Witness

Racism and The Dying American Church

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Lately, I’ve been wondering if the white church in North America is dying precisely because of its racism.

I had a conversation with a friend over dinner who grew up in a Christian home. She claims she still has “faith,” but wants no part of the church and Christian culture. Her reason? Her parents are going to church more, and their habits still include listening to Christian music on Christian radio—but they’re still as racist as ever. As far as she is concerned, if you’re really following Christ, than racism should be one of the most obvious and important sins to cease.

My friend is a white, female professional in her 30s, one of the demographics that is least likely to attend church. I remember sitting with my mentor pastor during my internship when the data first came out that people in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s were least likely to be at church. Consider that data along with the next: Barna research in 2015 found more than one-third of Americans (38%) say “Christian churches are part of the problem when it comes to racism.” Millennials, ages 18 to 31, are most likely (46%) among the generations to agree. Given the decline we see of the church in North America, it’s time to ask the question: is it possible these things are connected?

Younger Generations Won’t Put Up with Racist Attitudes

A recent survey put out by LifeWay Research stated that 25% of college students surveyed who previously attended a protestant church while in high school stopped going to church because they disagreed with the church’s stance on “political or social issues.” 32% stated it was because church members seem judgmental and hypocritical. It’s clear that young people are not leaving the church because they don’t enjoy the style of music. They are looking at things of substance. To the best of my knowledge, no major research group such as LifeWay or Barna has ever asked the key demographics who do not attend church if racism specifically is a primary issue affecting their choice not to attend, but to do so might be wise.

Of course, anecdotes don’t give or replace data, but they can help illuminate it. The friend I mention above is not the only person with whom I have had this conversation; she is one of many. A professor who grew up as a pastor’s kid left the church for decades. What brought him back? He heard, for the first time, arguments against racism using scripture—as opposed to the pro-racism arguments he had heard and read since the civil rights era. My own brother says that if he ever were to go back to church, it would have to be a small, multi-cultural or black church because of his suspicion of the racist attitudes present in white churches. My college roommate and her husband left their church because it lacked cultural or racial diversity, nor did it value it. All of these people are white and left predominantly white churches. As MaryKate Morse wrote recently in The Greatest Obstacle to the Gospel Today:

“Younger generations are less racially biased than older generations and are more aware of the systemic and evil nature of the racial narrative—the narrative that defines human value by its proximity to whiteness.”

None of these people made a loud protest or an obvious exit; they simply walked out the door one day and never returned.

Where the white church has not been actively and outspokenly racist, it has often been silent and refused to correct its errors or the errors of its culture. The church is particularly struggling in the northeast in affluent, well-educated areas. Interestingly, the solid churches I have attended in these areas and the healthy, flourishing college groups I have seen at the Ivy Leagues are more, not less, diverse than the general American population, and they include diversity in leadership as well as attendance. My Baptist church in Middlebury, Vermont has a senior pastor in a bi-racial marriage with a degree in African American studies as well as theology. Dr. Soon-Chan Rah led a very successful church plant in Cambridge. Christian Union has excellent diversity in attendance and leadership.

While all this is empirical evidence and personal anecdotes, it begs the question and asks for further investigation: Is unaddressed, pervasive racism one of the reasons—if not a primary reason—our churches are dying?

The Problem is Deeper Than Numbers

While church attendance might be negatively affected by the church’s racism, that is not the reason we need to remove it. As a friend and an executive director at an evangelical seminary reminded me recently, the American church should not confront and repent of its racism in order to increase attendance. Attendance and tithes would be the worst possible motivation, and it would end poorly without God’s blessing. We need to stop being more concerned about numbers, success, and appearances than our hearts.

The American church must confront, repent, and actively pursue ending racism because it is a sin that breaks God’s heart. Racism is a sin that breaks the two greatest commandments: sinning against God by denying equal humanity to people made in his image and failing to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves. Our continual failure to root out the racism in our hearts, our congregations, and our structures will have deadly consequences. Unrepented, continual sin brings death. It always has, and it always will. Sin brings death to individuals, and sin brings death to communities. We need to root out racism because it is a sin, and sin kills the true church.

The American church should confront, repent, and actively pursue ending racism because it is a sin that breaks God’s heart. Click To Tweet

The PCA church put together a group to study racism and make an official report for its General Assembly this past year. The group stated the imperative to address racism this way:

We must wrestle with the reality that the PCA will struggle to communicate the heart of God to her surrounding neighbors if she does not have the heart of God for her surrounding neighbors. Inasmuch as we fail to love our diverse neighbors in both word and 
deed, we are rebelling against the Lord, contradicting our Christian identity, and working at 
cross-purposes with our stated mission.

According to this statement, racism causes us to sin against God by disobeying the first two commandments. Moreover, the denomination asserted that we cannot lead people to Christ and disciple them if we fail to care about them based on their race or ethnicity. Ultimately, racism will cause the church to fail in its ability to carry out the Great Commission (Matt. 28).

Why Confront it Now?

Some churches have moved gingerly and slowly when dealing with racism for four hundred years so as not to alienate and lose people. In fact, one of the primary reasons Christians gave for not standing up against slavery was they believed it would eventually fade away in a good, Christian nation, and they didn’t want to antagonize any current congregants. Beware of this rationalization used in present times. Unfortunately, instead of fading away, slavery and the racist ideology that allowed it became more deeply entrenched into American’s daily lives, churches, and economic systems. The practice of slavery required decisive and dramatic action to end it. If we think that any sin, much less racism, will just fade away, whether in our individual lives or congregation, without identification, repentance, and continuous vigilance to remove it, we are kidding ourselves and do not understand the nature of sin.

According to the same PCA report mentioned above, almost half of church leadership stated that they did not think racism was a problem, nor did they consider themselves racist. The fact that those outside the church and believers of color disagree should cause us to pause, to reflect, and to pray.

We have closed our ears to our brothers and sisters in Christ of color calling out racism in our midst. We have ignored the wealth of expertise and resources others have developed to expose and combat racism. And the American church is dying.

Church leadership when polled largely stated they did not think racism was a problem, nor did they consider themselves racist. The fact those outside the church and believers of color disagree should at least give them pause. Click To Tweet

Want to learn from diverse voices about the significant challenges facing the church in North America today as we seek to live more fully into God’s mission? Come to Awakenings: The Life of the Church for the Sake of the World, March 28-30, 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia, and discover a community devoted to following God’s Spirit to engage with the complicated realities we face today!

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