The Common Good

Diverse But Not Integrated: Religion’s Race Problem

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King immortalized many phrases still used in the contemporary American lexicon. But it was on Dec. 17, 1963 in a talk at Western Michigan University when he noted that the “most segregated hour in this nation” is 11 a.m. on Sunday.

by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia
Map of Racial Distribution in Detroit, by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

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Though many of King’s other famous quotes come from scripted speeches, the comment above actually was from part of a question-and-answer session with students and faculty about racial integration. He was asked if he believed that true racial integration must be spearheaded by the Christian churches, rather than in workplaces or on college campuses.

Suffice it to say that Dr. King begged to differ, and sadly, his words spoken 50 years ago ring eerily prophetic as we scan the halls of most of our churches. What he claimed then is still, today, a stark reality. He went on in his response:

“I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. 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.” 

But how? About the same time King made these keen observations, white people were leaving the inner cities by the millions, establishing more homogenous suburbs on the far boundaries of town. So-called “white flight” took hold, creating entirely new municipalities, while decaying urban centers were hollowed out, left only with an aging infrastructure and those who had no choice but to endure being left to fend for themselves.

As such, our churches were, in some ways, byproducts of the communities in which they found themselves. New suburban churches popped up in these new communities, while the older urban institutions either closed their doors or consolidated with other churches to try and survive. Few would consider driving a dozen miles or more to attend church, so in some sense, segregation was a matter of geography, though the impetus behind it was race-driven economic disparity.

Today, as an article featured in a recent issue of Wired magazine points out, our urban centers are revitalizing. More people than ever are living in the heart of a major metropolis, some bursting at the seams with more demand for housing than can be met. Transportation and commerce are renewed, and blocks once beset with decay are now being restored to their previous glory.

But the trouble is that, as the color-coded population distributions in the article point out, we’re just as segregated as before, despite living in relatively close proximity to one another. Part of this is human nature, as we tend to gravitate toward those with whom we share a common history or culture. But if this is the case, why don’t churches in these densely populated urban zones reflect the diversity of the shared cultural story of Christianity?

There are a few reasons for this, at least. For one, we humans tend to settle into familiar patterns and follow our own most well-worn paths unless forcibly pushed do to otherwise. This is the case irrespective of race. For example, just watch how many people sit in the exact same seats in church every Sunday. Predictable habits present a reward response in our brains that helps us feel we can make sense of an otherwise chaotic world.

So why don’t churches act as Dr. King wishes they had five decades ago? Why not help realize God’s multivariate kingdom here, on earth, by stirring things up, moving people around? One reason is because too many churches are in survival mode to take such risks. They’re like the families living in a home that is far bigger than they actually need, barely able to keep up with maintenance and payments. Best, in such cases goes the common wisdom, not to cause too many disruptions and risk losing key funding streams.

Add to this the travesty of the contemporary worship model that has resonated for decades in the DNA for Christian worship and church leadership. Independent of one’s personal feelings about contemporary worship styles, the ethos that came with this wave a few decades ago was one of reflecting the culture beyond the church doors. Assimilation was the name of the game, as churches tried to lure religious strays back with notes of the culturally familiar.

But with that came the values of a consumer-centric economic system, which desperately sought to place customers and their desires at the center of their own universe. Churches tragically followed suit, turning much of worship into entertainment to be consumed, rather than a corporate experience to provoke and engage. This, too, contributed to the dynamic of stasis in church, avoiding any opportunity to challenge those in the pews, for fear that they might trade their church in for one that was a better personal fit.

All of this speaks well of the missional church movements many opportunities to be the first to address this racial divide in earnest. With more faith communities meeting in homes or so-called “third spaces” like coffee shops and pubs, there are fewer institutional memories and bad habits to overcome. If something isn’t working, it’s much more easily abandoned and replaced. Stasis gives way to a more constantly dynamic community, which takes on the identity of the ever-changing faces of those who frequent it.

Also, an increasing number of leaders within the missional model take little or no salary from their work with the congregations they serve, which means they’re less dependent on the church for their livelihood. While this comes with its own stresses and disadvantages (such as not having a full-time pastor), leaders often can lead based more on what they believe is right, rather than on what will ensure their next paycheck doesn’t bounce.

All of this is, of course, a work in progress. One of the biggest criticisms of emerging new models of ministry is that they are hopelessly dominated by white men. A fair critique, but if the ground they plow creates a space for others to do church differently alongside them, there’s hope that Dr. King’s despairing wish for church to get beyond its moribund social standing and make real, substantive change on matters of racial integration.

Whether that dream will ever become reality is a question yet to be answered.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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