Congregational homogeneity: an unintentional segregation
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Sadly, these words ring just as true now as they did then.
After a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, King was interviewed by the president of the university. In this interview, he explained his thoughts on this topic more fully:
We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and [sic] Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I'm sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn't have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I'm not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we've so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn't start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God.King speaks to the church today with the same prophetic forcefulness. Instead of being the agent of change in society, the church is still stuck in many places far behind a society that has had to move on, and rightly so. The church remains under the judgment of God—spiritually moribund and socially lethargic. Even though the Civil Rights Movement is long past, the church has yet to “remove the yoke of segregation,” but now the segregation is mostly unintentional rather than intentional. It’s easier to be segregationist than inclusive; it’s simpler to be homogenous than reflective of the diversity of God’s kingdom.
The Christian church has always sought a certain kind of homogeneity. The ecumenical councils were attempts to identify what right doctrine (“orthodoxy”) over against that which undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. A “theological homogeneity” about certain core dogmas of the faith is essential to the very being and life of the church. But the pursuit of “theological homogeneity” can also be quite destructive, and in the West it led to the Protestant Reformation. One of the unfortunate—and unintended—consequences of the Reformation, however, is that it seemingly gave Christians a carte blanche to divide from the church in order to establish a more homogeneous local community. Thus began the proliferation of ecclesial communities that became more and more specific in their search for unity and similarity.
But “theological homogeneity” is only the beginning. With the rise of pluralistic societies, people began to pursue, quite naturally, communities that were homogeneous in other respects as well. If it’s easier to share fellowship with people who have the same theological convictions, then it only makes sense that people find it easier to share fellowship with those of the same ethnic background, the same social class, the same income bracket, the same (fill in identifying marker here). Today, the pursuit of ecclesial homogeneity has run amok. Walk into your local “mega church” and you are bound to see a smorgasbord of “small groups” specially tailored to people’s individual interests: groups for twenty-something singles; groups for retired “baby boomers”; groups for teens who like to surf, etc. This congregational homogeneity is nowhere more evident, though, than in the two most prominent social characteristics that still divide churches: race and economic class. Sunday mornings are still the most segregated time in America, except that now economic class is more important than race. Communities are split between wealthy and poor communities more clearly than between Black and White.
The rise of economic division in America is particularly apparent in the current state of public education. This year, 2007, is the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which officially desegregated public schools. In a recent discussion on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, two educators discussed the fact that in this multicultural age, parents who strongly believe in diversity are now choosing segregated schools. Parents will say that they believe ethnic diversity is essential to a child’s education, and yet they will place their child in a school that is socially homogeneous on the basis that diversity detracts from a school’s quality of education. In other words, their actions do not match their words. They praise diversity, but choose homogeneity. Diversity looks good on paper, but scares people in practice. More importantly, what current examinations of education in America today show is that these schools are divided along economic lines, rather than racial or ethnic lines. People are not divided on the basis of the color of their skin as much as they are divided on the basis of their checkbook.
I think the same situation is true of churches today. People choose communities where everyone looks and acts more or less the same. We choose segregated churches. Even though we talk about the need for diversity, we choose similarity. Even though we know that churches ought to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ, we end up reflecting the social divisions in the world around us. We choose congregational homogeneity, whether this homogeneity is ethnic or economic or vocational or something else or all of the above. A lot of this is due to the growing wall of separation between urban and suburban communities. And on top of all this, the divide between “rich” and “poor” continues to expand with each passing year.
I had a professor at Wheaton College who encouraged a group of us freshmen to use this unique opportunity to attend a church community that was completely unlike what we were used to. He specifically told us to find ethnically diverse churches that would make us feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at first. He promised that we would come to experience the family of God in a whole new way. As a result, our class took a trip to a Black Catholic charismatic church in downtown Chicago, which I ended up visiting again because I loved it there. But despite a handful of amazing experiences, I failed to abide by my professor’s recommendation. I feel at home in the church I currently attend, but like almost any other church in America, it is liable to all of these criticisms.
For the sake of the gospel, I hope and pray that the church in America will heed King’s prophetic words. We need to remember that the church stands under the judgment of God, but that it also stands under the grace of God—a grace that can bring us to a glorious new future where unity-in-diversity, not unity-in-homogeneity, is the mark of Sunday mornings.