By David Waters
A new study confirms what most of us know every time we go to church and look around: Our worship liives continue to be segregated.
According to a study published in the latest issue of Sociological Inquiry, 9 in 10 Christian congregations in America have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of membership. A similar study 10 years ago found a remarkably similar ratio.
“Socially, we’ve become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses. But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm,” sociologist Kevin Dougherty says in a statement.
That’s a shame but is is a problem? If God is broadcasting in full-color, high-def, should we be worshipping with our old black-and-white sets?
“Too many people in the church are more defined by cultural classifications than by the Gospel and the unifier of being ‘in Christ’, by how many people have as an idol their race, culture, and tradition,” says Dr. John Bryson, founding co-pastor of the intentionally interracial, 1,500-member Fellowship Memphis church.
“In the Bible, one description of a scene of heaven includes meals and worship with every tongue, tribe, nation and people group. If people do not like diverse church, they are going to hate heaven.”
Why does the color line remain unbroken in church of all places?
It’s just a different style of worship, a lot of people say. Black ministers preach. White ministers talk. Black people sing. White people chant. White people go to church. Black people have church.
Obviously there are historic and cultural reasons churches formed along racial lines in America. Slavery and official segregation forced African-Americans to develop not only their own styles of worship, but also their own theologies and doctrines, social teachings and priorities, and ultimately their own denominations.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who bemoaned the fact that “11 o’clock Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week,” was a founding members of the black Progressive National Baptist Convention, which emphasized civil rights and social justice. King’s group broke away fromm the black National Baptist Convention U.S.A., which had an official policy of noninvolvement with the civil rights movement.
That bit of history illustrates the fact that divisions among Christians are more than skin deep. Churches aren’t just segregated by race in America. They also are divided by politics, doctrine, theology, not to mention class and ethnic group.
Ultimately, as a 2008 study showed, we are divided by our view of God.
That’s also a shame, but is it a problem? Are the divisions among Christians merely a reflection of the divisions in our larger society, or are they the cause of those divisions?