>Racialization and the Church

Well, I haven’t posted anything substantive for a while now. Selling and buying my truck took up way too much of my time, and we’ve been fighting illness in our house too – so in addition to not having time I haven’t had much energy. But, I am finally reading a book that a friend recommended a year or so ago called Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. It’s an exploration of race and religion in America and, to put it bluntly, the utter failure of the evangelical church to overcome the race divide. I’m only 30 pgs or so into it, but already it has stirred my thinking on two issues.

First, I believe the way we do church in America is bound to continue the strong racial divide in our churches and offers little hope of overcoming it. With few exceptions, the divide is profound and troubling. The authors cite a study by Lincold and Mamiya:
“Seven major black denominations account for more than 80 percent of black religious affiliation in the United States…Moreover, the remaining 15-20 percent of black Christians are scattered among numerous small black sects, the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline white Protestant denominations. The overwhelming majority of the latter are in predominately black congregations, despite denominational affiliation with white communions.” (16).

Why are we still so racially segregated on Sunday mornings? Certainly the tensions of the past has something to do with that (and that will come up in my second point). However, I think it probably has more to do with the approach to church and ministry that has been adopted in evangelical community. Going back at least to the 19th century and the revivals referred to as the Second Great Awakening, and even more so in the ministries of men like DL Moody, there were attempts to make church less ‘churchy’ and more appealing to the non-religious. Sermons were more entertaining (so Billy Sunday might jump up on a pulpit to keep peoples attention), songs were more common (Ira Sankey’s tunes), etc. That trend continued, and intensified, in the ‘seek sensitive’ movements of the 80-90s (and today). Now, drama’s video clips, and contemporary secular music became regular part of Sunday morning worship. Rick Warren describes how he went door to door asking people what they wanted in a church service before planting Saddleback.

Do you see the problem here? Black and White America have very different tastes when it comes to entertainment. It becomes virtually impossible to appeal to both segments of American society through entertainment. Musical expressions are quite different. TV watching trends are also stunningly different. The authors point out that during the 95-96 viewing season, only two of the top twenty shows watched by black viewers cracked the top twenty shows watched by white viewers – Monday Night Football and ER (which as 20 on the list for black viewers and number one among white viewers). The top three shows among black viewers weren’t on the radar of white viewers, coming in at 122nd and tied for 124th. What does that mean for the church? Unless someone is willing to set aside their tastes, preferences, etc., an integrated worship experience isn’t going to happen. And, unfortunately, nobody seems very willing to do so – witness the worship wars in which one generation of white church goer was/is unwilling to set aside their preference for hymns or praise and worship for the other.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. Reading the book, however, I am embarrassed by the churches unwillingness to think deeply about it. Maybe the solution is a return to more historic, liturgical, otherworldly forms of worship that would make blacks and white equally uncomfortable. The feel in many churches today is that of a night club or concert arena. In other words, it feels very much a part of ‘this world’. Maybe the solution is to embrace the other worldliness of worship, the heavenliness of it. Certainly that would feel foreign to us, to everyone. But is that a bad thing?

The second issue concerns good intentions gone awry. The second chapter is a brief overview of ‘Evangelical Racial Thought and Practice’. During the early colonial period, not much thought was given to evangelization of the African slaves. Eventually and gradually that began to change and clergy began to advocate and work towards the ‘Christianization’ of the slave population. These efforts were, at times, met with stiff opposition from slave owners who believed that if a slave was baptized, they would necessarily be freed from servitude. Clergy were quick to step in and calm these fears, reassuring that embracing the gospel didn’t change one’s social standing. In fact, several clergy were influential in having legislation passed that expressly stated slaves were not freed simply by virtue of being baptized. In addition to that concern, some slave owners believed that preaching the gospel to slaves would lead to revolts and uprisings. Again, the clergy were quick to point out that embracing the gospel would only serve to make slaves more humble, more willing to serve obediently, etc.

Do you see the horn of the dilemma? I’m not sure many of the clergy who preached to slaves in the early colonial period or even up through the revivals of the 18th century were egalitarians. However, even if they were, the dilemma was a hard one. To advocate for emancipation would have immediately closed all doors of ministry to slaves. To argue, as I believe Paul does in Philemon, that slavery is inconsistent with the grace of the gospel, would have kept the slave owners from allowing the preachers, missionaries and revivalists from preaching the gospel to the slaves at all. It is easy to stand in judgment of those clergy who marshaled Bible verses in defense of slavery; yet, I can feel the internal struggle they must have had. Which was more important – to preach for their eternal good or to lobby for their temporal freedom. Obviously both are important, and the church should have recognized that from the beginning (how quickly would slavery have ended if slave owners were brought under church discipline and excommunicated!). But, being forced to choose between the two would be very difficult. I think the apostle Paul must have had similar internal conflicts – should he command Philemon to emancipate Onesimus? He says he could – he had the authority as an apostle to do so. Yet, he appeals instead of commands. Why? The gospel certainly contains a radical, revolutionary seed – a social leveling where all are treated as sinners equally in need of grace and all who believe are treated as coheirs in eternal glories. That does have implications for the here and the now, yet Paul seems to take a long view – preach the gospel and let the implications of it grow slowly rather than push the agenda and risk having the door of ministry slammed shut.

Again, I’m not trying to justify those clergy who defended slave owners, but the dilemma was real. There are similar dilemmas for clergy today – should we preach against the moral evils of, say abortion, and risk having the door to ministry slammed shut. Abortion, like slavery, is seen by many to be social or political issue, not a religious one. Should clergy remain quite on the issue and stick to preaching the gospel and only the gospel (as opposed to the broader implications of the gospel)? It’s an issue I wrestle with regularly.