It is appalling that the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. --Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
One of my most enduring childhood memories is of growing up on Effingham Street in Portsmouth, Va. There were two churches on our block—one black, the other white. On Sunday mornings, I can remember watching people gather at the church across the street, and wondering why we never went to that church or why they never came to ours. When I asked my grandmother about it, she quickly put an end to my childhood curiosity by saying:
Our church is better.
I remember thinking, if it's better why aren't those people coming over here? It didn't make sense to me then, and still doesn't.
I would be told "Ours is better" each time I questioned why blacks and whites never mingled together in public places or at public events in that southern town. Whites had their space and we had ours. This was the mid-fifties. It wasn't until much later in life that I learned first hand the real truth about racial segregation in America. In spite of its multiracial makeup, America is still in bondage to a spirit of segregation that pervades much of society, even our churches.
Although, it's been 50 years since Dr. King addressed the issue of racial segregation in the Christian church, not much has changed. On any given Sunday, it is still possible to open the doors of most Christian churches in America and find a homogeneous congregation of people worshiping God, and not see a single member of another race. According to Chris Rice, coauthor of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, most Christians never give it much thought.
Ninety percent of African-American Christians worship in all-black churches. Ninety percent of white American Christians worship in all-white churches...Years since the incredible victories of the Civil Rights movement, we continue to live in the trajectory of racial fragmentation. The biggest problem is that we don't see that as a problem.
Segregated pews are viewed as the norm. There are a few multiracial and multicultural churches; however, they account for only 5-7 percent of Christian congregations. News flash—there won't be a separate heaven for all those who want to only be with their own kind. It's in the bible:
After this I looked, and there was an enormous crowd—no one could count all the people! They were from every race, tribe, nation, and language, and they stood in front of the throne and of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They called out in a loud voice: 'Salvation comes from our God, who sits on the throne, and from the Lamb!' (Revelation 7:8-9)
It seems clear from this that God intends for his followers to live together in eternity as one big happy family. So then, why aren't we doing more to become one body in Christ here on earth? By the numbers, Christian congregations continue to lag behind the rest of society when it comes to eliminating self-imposed racial segregation.
Christian theologians and church leaders have differing opinions on what can be done to ameliorate the situation. Most admit there's a lack of diversity in the churches, but make excuses like "People prefer to go to church with people who look like them" or "People choose churches where they feel comfortable." Sadly, there is also a misguided remnant who have racist tendencies, and don't want to see people from other races in their congregations [We need to pray for them]. Regardless, of the reason, no excuse is valid in the eyes of God who expects Christians to love each other and everybody else.
If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and if we are indeed saved, then it should be possible for us to celebrate differences in skin color and culture as evidence of the divine artistry of creation and redemption and not as grounds for continued separation, exploitation, and prejudice. - Walter Douglas
So then, how do we start to transform Sundays at 11 o'clock from the most segregated hour to the most racially diverse and inclusive hour in Christian America? Perhaps, the answer lies in one changed heart, one friendly handshake across the aisle, one conversation that ends with an invite—until we get the job done. That means every believer will have to do his part to bring about a change. Change is difficult, but change we must.
You remember the story I shared earlier about the two Christian churches on my block that never intermingled with each other? Well, the black church is still there and has continued to grow having maintained a presence in that community for some 50-plus years now. Unfortunately, the white church across the street decided to close its doors and move away after other black families moved into the neighborhood. So I guess my grandmother was right. Our church really was the better one.