By the year 2044 America is projected to be a majority-minority country. That means Caucasians will no longer be the majority. If the projection proves true, and current church attendance trends continue, American Evangelical churches have a problem to solve.
The often unintended message communicated by Evangelical churches is that the most important people in the audience are white Christians. This isn’t something that is part of our mission or vision statements nor is it discussed in our board rooms, but in subtle ways it is expressed.
Every good organization has a target audience, and churches are no different, even if only by default. Attending a weekend service, visiting the website, or following on social media can quickly reveal to a guest who a church is targeting with their message.
Who is the target of humor? What are the common names used in illustrations? What events or people from culture are referenced? The answers to questions like these reveal the target audience of every church. Organizations bend towards its audience like a plant toward sunlight. Decisions are made with that audience in mind. Although the decisions and presentations are often extemporaneous or the result of long standing tradition, they do speak loudly to both those targeted and those not targeted.
Almost two years ago I was extremely privileged to go with a church on a pilgrimage to Israel. The history and imagery of that country is breathtakingly majestic. While we were there we toured dozens of historic sites and learned more about the rich traditions that made them significant. One of the stops on the pilgrimage was of course, the Western Wall.
The Western Wall was every bit as awe-inspiring as I could’ve imagined. People who pray there are joining millions of others over thousands of years who have prayed on that sacred ground. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and those not affiliated with any religion are all welcome to take part in the tradition of praying at the wall. The wall has written prayers stuffed inside its crevices from Presidents, kings, athletes, and celebrities from all around the world. All are welcome at the wall, but are all treated equally?
I knew that the Western Wall had segregated areas for men and women to pray. It was a memorable part of the trip to have our group split when we arrived at the Wall. However, I wasn’t truly aware how much of a lesser experience the wall was for the women with us until after returning home and watching a reality tv star make a visit. It was on television, looking at the Western Wall from the outside, that I noticed the stark difference.
The men’s area is much larger than the women’s. Men are allowed to read the torah, wear a prayer shawl, and pray out loud. Women are not. Women are welcome at the Western Wall, but reminded by the space and limitations of their experience, that the wall is mainly for men.
In Evangelical churches across America, people of color and women have a similar experience. They are welcome. Pastors are thrilled when they come, but their ability to deeply engage is limited by the fact that intentionally or unintentionally, they are not the target audience of the weekend programming. The pre and post service playlists, the worship songs, the sermon illustrations, and the over all feel of the service, all communicate that they are there more to observe than to participate.
I recently shared the story of the Western Wall with a group of weekend planners and asked them to begin searching for areas of programming within their services that leaves minorities with too little space to have a rich experience at their churches. It’s remarkable what they began to identify as barriers once that dialog was opened to them. Asking people of color what they have observed is also great way to discover areas within a church that have catered too much to only white Christians.
The year 2044 is not a long way off. What changes does your organization need to make today to remain in existence tomorrow?