We celebrate diversity. This is a sentence echoed from nearly every Evangelical pastor in America. Yet it is so difficult to find a diverse church on Sunday. Why does Sunday morning continue to be the most segregated time of the week in America? There are a number of different factors that contribute to lack of diversity. I would argue that one of the number one reasons is that few churches are willing to have healthy conversations about race in their sanctuaries and their boardrooms. Talking about race IRL can twist your stomach in knots and put a lump in your throat because it’s not a popular discussion. If you’ve ever wondered why your church hasn’t talked about it, I have some ideas.
When I wrote my first blog post about how white evangelical churches struggled to make room at their leadership table for POC, there were some pastors who brought up location. They raised an issue I’ve heard several times in my life about white suburbia. “We just don’t have many people of color in our community.” I understand the tension that creates. Most of the people we are trying to reach are white, and we have a responsibility to present the gospel in a way that reaches the people in our community. Church planters are trained to plant in a demographic area that best fits who they are. The logic is sound, and it’s tough to argue with it. However, if the homogeneous community is why a church chooses to opt out of addressing the issue of race and racism, that should signal a red flag.
The idea that a churches’ community is predominantly white means they are exempt from talking about race suggests that racism is not their issue, but someone else’s. Failing to talk about racism also deprives the white people in that community of the opportunity to recognize their own bias and repenting for the racism that has laid dormant in their hearts because it has never been brought to light. Pastors in such communities fail their attendees and send an implicit message that racism is an evil the suburbs can abide.
I’ve written about this principle in previous blogs. When you have a room full of republicans, democrats, libertarians, librarians, barbarians, and communists, you have to be careful not to alienate any of them. The best way to do that is by not saying or doing anything from the stage that can be divisive in nature or make people uncomfortable. I once heard a white pastor suggest that an emotive, black female worship leader should tone it down because the largely white audience couldn’t identify with her. The idea being that large churches stay large by avoiding polarization. Pastors and leaders have to exercise wisdom in how they use the platform.
The question I have is, is the church’s ultimate goal to stay large or to speak the truth? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive? If so, which one is the churches ultimate responsibility? When something is true but has the potential to make half the room uncomfortable should churches avoid talking about them? Race is one of those issues. With the inception of identity politics, race has become an issue that primarily concerns people with a progressive or left-leaning political posture. It seems that by reflex those who are on the other side of the aisle politically and perhaps literally would balk at the very idea of talking about race in church. Their political stance is that it’s a non-issue, and bringing it up in a church at all is taking a side. Churches have a moral obligation to talk about barriers to righteousness. Racism is one of those barriers. When a moral issue is hijacked by politics it’s the job of the church to get it back and help their people rightly approach the issue justly.
3. Not our mission:
Great churches stay on mission. There are a ton of good things churches could be doing, but no church can do everything. Many churches, like any other organization, close their doors because they fail to stay on mission. Dealing with racism is viewed by many white evangelical leaders as a worthy cause, but not the fundamental mission of the church. It’s one of many good causes in the world. There are issues like human trafficking, world hunger or clean water projects that are also on the list of good deeds the church can do for the world. Racism often gets buried beneath that pile of worthy causes the church should focus on. Casting the issue of race with those world problems seems appropriate. Unfortunately, I’ve found that many times this line of reasoning is just a smoke screen to allow the church to avoid the awkwardness of challenging the white people in the room to look inwardly at racism.
Most churches don’t hesitate to address human trafficking, clean water and world hunger among many other issues. I would be willing to wager that there are more people in the congregation who have personally felt the effects of racism within the past two weeks than there are people who have ever been trafficked, lacked clean water or been starving. Please understand that I’m not advocating for efforts going toward ridding the world of the evils of those three should be diverted to address racism. I’m simply pointing out the flaw in the argument that racism belongs in the category with other missions projects. It’s an issue that affects human beings sitting in the seats, singing the songs, and hearing the messages.
It feels good to write a check to get clean water to a thirsty family in Africa. What doesn’t feel good is to confront the belief that my family is superior to theirs. Sending money to help people who live in Africa doesn’t absolve me of racism toward the African decedents who live in my community.
4. We only focus on the Bible:
There are many churches that are adamant that they don’t do topical messages. They aren’t trying to make a point the Bible doesn’t make. They preach and teach only what the Bible says. Anything else is outside of the scope of what the church should be about. Exegetical churches pride themselves on teaching from what the Bible says and making applications from that rather than having a pre-conceived topic and finding scriptures that speak to that topic. It’s certainly an admirable approach to leading a church. It’s great for helping people know what the Bible says, and helping congregates be Biblically literate. Many pastors and church leaders believe the topic of race is outside of the scope of Biblical teaching.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Teaching on racism is not disconnected from scripture. There are a number of different instances where Jesus himself subtly touches on the issue of race. The woman at the well and the story of the Good Samaritan come to mind. The book of Acts is primarily about how Jewish men made room for Gentile men and women to come to faith. Churches that struggle to find Biblical references to refute racism are likely reading from the WNV (white nationalist version).
If you find yourself at a church where the subject of race isn’t addressed or you have questions about how it’s been addressed. Talk to someone in leadership. If any of the above comes up. Ask some hard questions. Not to cause division or to be malicious, but from a place of honest inquiry.
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