Most evangelical pastors feel the weight of Tom Sine’s observation that “11 A.M. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American Life.” This is true for so many churches across American Evangelicalism. Let that settle in. It is 2014. Americans have made huge strides in race relations over the past hundred years, and yet, the Church—a community created by the gospel of Jesus—remains one of the most segregated places in our society. I’d like to explore why.
Now, before we get started here, I’d like to add this caveat. I know I’m painting with a broad brush. Some statements I will make about the Church need not apply to all churches. I have been parts of churches that are racially diverse and continue to strive for the kind of diversity which makes the gospel look big. But, for the purposes of this article, let us admit together that the Church as a whole has a long way to come, particularly in the South.
So first, I’d like to talk about the lasting effects of racism in American society, for these have certainly spilled over into the American Evangelical Church. In his book, Bloodlines, John Piper explores whether the lasting effects of racism are more weighted toward systemic problems or personal responsibility. His conclusion, drawing from various writers and activists, is simply “yes.” It is both/and. Our society must seriously consider systemic issues which perpetuate racist tendencies, and individuals must search their hearts. In the middle of this discussion, Piper quotes Juan Williams, who relates the African slave trade to today’s rap music industry. Before you give up on my point, here’s what he says:
“In fact, there are similarities between the economics of slavery and the modern rap industry. Cheap labor, slaves, made it possible for the Southern plantation to make money…In today’s rap business, young musicians hungry for stardom are cheap labor, able to satisfy the white America’s continuing desire to see Jim Crow jump in the black face minstrel shows. The problem is the white-owned corporations making big money off the music have to get past the risk of facing charges of promoting racial stereotypes.”
And that very stereotype that is being promoted, according to Williams, is “that black women are sexually indiscriminate, stupid, greedy, and lazy. Young black men are thugs, and, in the words of music critic Stanley Crouch, ‘monkey-moving, gold-chain-wearing, illiteracy spouting…combative buffoons.” 
My point here is not to launch a discussion about the pitfalls of the music industry. Rather, I simply want to illustrate the perpetuation of racism in our society, albeit subversively. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I want white people (like me) to understand this: that words matter and prejudices have consequences.
When you use words like “they, them, and those,” to categorically paint a picture of a particular demographic—white, black, Hispanic, or any other ethnicity—you are communicating something. Now, sometimes this may be harmless. But let us be careful not to cross the line.
Here’s what I mean. Saying of a group of white young men “they can’t play basketball” when compared to a group of black young men may be a completely accurate statement. African American men dominate popular sports today. And this is good.
But, here’s where you cross the line: “Those black guys only got into that school because they are athletes.” Now you have made a categorical error that is rooted in racial prejudice. And it’s tricky because you may not even mean this to be a derogatory statement. But what you are subversively communicating is this: “Black people are athletes, and white people are scholars.” This is of course an evil statement.
As John Piper rightly observes, “There is a fine line between legitimate probability judgments and sinful prejudice.”
What has happened, I think, is that the use of words and phrases with the “us/them” mentality has actually created in the minds of “us” and “them” that such dichotomies not only exist, but they exist to divide us. In other words, if you tell someone they are inferior for long enough, two things begin to happen: they start to feel inferior, and you start to feel superior, regardless of what ethnicities you are dealing with.
Let me give you perhaps an extreme illustration. If I genuinely tell my wife every day for a year that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, do you think she would be increasingly affirmed in her sense of identity and self-worth? How about if I tell her that she is hideous every day for a year? Get this…even if I was joking? How would this affect her sense of self-worth?
Ok, so let’s drive this thing home for the Church today. Most Christians I know are NOT racist. In fact, I don’t know if I know anyone I would classify as an outright racist. This is, after all, 2014. Praise God for all the progress in the area of racial reconciliation.
But here’s what I know about Christians (because I know it to be true about me)—we are often complacent. And there may not be an area in which complacency is more dangerous than in racial relations.
It is difficult to dig up these issues. It hurts to get to the bottom of some of this. If we really searched our hearts and asked God to reveal hidden bastions of racism, I think we’d be frighteningly surprised by how much would be revealed. The healing process would be tough. It would take some uprooting, renouncing, and re-working of our thinking. It would take time, and lots of prayer. It would take open confession. It would be a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of thing.
And I think once we got to the bottom of some of this, it would require changing the way we do some things. And again, if there’s one thing I know about Christians (and people in general), it’s that we hate change. We are absolutely terrified by it.
This kind of uprooting may require us to change our worship style, our preaching style, the length of our services, the kinds of weekly programs we offer, and much more. Even more ominous, this kind of change may cause us to lose people—I’m talking numerical decline.
And let’s face it. If a church starts loosing people, it takes us about two seconds to pronounce upon it the title of “dying.”
Look, it’s really easy to justify certain practices when numerical growth is happening. But what if our churches got much smaller, yet much more diverse? How much more glory would God get? How much less glory would pastors get?
For the Church today, I don’t think this is an “either/or” issue, as if our problem is either outright racism or outright complacency. I think complacency actually goes hand in hand with racism. We don’t want to uproot because we don’t want to find out the truth about ourselves. We’d rather place the blame on “them,” whoever the “them” is from our vantage point.
But here’s what the gospel says,
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
(Philippians 3:3 ESV)
We. We are the circumcision. Not “them vs. us,” but “we together.” We place no confidence in the flesh, and we bank everything on the blood of Christ, who died to reconcile to himself one people from every tribe, tongue and nation on earth. He is the end of racism and he is the end of complacency. He is our righteousness. He is our only hope.
Soli Deo Gloria.
 Tom Sine, as quoted in Russell Chandler, “Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping America’s religious future?”
 From John Piper, Bloodlines, p. 65.
 Ibid., 222.