Thursday, September 27, 2007

Can churches be models of diversity?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called churches "the most segregated major institution in America." In a Q&A session after a speech at Western Michigan University in 1963, he said:

"The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. ... I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."
Churches are still largely segregated, at least in part because people feel more comfortable worshipping with those most like them -- alike not only in skin color but in class, culture, musical taste and theological outlook. It's understandable but unfortunate, since it robs us of the riches we can find in other outlooks and other forms of worship.

The New York Times reported recently on a church that was confronted with the strangeness of "others" but, instead of locking them out or running away, welcomed them and was transformed. An influx of refugees to Clarkston, Ga., in the past decade resulted in between a third and a half of the residents being foreign-born. Many long-time residents fled, and Clarkston Baptist Church faced a crisis as its membership fell from 600 to 100.

At first the church leased space to Filipinos, Vietnamese and Africans for their own services. Then the groups were invited to merge into the church, renamed Clarkston International Bible Church. Becoming a multiethnic house of worship has required compromise from everyone, but the result is this: The church is thriving.

Those who still think of evangelical churches as hotbeds of bigotry might be surprised to learn that they are, instead, on the leading edge of ethnic mixing. A recent study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that "In many large evangelical congregations, the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed."

They do this for the simple reason that they believe it is what the Bible tells them God wants. Faith overcomes fear of change, and fear of the "other." As Clarkston's pastor, the Rev. Phil Kitchin says, “Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations. So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”

King called on the church to "preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body." Here's a church that is doing both. Is yours?


D.J. said...

I have the privledge of pastoring a small youth group of about 10-15 middle school and high school students. As a white kid from the 'burbs, living and ministering in an inner-city environment has certainly been an adjustment for me. Yet few things have been as exciting as watching a group of teenagers from an array of ethnic backgrounds (many of them having an array of ethnic backgrounds within their own families) rally together as one body, one church under the banner of the gospel of Christ. Our church has a long way to go, don't get me wrong, but if our children and teenagers are any indication, we are fast becoming a church that is a reflection of our community. That is the call of the gospel - the gospel for all nations, not just those who are like us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...
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sky said...

Actually, I'd suggest you check out Catholic masses. Catholic churches tend to be very diverse because they aren't founded by members, but by the Diocese. If you really want to see diversity, ask the Charlotte Diocese for a copy of the DVD of Bishop's installation mass a couple of years ago. White, black, Vietnamese, Korean etc... it was quite a beautiful scene! "Catholic" means "universal".

Cato said...

The interesting thing in your piece is that the evangelical congregations probably emphasize congregational diversity less than other denominations, and they're thriving. It's the mainline Protestants who are much more ostentatious about their "tolerance" that are dwindling.

One difference is that the evangelicals put faith & doctrine front & center and stick to it - the mainliners are more likley to craft it to suit the sensibilities of the times. People respond to the former, but tend to be less likely to get dressed up on Sunday morning for the latter.

Anonymous said...

In 1969 I asked my Sunday school teacher if I could invite a black friend of mine, Marion Hayes, to talk to our class about desegregation from his point of view. Being a good Methodist, she had to ask. The answer was no.

I learned a lot about religion in those few words, and am not sure the congregation's attitude at that church has changed since then.

More recently other churches I have attended seem to be color blind, and they also seem to be the ones where the members actually
practice love of neighbors.

So for some, I suggest church is a social club, where membership is closely controlled, and others it is a place to practice the kindness most religions preach.

Bill Teal said...

The church is to preach Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, Raised and Glorified. The only brotherhood is the priesthood of believers in Christ Himself.
The church is not designed to implement social change, is not the moral overseer of the world, not designed to attempt to make all people into brothers, to create a brotherhood of like minded people, but to share Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, that His shed Blood can Redeem them from God’s wrath. To bring the message of redemption in acceptance of Christ as Savior and Redeemer, because it does no good to be all together going to hell to face God's wrath. Only Christ Jesus can save, and this world has no part in Him.

D.J. said...

Good comment, Bill.

The preaching of the gospel will produce a diverse church if we are doing it correctly, since it is the gospel for all people. Thus, racial diversity should be a reality in our churches in as much as it is a reality in our communities. We should not, however, celebrate diversity for diversity's sake, but rather for the fact that it points to our obedience in fulfilling the call of Christ to preach the gospel to all people.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...

Preach some gospel of Van Halen !!!!

New Charlottean said...

In college I visited churches of about every denomination, and it seemed like the Pentacostal and more charismatic churches were more diverse. I think this is probably because it's a livlier church atmosphere than most traditional white churches.

I went to one with a friend that was predominantly black (the church, that is, we're white) because we were invited. We enjoyed it, and the only reason we didn't go back a third time was because we were inconsistent college kids, a mile wide and an inch deep. The sermon was on fasting, which we did, and we came back the next week, when we heard whispers of happiness ("They came back!").

It's probably time for more white people to get out of their comfort zone instead of assuming it has to be the other way around (not that anyone here assumed that outright, but I think that's what we seem to do).

Anonymous said...

If you want to observe diversity, you might visit one of the mosques here in Charlotte. It is still time of Ramadan so it is good time to visit Sunday nigh (around 7pm).


Anonymous said...

Jane, I have attended the Clarkston Church and my home Baptist church in Spartanburg had a similar experience and is now integrated with Cambodians and Mexicans.