The Common Good

Time's Report on Race and Megachurches: The Backstory

Time magazine's Jan. 11 issue hit newsstands last week with a compelling teaser on its cover: "How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge America's Racial Divide." Soon, e-mails and Facebook updates from friends alerted me to the article and urged me to check it out. A Time report on Christians and the racial divide? This was a big deal.

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those topics that come and go based on who's currently talking it up. Back in the mid-1990s, when groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Promise Keepers men's ministry were on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial "we are one" buzz.

Almost a decade ago (yikes!), when I worked at Christianity Today, we convened a forum of Christian leaders to discuss the then-controversial findings of the just-released book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book's thesis, as we summarized it then: Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. And then the whopper: Evangelical theology, with its individualized worldview, actually hinders our progress toward racial reconciliation and social justice in America. Emerson and Smith's work arguably did more to elevate the conversation about race among white evangelicals than any other book over the last 40 years.

In my own book on Christians and race, I wrote about the significance of Divided by Faith and how it challenged and inspired countless Christian leaders, including, most famously, Willow Creek Community Church's founding pastor Bill Hybels. That a book on race could actually transform the thinking of one of the nation's most influential evangelical pastors says a lot, so it wasn't surprising to see Time magazine pick up on the story too.

I was a bit taken aback when Time's religion writer David Van Biema called me out of the blue last year to pick my brain on the "desegregation of evangelical megachurch" theme around which his article was taking shape. I initially pushed him to consider the many smaller churches and ministries that had been intentionally pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity long before the ideas showed up on Willow Creek's radar screen. I suggested that any increase in racial diversity at megachurches like Willow is probably due more to the changing demographics of the suburbs, with their growing numbers of middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. My theory was that it's not so much that the megachurches are becoming more intentional about race but that they just naturally offer large, neutral settings for middle-class minorities who don't feel entirely comfortable in ethnic-specific churches, but who would feel out of place in smaller, all-white congregations as well. The size and seeker-friendly nature of megachurches make them ideal places for minority Christians to just become a part of the scenery (i.e. community) without any pressure to be that church's representative "black family" or "Latino family." While I think this is still a large part of what's happening with the increasing racial diversity in big evangelical churches, I realize that there are many other factors at play as well. And I applaud David for taking on the huge task of exploring this phenomenon.

With the Time article reviving the race conversation among evangelicals (at least for another week or so), I thought it would be interesting to chat with David about his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Check out my interview with him at UrbanFaith.com, then come on back and let me know what you think about some of the issues David's article raises.

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog.

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