Saturday, April 4, 2015

Church in America - The Most Segregated Place, or Culturally Secure? A Missionary's Analysis

I was recently sitting in my living room, when, after getting a refill on my coffee, noticed a magazine from the Seminary of which I am an alumni.  As I was looking through it, I saw a promotional ad that caught my attention.  The ad was speaking about Sunday Morning Church being the most segregated place in America.

"Lifeway Research found recently that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life - and most worshipers like it that way."  (Southern Seminary. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Spring 2015, Vol. 83, No. 2. c. 2015. p. 25) [italics mine]

First of all, the tendency for Churches (and seminaries) in America to run to polling companies to find opinion results about the state of the Church as the visible representation of the Kingdom of God on earth inherently (and theologically, especially for Calvinists) has all kinds of problems.  But as one who has been blessed with being able serve overseas among different cultures and people groups, when we talk about the church being "too racially segregated," I think we are missing the issue.

It's not really a racist problem.  As my wife puts it, "It's a comfort problem."  I agree.  People go to church where they are comfortable.  That's also why there is such a divide between younger people today and older, more "traditional" churchgoers.  The cultural divide between younger generations and our, say grandparents generation, is, sadly, huge.  But it's a condition of the society and era of which we are in.

It's the same between White and African-American Peoples.  Most White Americans live in a different culture from African Americans.  You see this in how people name their children, how they address one another, their cuisines, their cultural stereotypes (types of cars preferred, fashion).  Typically, African Americans are more flamboyant and charismatic in their interactions with one another, their vocal abilities using a greater range in their talk, worship being more expressive, and their cultural conceptions are in general different from White Americans.  Whites Americans typically are more conservative in their greetings, conversations, and a White pastor typically uses less vocal range giving their sermons.

These descriptions do not apply in every situation, but generally they are true of the population.  This illlustrates how the situation goes deeper than just the color of the skin.  We don't hear about White churches and Chinese churches being integrated enough, or White Churches and Korean churches, or about African-American churches and Mexican churches, though these populations are no more or no less segregated than any other racial groups are.  Now there are certain churches in areas with diverse populations, who have diverse congregations.  That is great!  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but should that be the goal of the Church?  Or reproducing Biblical followers of Christ, within their own cultures and geographical areas?

It is not a problem with skin color, or race.  It goes deeper.  The divide occurs in the cultural, worldview level.  African-Americans perceive the world differently, and therefore perceive Biblical application differently from White Americans.  They also in general, prefer their worship service culturally consistent with their ethnic background.  The same is true with every ethnic group.

This is why missionaries, when traveling to other cultures, undergo, and have to work through, not just jet-lag, but also cultural shock!  When migrant groups move to America, those cultures do not just disappear, or assimilate, as much as society, or social media would have you believe.  They remain, though inevitably adapt to dwelling in a different environment.  But as the cultural, perceptional differences persist, so does the comfort preferences.

Because America was considered the "melting pot" for so long, we assume that our cultures have all just melted and blended together.  To some extent they have influenced one another, but they still remain just as distinct as the peoples who hold them, and most often, don't want to give them up, because that would mean giving up who they are.  And that involves a lot of pride and feelings of emotional attachment.  People do not want to give that up.

So what is the solution to the problem?  Should we all take on the characteristics of the majority group in the area in which we live, so we can all attend church together?  Or should we remain true to our identity (and culture is a major part of your identity!) and seek to serve one another in love, and through these ministry opportunities, form relationships, and join in worshiping our King together.

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