The State of the Union: my take on race relations in the American evangelical church

I grew up in the 3rd most diverse city in America.[i]  Every day in the summer, the Filipino, Mexican, Black, Korean, White and Biracial kids on my block would play kickball in the street and then break bread (or rather, popsicles from the ice cream truck) together. It never occurred to me that this type of cross-cultural contact was unusual, nor was I savvy enough to know that our motley crew would make for a great photo shoot for a cheesy diversity brochure. Diversity wasn’t “staged” in my life. It was simply my life. My school was diverse. The people who shopped and worked at the local grocery store were diverse. Even my church was diverse.  While the vast majority of evangelical churches in the 1980s were racially homogenous, I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a multiethnic church that was almost exactly 25% Black, 25% White, 25% Hispanic and 25% Asian. This made perfect sense to my young mind; living in a diverse city and attending a diverse church simply went hand-in-hand. Fast forward 25 years.  Much to my delight, the ethnic/racial landscape of America is changing and America is starting to look more like my hometown. A recent Atlantic article that examined the diversity of American metropolitan areas stated: “Even though majority-white places remain the norm, "all-white" places declined from about two-thirds in 1980 to one-third of all places in 2010. 97.8 percent of metros, 97.2 percent of micro areas, and 95.6 of rural areas experienced an upward shift in their diversity index over the past three decades.”[ii]

The landscape of American evangelicalism is changing too. Recent data on global migration patterns from Fuller Theological Seminary professor Jehu Hanciles predicts that in the near future, American evangelicalism will be predominantly non-white.[iii]

The diverse kingdom of God is at hand. Is the American evangelical church responding appropriately?  Are our churches keeping pace with the diversity in America?

THE GOOD

When it comes to race relations in the American evangelical church, there is much cause to celebrate. In an American evangelical world that was once almost exclusively dominated by white voices, strong voices from people of color are emerging and impacting the consciousness of “mainstream” American evangelicals: pastors such as Eugene Cho, Thabiti Anyabwile and Tony Evans ; academicians such as Soong-Chan Rah and Brenda Salter-McNeil; and denominational/organizational leaders such as Efrem Smith, Jo Saxton and Fred Luter.

Further, many prominent white evangelical voices – such as Greg Boyd, John Piper, Shane Claiborne and Tim Keller – are speaking out against racial disunity/injustice and leading others towards reconciliation. At the same time, the number of multi-ethnic churches (churches that are composed of at least 20% non-majority members) is growing in number and multi-ethnic church movements such as Mosaix are gaining momentum[iv]. Efrem Smith, author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, suggests that the election of President Obama and the success of such African Americans as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey are evidence that American evangelicalism is ready for a more diverse leadership. "You saw black people who weren't just leaders of other black people," he said. "They are leaders of all people."

THE BAD

Despite these positive changes, there are three glaring issues that I’d like to point out.

  1. A number of the “multiethnic” churches are multiethnic in composition but not multiethnic in practice. Even though a relatively large number of non-majority members attend the church, they do not necessarily have a share in the leadership/power or have a voice in influencing the culture of the church.  In these churches, non-majority members are expected to fully assimilate to the dominant culture of the church. To me, this falls short of the transformative and interdependent unity that we are called to live as the body of Christ.
  2. The “new evangelical” and “emerging” movements have yet to participate in conversations/actions concerning race relations and/or the multiethnic church movement.[v]  As a result, “new evangelicalism” and “emerging” churches look a lot like the old evangelicalism. In my opinion, this is a step backward and a disheartening one at that.
  3. The American evangelical church remains segregated along racial lines. According to Pew’s 2007 American Religious Landscape Survey,  whites made up more than 9 in 10 members of mainline Protestant churches and more than 8 in 10 members of evangelical Protestant churches, while blacks made up more than 9 in 10 members of historically black churches.[vi]  Unfortunately, “white” churches are still white and “black” churches are still black. Sadly, Martin Luther King’s famous assessment in 1963 that “At 11am Sunday morning, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation” is still true today.

THE UGLY

We often think that homogenous churches are harmless. However, much research on homogenous groups suggests that homogeneity has sinister and far-reaching consequences. Indeed, researcher Samuel Perry of the University of Chicago says, “Segregated churches breed segregated lives”[vii] in which many evangelicals can go about most of their lives without engaging in meaningful cross-cultural interactions.

One consequence of our segregated churches and lives is perspective divergence[viii]. This begins when homogenous group members adopt a worldview based on their limited experiences and then surround themselves with like-minded fellow group members who’ve had similar experiences and can emphatically confirm their worldview. Since they rarely hear from diverse people who have had alternative experiences and worldviews, homogenous group members have a difficult time perceiving the world in any way other than their own.  In fact, when a non-group member challenges their perception of the world, they tend to write that person off or even ostracize her simply because she holds a different perspective[ix]. Until we overcome our segregation, learn to “walk a mile in another’s shoes,” and humbly consider different cultural perspectives (even those that contradict our own), we will have a difficult time loving well across cultural differences.

Another consequence of segregation is prejudice[x]. Decades of social psychological research on group processes suggests that group segregation and prejudice have a bi-directional relationship.  That is, prejudice tends to contribute to division between groups and division between groups tends to contribute to prejudice. What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other groups, prejudice and hostility[xi]. Until we overcome our segregation, we will always be plagued by its sinister consequences.

HOPEFUL STEPS                                                                                                                                                                               

I believe that the American evangelical church can take active steps to overcome its racial divisions. At the most basic level, we simply need to cross boundaries and engage in meaningful, collaborative interracial interactions.  Segregation is our enemy; we must fight it as individuals and as churches/institutions. We also need to directly address perspective divergence by sharing stories with each other about our unique experiences.  Narrative is a powerful way for people recognize how and where their experiences converge and diverge. Lastly, we need to have serious conversations about power and privilege in the church. Too much the American evangelical world is still dominated by a white majority.  In order to truly experience the interdependent unity of the body of Christ, we need to ask uncomfortable questions about why certain groups of people have retained the vast majority of influence and how that can be rectified.

The diverse kingdom of God is at hand. All we have to do is reach out and take hold of it.



[i] http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/09/americas-most-and-least-diverse-metros/3206/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Hanciles, 2009

[iv] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012/09/18/churches-open-doors-to-all/57798200/1

[vi] http://religions.pewforum.org/comparisons#

[vii] http://blogs.thearda.com/trend/featured/the-ties-that-may-not-bind-race-religion-and-marriage/

[viii] Waldzus, Mummendey, Wenzel & Boettcher, 2004

[ix] Greg Boyd has written an excellent blog post about how this plays out in everyday life: http://reknew.org/2009/07/dr-gates-arrest-and-racial-profiling/

[x] Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008

[xi] For a more detailed discussion of this process, check our my blog post “The Myth of Harmless Homogeneity” at http://www.christenacleveland.com/2012/05/the-myth-of-harmless-homogeneity/