Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Still Segregated On Sunday--Why We Overemphasize Subtle Differences

A friend of mine preached a bold message to a group of our peers--risking his reputation and, to a certain extent, risking his career. But he was right. (He did it well, too, in love and humility.)

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said in 1963, "11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week." Then my friend said that despite all the progress that's been made in the last three decades, this statement is still true. The Christian Church, by and large, is still a segregated institution in America. What should be the most unified and multicultural organization on the planet is among the least.

Yes, there are exceptions--some of which I've been blessed to be a part of for years. But they're far too rare.

Why? Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think it's because of deliberate prejudice, for the most part. Certainly, there are pockets of that, just as there are places where other sins have a stronghold. But I know many, many believers who honestly say they don't feel prejudice, but they still attend racially divided churches (and this goes for Whites, Blacks, Hispanic, Asians, etc).

Note, I'm not opposed to churches in specific languages for those who don't speak the tongue of their resident country. I'm not even opposed to diversity--they don't all need to act like the same church. I'm concerned with the lack of interaction and sharing between these diverse groups. For example, I know of a racially-distinct service housed within a larger church that secretly decided to split off to form their own church because they didn't need them anymore. Not only am I concerned about the splitting group's low value on the rest of their fellow believers--I'm also saddened that the leaders of the larger group that didn't have enough relationship or connection to know it was happening.

I'm going out on a limb and offering my speculation on why people who love God--who truly believe that in Christ there is no slave or free, male or female Jew or Gentile--end up separating from others down the street based on color of skin and style of music.

I think one major factor--one that isn't discussed--is that all these segregated church share the same model of church. The musicians lead the congregation and preacher preaches at the congregation--and the people sing along and take notes. When the model of so many churches is so narrow and uniform, the small, subtle differences become magnified. When all you eat is bread and cheese, bread and cheese, bread and cheese--meal after meal--the difference between Gouda and Cheddar define the meal. But if you're able to choose from a huge variety of foods every meal, it doesn't matter as much what kind of cheese comes with it. These style differences can still matter. I'll still prefer Gouda to Cheddar, whether I eat it often or not. But I'm not defined by that preference and I'm much less threatened by seeing Cheddar on my plate instead of Gouda.

Humans have a need for a unique identity--to have some distinct features from the masses around them. So when all our churches are stuck in the same model, we make a big deal out of the style of music. We base our identity on the style of preaching. And we get so accustomed to Gouda, Gouda, Gouda, that Cheddar is deeply "other" to us, foreign enough to become uncomfortable.

Yes, we need to be more deliberate about seeking out diversity and befriending the "other". But we also need a structure that makes variety and creative expression normal and not a special event.

If our churches, for example, allowed for open ministry where each church had a very different experience (based on the very different spiritual gifts of their unique group of members) then the style of music or preaching would become just one of many things that made a church unique--and it would lose some of it's stranglehold on our concept of church. Your church can be defined by much more than the style of your music and preaching--it can be defined by the particular spiritual gifts of your members (not just the gifts of the handful of  leaders).

Of course, none of this is intended to downplay the very real problem of judging those who are different than us--and clinging to a group of people that make us feel like we are better than others. But the answer isn't only an internal one. We also have external structures that encourage us to exaggerate these subtle differences.

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