Why the Local Church Is Unrivaled In Its Potential To Bring About Meaningful Transformation In the Areas of Race and Ethnicity

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In my previous post, I offered some reflections on the racist incidences at Fenway Park. In this follow-up post, I will attempt to explain why I believe the local church is an ideal context in which to pursue racial reconciliation.

I write this fully aware that Christians and Christian institutions have had a rather sordid and checkered past as it relates to interracial and intercultural relations in the U.S. This includes the culpability of the Evangelical Church as convincingly and provocatively argued in Divided by Faith, a seminal, pioneering sociological work that spawned a bevy of studies on multiethnic congregations and pricked the conscience of influential evangelical leaders like Bill Hybels.

Given our historic and ongoing complicity in perpetuating the racial divide, some (if they even acknowledge that racism is a pervasive, systemic issue) might understandably wonder if Christians can or should play a significant role in bridging this divide.

You have probably heard some variation of the expression that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. According to NCS III, as of 2012, only about 20% of people attended ethnically diverse churches, where no one racial or ethnic group makes up more than 80% of the congregation, up from 15% in 1998 (note that the NCS refers to all congregations, not just Christian congregations, though these make up the vast majority of survey participants). The degree of homogeneity and segregation is even more stark in certain Christian denominations.

Most of our congregations do not reflect the demographics of their neighborhoods. That is, our children are likely to attend schools that are much more racially and ethnic diversity than their churches. But some may even wonder if racial segregation among congregations should even be a concern. After all, churches are not the only social settings or communities in which we can encounter and befriend people from other social groupings. What’s wrong with living out God’s calling among people like me that I’m comfortable with? Birds of a feather flock together, right?

Rather than just appeal to select Bible passages that speak to intergroup harmony (e.g. Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:11-22, Rev. 7:9), I want to present a social science perspective, employing Gordon Allport’s intergroup contact theory, on the importance of desegregating our churches in confronting prejudice and discrimination.

Among other matters related to prejudice, Allport explicated his intergroup contact theory in The Nature of Prejudice, which was first published in 1954. His work on prejudice was instrumental during the American Civil Rights Movement, having influenced leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X and even landmark legislative decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. Allport’s theory has stood the test of time and scrutiny, receiving validation by numerous subsequent studies on intergroup contact and prejudice reduction, including Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp’s oft-cited meta-analysis of 515 intergroup contact studies.

Allport’s intergroup contact theory postulated that under certain conditions, intergroup interactions could facilitate the reduction of prejudice and intergroup conflict. He summarized the ideal conditions in this way (Allport 1958, 267):

Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports, and if it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups [emphasis added].

Take a moment to consider Allport’s four conditions—equal group status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, and authority support—in light of what the Bible reveals about the nature and divine calling of the church. How well do they align? Much more could be said but here are a few thoughts. In the New Testament, the local church was described as a community, whereby the social significances and power hierarchies associated with slave or master, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, and male or female were supplanted by the shared identity of adopted children who were indwelled by a common Spirit (equal status).

In this family of brothers and sisters, all were to be equally valued members of “one body” with interdependent roles (intergroup cooperation), not envying each other’s gifts but working together to advance their common calling as priests in God’s redemptive work, being empowered by a common hope and a common destiny (common goals).

And for committed Christians who take knowing and obeying the will of God seriously and perceive God’s calling for Christian unity and intergroup harmony, could there be anything more powerful and compelling than divine legitimation (authority support)? While there are other programs or venues like sports teams and non-religiously related interventions that have been demonstrated to be efficacious in reducing prejudice and intergroup hostilities, I believe that the local church is unrivaled in its potential to bring about meaningful transformation by virtue of her divine design and mandate.

In sum, why is racial desegregation within our churches important? For one, positive intergroup contact (the conditions of which the local church is well-suited to meet) has been confirmed repeatedly through empirical investigation to be effective in addressing racial prejudice and intergroup hostility and this cannot occur readily within our church communities if they are socially homogenous.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today The Exchange – Michael Hakmin Lee, Ph.D., is Research Fellow for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.