Martin Luther King sat down for an interview with Meet the Press in April, 1960. During that interview, he gave perhaps his most quoted line not from his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation—one of the shameful tragedies—is that eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America.”
A study led by Rice University determined that less than 3% of all evangelical congregations in America qualified as a multiracial congregation. The study defined “multiracial” as when no one race represented over 80% of a congregation.
Of course, a community in America might be 90% white, resulting in a church of mostly white attenders. That makes sense. But the percentage of communities that qualify as multiracial in America is significantly higher that 3%, meaning that the diversity of America’s churches do not actually reflect the diversity of America.
Many studies and think-pieces from both Christians and secularists try to determine why this disconnect exists. It’s too easy and irresponsible to just blame racism. Black and Hispanic churches are just as segregated as white ones. And even though churches may be segregated that does not mean they are segregating. I once attended a “black church” that received me with open arms. I also know of plenty African-Americans who attend “white” churches and love it—so much so it would probably upset them that I called it a white-church at all!
A Church for Everyone
Churches divide themselves over more than just race. Churches split apart according to conservatives versus liberals, traditional versus contemporary, white collar versus blue collar, etc. The American church has disintegrated into a field of silos where people attend the congregation that most fits them. A town may have twenty churches that all believe essentially the same thing, but one church has the drums while the other one has the organs. One church has young adults while the other one has baby boomers. One church likes gays while the other one doesn’t... even though they claim they do. The churches all share the same message but function under unique sub-cultures of style, politics, and demographics.
Church was meant to be for everyone. Now, there is a church for everyone. If one doesn't fit, go somewhere else. As a result, churches become less a body of believers and more a clique of similar people who think they’re a loving church because everyone else is just like them. Those who do not fit into the local identity of the church either visit awkwardly for three weeks until they disappear, or worse, are told that their ideas, suggestions, or beliefs make them a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and are asked to leave. In extreme cases, friends and family will reject church and just meet with each other, and nobly call it “house church.”
United but not Uniform
Perhaps the fear of division itself is to blame. Ugly splits leave churches calloused. In response, they simply create a congregation of common people. If someone fails to fit the mold, they are welcome to leave and find something else.
But churches do not recognize that God calls his people to unity, not uniformity. He desires togetherness, not sameness. God created distinct genders that are not fluid. He designed multiple stages of life with unique characteristics and experiences. He also created scientists and artists. Introverts and extroverts. Musicians and mathematicians. Diversity is a part of God’s plan.
We see this throughout the Bible. God did not have a chosen people—He had twelve. The Israelites, as the Old Testament so colorfully narrates, were hardly a homogenous group. There were twelve tribes from different regions, each with different local stories, opinions, beliefs, and rituals. Yet they shared the same father: Jacob, and God collectively called them His people. They were different, yet received the same promises.
This past Sunday, our church looked at Psalms 122. Ancient Hebrews sang this famous “Song of Ascent,” while climbing uphill to enter the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was God’s city. It’s where His presence was, and it represented a model of the future reality God would have with His people. Notice this part of the song:
“Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.” Psalms 122:3-4
This was nothing new. When God promised to make Abraham into a great nation, that blessing did not just stay within Abraham’s family. It had a universal, diverse focus:
“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Genesis 22:17-18
Likewise, Jesus while on Earth made it clear that He came for both the Jew and the Gentile. The point was not that Jesus was trying to make the Jews become Gentiles or for the Gentiles to become Jews. Paul certainly did not instruct Christians to meet separately in Jewish only or Gentile only churches. Christ died for the different. Nothing better illustrates this than 1 Corinthians 12.
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Unity: Not Tolerance
Unfortunately, Christians often meet this mindset with suspicion. This may be because many have wrongly replaced God’s desire for unity with a man-made desire for tolerance. Unity does not mean ignoring truth and falling to the lowest common denominator of belief. It doesn’t mean discounting sin or making little of evil. But it does mean loving others despite disagreement. It also means that it’s possible for a group of people to share a similar faith in Jesus Christ, while disagreeing over politics, worship style, and the color of the curtains.
Indeed, there will someday be Christians in Heaven who voted for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. If they can worship God together in Heaven then, they can worship God together on Earth now. That doesn’t mean we should ignore politics or pretend that no one is ever wrong. But it means putting every difference in perspective of what God has commanded His children: love one another.
The halls of Heaven will be like an endless stained glass window. Unique people of different shapes and colors all brought together to make one beautiful image: a body of sinful people forgiven by a righteous God. Every piece will be different, but all will have one thing in common, the Light will be shining through them. God’s people are at their best when there is unity without uniformity.
Resting in Him,