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Why is the U.S. Church Racially Divided?

This week’s question is related to the “hot button” of my own denomination right now. Pastor Tillman, a writer from the Internet, wants to know, “Why is the church racially divided in the U.S.?”

To begin with, it seems as if this question implies that the U.S. is the only nation where the church is racially divided. And yet, I know this isn’t the case. In most nations where Christianity has a strong foothold, the church is racially and/or ethnically divided—by language, if by no other means. 

On the other hand, there are those nations that seem to handle the race issue better than others—depending, of course, on the race. In England it’s common to see those of African decent worshipping with the Anglo population; and yet, seldom do Indian or Pakistani Christians participate.

But is the church racially divided in the U.S.? In the congregation I lead, although we have many more Anglos than any other race/ethnicity, we do have both African Americans and Hispanics who attend. And yet, I realize denominational lines tend to run within racial boundaries. The AME tends to attract African Americans. The Episcopal Church tends to attract Anglos. Indeed, as I think about it, the only truly racially pluralistic church I can really name is the Roman Catholic Church, which has congregations across the world for virtually every race and ethnicity, as well as local congregations that are often racially diverse.

But the fact remains, the church in the U.S. tends to look pretty much divided by the racial divide. Why?

Doubtless there are numerous treatises written on this subject, most of which point to the issues of slavery in the 19th century and the church’s response to that issue. Certainly historians cite the 1860s as a decade when many denominations split in twain over the issues of slavery as well as state’s rights. 

And yet that is at best a minimalist approach to the racial divide in that it takes into account only one of several racial minorities in the U.S.

So, why is the church racially divided in the U.S.?

Because of the homogeneity principle.

I am not sure who first spoke on the homogeneity principle, but most scholars I know point to the world missionary-sociologist Donald McGavran. McGavran observed that churches that thrive and grow tend to be homogenous; that is, the participants of the church tend to “look alike” in some way. The most obvious “looking alike” on the spectrum is race. Native Africans don’t look like native Asians who don’t look like native Europeans and so on. Language, of course, is a second great divider—it’s difficult to participate in worship when you don’t know what’s going on, and it’s even more difficult to build significant relationships in a church when your own language differs from the others. 

There are other “look alikes” when it comes to churches. Some congregations look rather racially diverse. And yet, in virtually every case there is some measure of homogeneity there. Some racially diverse churches rally around wealth—or lack thereof. Others may cater to a distinct educational level. Still others may have a common issue that the participants have united around (like racism, or sexual orientation, or poverty relief, etc.). And in some cases, the homogeneity principle may lie simply in geography or locality. A neighborhood that is racially diverse may host a church that reflects the diversity of the neighborhood simply because it is convenient (and it probably reflects the issues and concerns of that particular neighborhood).

The problem comes when homogeneity becomes the rule rather than simply the norm. In many churches, though I hesitate to consider them authentic churches of Jesus Christ, a person outside of the church’s homogeneity would be less than welcome to participate fully in the congregation. Perhaps they could “attend,” but when it came time to appoint leaders, teachers, etc. they would be passed over for any variety of “reasons.” But the truth of the exclusivity would be less than noble. 

The fact is, no exclusive church is a church in fact, but an apostate aberration. Paul wrote that in Christ there are no differences in race, gender, or status (Galatians 3.28). An exclusive church is not promoting the Kingdom of God, but a kingdom of themselves. 

On the other hand, a homogenous church may not be exclusive. It may simply be a homogenous group of disciples of Jesus who worship and minister together. 

The test comes when a visitor of difference crosses their threshold. 

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