We’ve come a long way but not in every way.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
It is 2016, and more than eight of every ten churches are still made up of predominantly one racial group. According to a 2015 poll of churchgoers, two thirds believe their church has done enough to encourage racial diversity and more than half don’t want to see the diversity in their congregation increase.
Either there is a problem here or a lot of members from those two out of ten racially diverse churches were included in the survey.
Some prominent religious figures are pushing back against the “appalling fact” that still resonates more than five decades after King first said it.
“Looking at America as a culture, diversity is a beautiful thing,” said Joel Smallbone – one of the brothers who founded the Christian band For King and Country. The band is currently touring across America. “For some reason culturally and creatively people like to say ‘You stay in your corner and I’ll stay in mine’ but we feel like diversity opens your mind and makes your world better.”
That is one reason the band invited KB, a well-known Christian rapper, and Jordan Feliz on the “Priceless” tour with them this fall.
Smallbone said the fact that he has experienced multiple cultures as a child and with his band has helped develop his love of multiple perspectives.
“We moved to Tennessee from Australia when I was four,” Smallbone said. “We have toured Europe. I think traveling really helps keep you from getting locked into one culture.”
The title cut from For King and Country’s “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong” album features two Australian brothers working with a British recording artist Aqualung and a New York based Christian rapper – Andy Mineo.
Smallbone said that during their Priceless tour, there are portions of the show where everyone is on stage playing together.
“I hope to see church groups, music lovers and people of all colors and cultures at all of our shows,” he said. “We put on a big show and we hope it is fun for everyone.”
That might happen in a concert venue but it doesn’t happen in a church service very often. The next time you go to your church, look around. There is a really good chance that almost everyone in the room – whether that room holds 10 or 10,000 – looks just like you. The Bible says Heaven will include people of “every tribe and language and people and nation” but not many churches do.
I had a chance to speak to a woman this week who said some enlightening things during a phone call. We had spoken about racial politics, raising black children and how being black can change how you are viewed by police and other authority figures.
She gave me a lot of great advice about raising a young black man and I was taking notes. Then some of these concepts about the church came up and her comments hit me right where it hurts.
I was talking about how overwhelmingly white the membership of every church I have ever belonged to has been. I told her I was 99 percent sure that every one of those churches would have welcomed black members but we simply never had black visitors.
She didn’t let me off the hook with my anecdotal evidence. She granted that many churches fit the description I gave but hers doesn’t, and she thinks she knows why.
Their congregation has been willing over the years to leave the comfort of their own church to attend events and services at the other like-minded denominational bodies with different racial composition.
Being Baptist, attending a mosque, synagogue or other denomination might be bothersome for reasons of belief instead of skin color or culture.
But if you are Baptist, she said, why couldn’t you go to a service on a Sunday evening at a Baptist church whose members are predominantly black?
“Why does everyone wait for someone to come to them?” she asked. “How many times have you ventured down to one of the churches that is full of black people worshipping and joined them for a service. Maybe if you showed yourself to be friendly, they would do the same.”
Her point was spot on.
We need to offer the same effort we hope to see. With this cross cultural concert coming up in October, everyone has a chance to come together for a night. Maybe that could be a jumping off point where white churches and black churches make an effort to just be churches and spend some time together.
When it comes to this issue especially, we have to be the change we hope to see.
Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.