Racial Diversity In The Church
…and why it’s lacking
There are those that would rather not talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a touchy subject. It could come off the wrong way. There are others who forget that it’s even an issue to address. They are fond of the familiar. And there are those that notice its absence and are seeking to change that where they are.
This is the issue of racial diversity within American churches.
For Joyce Muckle, attending Hill Chapel Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia was a regular part of her week. She was actively engaged with her church and considered it a place where she found Christian community. Hill Chapel became a community not just for Joyce, but later for her husband, Robert, and her daughter, Bridgett. For the Muckles, racial diversity within the church is closely connected with culture and breaking these racial and cultural differences is something that has to be shown to a person.
“We are creatures of habit so it’s hard for us to break a pattern that we’ve been brought up in our whole life until we choose to break it,” said Joyce Muckle.
And that is exactly the issue that many churches are facing in America today. How do we break the racial divide in church?
In a research study conducted by Lifeway Research, only 13 percent of pastors said that they had more than one majority race in their congregation. Of the pastors surveyed, 85 percent said that churches should strive for racial diversity. Half of Americans from the same study said that they would be willing to attend churches with multiple ethnicities.
“Everybody wants diversity, but many don’t want to be around people that are different,” said Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, in an article published by the company.
Bridgett Muckle, who is now a senior at Valdosta State University, said that if it had not been for her time attending a predominantly white, Christian high school, she would not have been exposed to a different style of worship than at Hill Chapel.
“Somebody has to introduce you to it and I don’t think it’s conscious,” she said. “I don’t think we wake up and are like, ‘I’m going to go to a church that’s predominantly [white] today. No. It’s subconscious because it’s our habit. We get up. We go to our church and we would keep doing that unless somebody was like, ‘Hey let’s try this.’”
Even if a church wants to bridge the gap of racial diversity, it takes breaking down barriers to get there. Todd Unzicker, campus pastor at The Summit Church in Brier Creek, North Carolina, believes that sometimes people just don’t try to seek relationships with people that are different than them.
“I find that when you try, it’s not as big of a barrier as you think,” said Unzicker. Chris Green, an African American pastor at The Summit Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said that churches don’t need to ignore race, but embrace it.
“The gospel isn’t colorblind. It’s color-engaging,” he said. He believes God never called us to be colorblind.
“Blindness is not a strength. Blindness is something that actually God is trying to prevent us from having. He wants our eyes to be wide open.”
The Muckle family might disagree, however. Race to them is something that should not define how you label a person. For Robert Muckle, the issue is plain and simple. He believes this is what the Bible says.
“When God looks down and he looks at his church, he only sees two kinds of people — Jews and Gentiles. That’s it. That’s what makes up the church,” he said.
For his wife, Joyce, she takes more of an emotional appeal. Church community has been an important part of her life ever since she was young.
“I think it’s important in representing the church where the church demonstrates who God is and God is love,” said Joyce Muckle. “I truly believe that you love those people that you commune with, that you fellowship with and not to say that you can’t love anybody outside of it, but I think that it’s important because God wants us to be united. He does see us as the church, but the church really has no color.”
Green said that the church has to be aware of other cultures and understand the background of various cultures. One of the biggest barriers Green said the church faces with racial diversity is ignorance of someone’s cultural background.
“It’s hard to say you love someone if you don’t understand them,” he said.
He remembers visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. and seeing the slogan “Never Forget.” This statement carried over into his understanding of racial diversity. People have to be willing to acknowledge the past in order to move forward in bridging this racial gap.
Sweeping it under the rug or pretending like it never happened is not the effective solution. But engaging with the truth of someone’s past can help a person see things from a different perspective.
“It’s definitely a unique challenge for those in the majority culture because unless you placed yourself in positions where you’re day in and day out the minority, it’s hard to know what that feels like,” said Green, who placed himself in that position by leading a church that is mostly white.
Robert and Bridgett Muckle shared the same sentiment as Green while sitting in their living room one Saturday afternoon.
“When you have that diversity it does do away with a lot of misconceptions you have about a race of people,” Robert said.
For many churches like Watkinsville First Baptist Church, this issue is not necessarily about race, but location. Carlos Sibley has been the senior pastor at WFBC for 14 years and said he has spent much time thinking about why his church is not more racially diverse.
“Sometimes when people say a particular church is not racially diverse, if you look a little bit closer you will actually see that their community’s not racially diverse,” he said. This is the case for WFBC, which is located in a predominantly white town.
The Community and the Church
For Unzicker, starting a church would mean pulling out a map and figuring out the demographics of the city where his church would be. He believes that a church needs to mirror its community.
“We’ve got to look like who our neighbors are because if God’s saying, ‘Love your neighbor,’ then that means love all your neighbors.”
According to Lifeway Research, nearly 80 percent of pastors said that they felt their churches reflected their communities around them. It would seem that the approvals of multi-race worship services are on the rise. In an article published by The Huffington Post, it was reported that multiracial congregations have almost doubled in the past ten years.
