Lamenting Churches Labeled by Race

By Leroy Barber 12-01-2009

So there is something on my mind, and I'm not quite sure how to approach the subject. For a long time the church I pastor has been called a "white church." We have had many people of color visit and not stay very long because of it. For most of the church's ten-year history I have been the only black man attending. We have tried to discuss it but have never really gotten anywhere because the topic is so hard to discuss.

We have never been an all white church so I usually brushed off the comments most of the time. In fact I hate churches labeled by race (which may be part of the problem -- me not talking enough about race). Is church more cultural than spiritual? A well-known cliché suggests that 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. It is when most people are home from work in their segregated neighborhoods, and when most Christians attend churches that are separated by race. It seems, despite the progress demonstrated in other areas, there is not much intermingling of culture when it comes to our expression of faith in America. I believe that for the most part, barring a few exceptions, the color of the pastor dictates not only the color of the church but more interestingly, the culture of the church.

I am beginning to think culture is more important to people than faith. I am the president of Mission Year, a one-year service opportunity for young adults. The year is spent serving in some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods around the U.S. It is a transformative year for most of the individuals that serve with us, most often resulting in a changed worldview. After completing their year of service many change political affiliations, relocate to live in cities, change professions or college majors, and even move to marry and raise families in the city, often to the dismay of many of their parents. However, it does not lead most of them to serve in churches where there is a pastor of color or that is very culturally different than where they were before they served. If they attend multiracial churches the pastor and the culture of the church is usually white.

A "white church" is a church that emphasizes starting on time most Sundays, a shorter worship service, a low to moderate volume level, features a worship team or band and chooses music that is primarily contemporary Christian and hymns as opposed to gospel. The speaker is more likely to be more monotone in his or her delivery.

"Black" or "Latino churches" may or may not start on time, have longer worship services, louder volume levels, include a gospel praise team or choir and, even if contemporary music is used, they have a more "gospel" sound. The preacher is also much louder and more animated in his or her delivery.

I hate all of this. I don't like the implications. I don't like the separation. I know there are exceptions, but quite frankly the emphasis on the exceptions only keeps us from talking about the problems that far more often seem the rule. If the exceptions were used as models it would be cool but they are most often defenses used by people who don't want to talk about the issues.

If the Church is the representation of God to the world then God is a segregationist -- either all black, white, Latino, Asian, or Native American. Perhaps God is all of them, just not mixed together or in one place.

Leroy BarberLeroy Barber is president of Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18- to 29-year-olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. He is also the pastor of Community Fellowships Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of New Neighbor.

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