Sunday, August 11, 2013

DBF: Does This Stuff Matter?

File:Rembrandt van Rijn 185.jpg
Paul rebukes Peter in Antioch
(This is the fifth post in a series expounding on Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s book Divided By Faith. If you’re just starting now, you’ll be ok. But the other stuff is helpful too.)

In a 1953 sermon Martin Luther King famously stated, “Sunday morning at 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” How it got to be that way and the fact that this statement is still true was covered in the last post. In this post, I want to ask: Does that even matter?

In the past four decades some have argued "Yes", some "No", and many more “Yes, but . . .”

Interestingly, many of these ‘no’ answers arose not out of prejudice, but out of a church leadership teaching called the homogeneous unit principle. The HUP basically says: organizations grow the most quickly, the most effectively, and the best when their members have as much in common as humanly possible. This has been applied widely in the church.

Do you like motorcycles? We have a church for that. 

Do you like soft music? We’ve got that. 

Loud music? Yep. 

Being around artistic culture-shapers? Sure. 

Not being around post-modern-ish artsy people? We can set you up.

This isn't just found in overarching church models, but also in the way most white evangelical churches have been set up in an attractional, programmatic manner. The idea that what men need is a Men’s Ministry and what people under 30 need is a Young Adults group are on some level tied to the homogeneous unit principle.

Is this all bad? No. Is it pretty effective? Yep. When make a rule to live by though, is it ultimately Biblical? Maybe not.

In this post, I will argue that the church ought not be segregated by race and that there is even Biblical mandate that calls the Church to push towards multi-ethnic congregations and churches.

First, before I even unpack any Scripture there’s a simple demographic argument for intentionally working to desegregate our churches. If you’re white and you’re reading this you may or may not be aware of the following figures about America.
  • In 2012, white births dropped beneath 50% of the total.
  • In 2023, whites under 18 will be less than 50% of the population.
  • In 2042, whites will drop below 50% nationally.
  • In 2050, whites will be about 40% nationally.
Purely on the basis of demography, if you attend a nearly all white church your church will become increasingly unimportant in the next two generations. As our society becomes increasingly multi-ethic, segregated institutions will become increasingly irrelevant, especially, when these institutions, as we saw last post, are more segregated than society itself. 

Further, if we ask questions like “Does your church speak Spanish?” and “Are you ready to start?” many of us will respond with pushback and fear, but is that an attitude born out of congregations that really want to make disciples of all peoples? Can you hold that attitude and simultaneously see yourself as a missionary? As a representative of the Gospel? As an ambassador of reconciliation? As Ed Stetzer says, “You can’t hate a people and reach a people at the same time.”

Beyond statistics though, what does the Bible call us to?

Starting at the end, all believers will find themselves living in the New Jerusalem (Heaven) and how is this heavenly city described? It’s a place with people from every nation, tribe, people, and language living together with God (Rev 7:9).

This can be classified as a future reality and forgotten about, but then I remember that Jesus commanded us to pray this way, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10).

From these two passage alone, it seems incredibly difficult to defend a system that intentionally seeks to create congregations that are as internally similar as possible with regard to race. In fact, from these two passage alone it seems easy to say that at the very least every congregation should intentionally seek to represent the ethnic blend and makeup of their local community (which remember, they currently do not).

But, I’ll go on. The earthly ministry of Jesus is decidedly multi-ethnic, in fact at times I think our modern media would accuse Jesus of race baiting. Talking to a Samaritan woman (Jn 4), making a Samaritan the hero of his parable (Lk 10), and driving his hometown crowd to want to kill him by using the example of God healing a Gentile Syrian rather than a Jew (Lk4:24-30). Adding to all this, what does Jesus pray for His Church in the Garden of Gethsemane? He prays for our “complete unity” (Jn 17:20-23).

In Acts, the Holy Spirit acts on behalf of His own heterogeneous unit principle, by enabling no less than fifteen languages to be spoken at Pentecost so that the Gospel could be preached to the three thousand people (from all those ethnic groups) that would believe that day (Acts 2).

In many epistles there are clear ethnic disputes within the church, but Paul never suggests these congregations split. He doesn't even hint of it. When Peter starts to cave to pressure in a matter of ethnicity and race, Paul publicly confronts him so that he might “act in line with the truth of the Gospel.” As my dreamworld best friend Tim Keller says, “Paul doesn’t say, ‘Stop being a racist.’ He says, ‘Stop acting like the Gospel isn’t true!’” (that’s a paraphrase, from an actual Keller source, not something I imagined him saying) (Gal 2:11-21). Dealing with issues of race and ethnicity is not merely good social practice, but evidence of true gospel transformation. Further, in Ephesians Paul goes on state that in the ethnic relationship between Jews and Gentiles, God was making “one new man out of the two, thus making peace.” (Eph 2:15). Paul’s call to racial and ethnic unity is clear and a central pillar of his teaching.

The early church itself gives us much evidence of this. It was a movement started by an oppressed, minority people who did not withhold their message, leadership, membership, and love from the oppressors or majority peoples.

We can go any number of directions—missiology, ecclesiology, Christology, pneumatology, ethics, Pauline teaching, eschatology—and all of them point towards a Christian responsibility to racial unity and never towards racial and ethnic groups standing in between churches (even in unintentional ways).

But honestly, probably there are very few of you who have ever heard of the homogeneous unit principle and there’s probably even fewer of you who answered the question, “Does church segregation matter?” with a “No.” Most of us probably answered the way I referenced way back at the top:

“Does church segregation matter?”

“Yes, but . . .”

And the way we finish that sentence is what I plan to spend the rest of these posts on. The way we finish that sentence is what actually leads Emerson and Smith to their thesis of the book (which if you remember, I do believe they successfully argue and I also intentionally didn't state at the outset).

If you’re ready for it, their thesis is this:
To learn more about American life, this book examines the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial divisions and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.
I have one more clarifying post to get out of my system, then we will dig into the meat of this claim. I’m looking forward to it.