We Need to Talk About Race in Church More, Not Less

We Need to Talk About Race in Church More, Not Less

This past Sunday marked the last weekend of Black History Month in America, and it was also a day on which the Southern Baptist Convention commemorated something that they call “Racial Reconciliation Sunday.” 

On that day, pastors are encouraged to discuss race in their churches with an emphasis on seeking both justice and unity. It’s an annual tradition that first began in 1965 and has been observed by many Southern Baptist churches every year since. 

But the debate around CRT being what it is, the event grew sharp criticism this year. Prominent Baptist leaders decried and derided the idea of a Racial Reconciliation Sunday, with some calling it “performative,” “pandering,” and “unnecessary.” Others pointed to the fact that Christians already have unity in Christ and that talking about racial unity is actually perpetuating division and introducing “worldly ideologies” into the church. 

In short, there is a not inconsiderable number of evangelical leaders who are highly triggered by any mention of race in church settings, and they would much prefer it if we never spoke about it again. 

I think one of the worst things Christians could do would be to acquiesce to such a demand. Here are at least three reasons why it’s vital that we talk about race in our churches more, not less.

1. Most American Churches Are Functionally Segregated. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said that the most segregated hour of the week is at 11am on Sunday. While he uttered those words over half a century ago, they are still largely true today. Most American evangelical churches are divided along racial lines. Based on one study, roughly eight in 10 American congregants attend a service where 80 percent of attendees are of one ethnic group or race.

This is particularly troubling for churches that have been planted in communities that reflect a much greater degree of diversity than does their church. 

Much of the reason is owing to the roots of racism in our country, from housing discrimination to intentional segregation among churches, bible colleges, and seminaries. These factors had long blocked non-white Christians from entering into white spaces of worship and theology, leading them to form their own spiritual communities apart from the dominate culture. 

And even today, when a person of color crosses over into majority culture spaces, they must often adapt their own culture to fit into the majority culture, rather than the majority culture allowing space for them to bring their whole selves to the community. This is why many churches or religious institutions have not successfully diversified. 

Unless we address this problem and think intentionally about how to overcome a legacy of racism that still negatively affects us today, we never will. 

Most American evangelical churches are still divided along racial lines. Click To Tweet

2. The Church Is Called to Preach With Hope, but to Also Call People to Repentance.

When I say that the church has a race problem, I don’t say it as some abstract truism. I’ve seen it firsthand. 

I grew up in a community that for many decades was predominantly white. But throughout my childhood and into the present, the demographics of the town have changed significantly with an influx of Chinese- and Korean-American residents, as well as many immigrants from Asia. To some of the old-timers in the community, this is what they referred to—no lie—as “the Asian invasion.”

Nevertheless, for a time, the demographics of my church, and especially the leadership influencers, remained largely white. And when the church did begin to see changes in its demographics that started to reflect the town’s diversity, many of the Asian American church members who were the first to come into positions of leadership did so against the backdrop of resistance to them on the basis of their race. 

Whether it was tasteless jokes about chopsticks, snide remarks uttered under the breath of other church leaders, or all out assaults on any idea or initiative that may or may not have been informed by a different culture, it was a constant uphill battle. Further, any time these actions were called to account, they were explained away as mere jokes or otherwise something the offended party was overreacting to.

But the heart of the matter was this. In the same way that some people had thought Asian Americans were “taking over” their town, they now believed the same was coming to pass in their church. 

Refusing to talk about these kinds of issues doesn’t make them go away. We have to talk about them. We have to call them to account. We have to be willing to shepherd our people through their unconscious biases and to call out when they are being overtly racially insensitive. We need to do so in love. But being loving about it doesn’t mean being any less stern. 

Doing this may cost a congregation some donors. That’s a hard reality. But we’re called to preach with hope but also call people to repentance, especially where a particular sin is baked into the cultures of our churches. Speaking openly about race in church allows us to call these old sins into the light, that they might be healed. 

Refusing to talk about these kinds of issues doesn't make them go away. Click To Tweet

3. The World Can Accurately Diagnose the Problem, but It Does Not Have the Ultimate Solution.

As debates rage on about how to understand Critical Race Theory or how to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, what many Christians fail to realize is that numerous entities outside of the Christian community have accurately diagnosed the problem of racial injustice in ways that the American church has often refused to.

Long after segregation has been abolished, statistics show us that disparate outcomes still exist along racial lines in most meaningful categories for our society. Critical Race Theory is a set of legal analytical tools to assess why that is the case. 

And regardless of whether we can agree with the economic philosophies or sexual ethics of BLM, we have to recognize that they are saying something that has often been denied in our culture: Black lives really do matter. 

These movements have accurately diagnosed the racial problems that continue to plague our society. But because they aren’t one of “us,” many Christians deny the veracity of their claims, many of which are hardly even worth debating at this point. So instead of partnering with others for greater racial justice, we instead halt any efforts to further that justice, because the people seeking to do it aren’t Christians. 

This stands as an open rebuke to the church. 

It should be us leading the charge. And that’s because we have every ability to accurately diagnose the problem as well. The Bible speaks of racial issues constantly. 

Even more importantly, we have the solution that no one else has: Jesus. It is only Jesus who can ultimately tear down the dividing wall between races and take opposing groups and transform them into one united body. We can change all the laws we want (and we should), but Jesus is the only one who can transform hearts. 

Yet many of us aren’t even willing to enter the conversation. And when we do, for many of us, it’s actually to oppose the very kind of transformation that Jesus died and rose again for. We have to change that.

Many of us aren't willing to enter the conversation. And when we do, for many of us, it's actually to oppose the very kind of transformation that Jesus died and rose again for. We have to change that. Click To Tweet

While This Issue Is Political, It Doesn’t Have to Be Partisan. 

People often grow wary of churches wading into waters that feel too political. But whether we like it or not, the church is something of a political entity. And that’s because we aren’t merely a group of individuals. We are a people. 

But when most people say that the church is getting too political, I think what they really mean is that the church is getting too partisan—or perhaps that church leaders are saying too many things that offend their partisan proclivities. We can’t let that stop us. 

This isn’t to say that every sermon we preach should be about race or that we should be beating our people over the head. But if we go an entire year without even mentioning it, there are probably large portions of the bible that we’re just skipping over or failing to interpret properly. 

We can speak about race in church with hope, because of the cross. But we must never let that keep us from being passionate about seeing God’s just will be done on earth as it is in heaven.