
For example, my own church is predominately white, but its racial makeup mirrors that of the predominately white community in which it resides. Folks here tend to hail from Italian, Irish, German or Polish ancestry. Also, our pastor is a white man who leans toward Calvinist theological views. If you look up Calvinism in a thesaurus, synonyms include Dutch, Scots-Irish, Frozen Chosen, Protestant Work Ethic, and Stuff White People Like. Our music melds traditional protestant hymns and contemporary soft rock “praise and worship” styles, which, again…WHITE PEOPLE.
By contrast, the religious landscape of American black culture incorporates slavery, old southern spirituals, charismatic worship, boisterous preaching, liberation theology, and hints of Africa as filtered through the deep south and the contemporary urban experience. Your average white guy (i.e. me) feels totally out of place in a black church, and it’s not just because of color. It’s because of different customs, different experiences and even different views of Scripture and God — differences that “racial reconciliation” doesn’t necessarily solve.
In other words, it’s complicated.