“If heaven is going to include all races, it’s encouraging to see our faith communities beginning to reflect that reality in the present,” wrote Scott Thumma, the writer of the article.
It goes beyond just making an educated guess about your community demographics, but actually seeking those statistics out. Green’s church does exactly that. In Chapel Hill, he learned that the largest minority in the city was the Asian population followed by the African American population and then Hispanics. At The Summit Church in Chapel Hill, that is how the minority groups are represented in the church, an accurate display of the community.
In Sibley’s case, he is representing the community he is in even though he admits his church is not racially diverse. Watkinsville, Georgia is located in Oconee, a predominantly white county so for WFBC, the majority of people in the congregation is white.
“People would have to come from a greater distance for our percentages to reflect something different than what our community currently is,” said Sibley.
Sometimes when the community tries to tie race and Christianity together, it dilutes the true message of who Jesus is. Robert Muckle described how people in different churches tend to place their own race upon Jesus when he was a really a Jew- not black or white.
It is about understanding that Jesus is the Son of God. When people place these false labels upon Christianity based on our race, the church and the community become very skewed in their understanding of how they view Christ.
“Instead of us thinking that Jesus is for everybody, we want Jesus to be more for the blacks or the whites than they are for anybody else and see Jesus wasn’t like that,” said Joyce Muckle.
She noted that Jesus does not identify us by race, but who people are on an individual level.
The church has a vital role to play in the its ability to not only mirror the community, but to show the community how Jesus views race, but it all starts with how a church understands the gospel, according to Green.
There are challenges for churches to overcome. There are victories for churches to exalt. But however progress is made in bridging the racial divide, it will take sacrifice. Unzicker pointed out that there is very big difference between being multicultural and multicolored. To be multicultural implies that a church not only incorporates different races into the congregation, but the church actually changes to fit with the cultures represented.
But sometimes churches get this concept confused and that’s where Unzicker said the problem is. It is about mixing cultures together through a worship service. It is about sacrificing wants to provide needs for another. It is about truly understanding that in a racially diverse church, color is only the beginning of change.
That is why Green described the integration of churches as a process that requires humility.
“The appropriate way to come at this is from a very, very humble aspect and a way to understand…this is going to be something that’s going to be challenging for a while,” he said.
Churches like The Summit Church are working intentionally to bridge the racial divide within its different locations. It starts with its leadership, where four out of the eight pastors on staff are non-white. It is not just for The Summit staff as a whole, but Unzicker noted that on his staff in Brier Creek, five out of the 12 on staff with him are non-white, nearly half. However, it goes beyond appearances. Pastors on staff have been challenged to lead the way by reaching out to their neighbors.
In cooperation with the Sam James Institute, four pastors from The Summit Church lead a discussion on racial diversity within the church. As they sat casually on stools positioned on a dim lit stage, each one spoke about how they personally have dealt with the issue of racism. J.D. Greear, the lead pastor of The Summit Church, began by
addressing the white people in the room.
“Those of us that are in the white culture that still make up the majority here at The Summit Church have to recognize that there is some bravery that goes into penetrating a culture like this one where you need to say, ‘This is not…like the church I grew up in, but I want to be a part of it.”
The three other pastors represented the African American, Hispanic and Asian minorities, Green being one of the speakers in the discussion.
For Green’s church, one way they are becoming multicultural in their approach to racial diversity is through the way that they are interpreting sermons into Mandarin for that particular part of the congregation each week. Even though the Mandarin population makes up less than 10 percent of the church, intentionality is the key component for The Summit Church at Chapel Hill.
According to a study from Faith Communities Today, predominantly white churches are growing at a slower rate than minority churches such as Latino and African American. Along with this, the study showed that congregations that are English only grow at a slower rate as opposed to services containing more than one language.
“Congregations that use a language other than English in one or more of their worship services or have a bilingual worship service are much more likely to grow than congregations where services are in English only,” the study said.
Unzicker said that intentionality for change really began with prayer before ever actively engaging with people in the community.
For Sibley’s church at WFBC, intentionality may look a little different. Even though he and his church find themselves in a majority white church, the church exemplifies openness to racial diversity in some of the families that attend the church. Mixed marriages and adoptions of Chinese, Ethiopian and Guatemalan children make up part of the church.
Green considers his church to be racially diverse. Unzicker would say the opposite, but that his church is “getting there.” Sibley would say his church is not racially diverse. But one thing all of these churches do have in common is their central heartbeat- what drives them to be intentional and motivates them to love their communities. It is the gospel.
But while racial diversity is a key issue that churches need to discuss more, Green said it is not his primary concern.
“I’m not a proponent of making this the issue. The primary issue is to make disciples,” he said.
And for a family such as the Muckles, they feel the same way. It is about having a community and having the Bible taught accurately.
It is about showing the love of Christ to those standing next to each other in church and showing the love of Christ outside the four walls of the church to people that don’t know what that looks like.