Transforming Race - Part 1 of 2

by Michael Reneau

Much has been made in the national news media this year of racial differences within our society and particularly within the Church. But are we divided? Do the lines of race that once segregated the entire nation still represent a chasm within the American Church itself?

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, gauging the breakdown in the United States of all different religious groups, from Christian to Buddhist to atheist.

This simple breakdown of religions and denominations suggests that the American church is still largely separated according to race. Within Pew's protestant categorization of Christianity lie three subcategories: evangelical Protestant (consisting of many types of Baptists, Charismatic, Wesleyan and Reformed denominations), mainline Protestant (made up of denominations considered more liberal), and historically black denominations.

Furthermore, survey results show a statistical separation between the races in the church: only six percent of all U.S. evangelical churchgoers are black, and only two percent of mainline churchgoers are black.

In effort to grasp how believers are approaching this subject, Pulpit Helps recently spoke with two pastors in the Chattanooga area-Dr. Rozario Slack of Temple of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ and Pastor Randy Nabors of New City Fellowship.

According to Slack, an African American, the races are separated on Sunday mornings, but he doesn't necessarily see that as a problem.

"I'm not sure that it's as bad as people make it," he said.

Slack sees it as a case of different people preferring to worship with people of the same mind about certain issues, including worship styles.

"Worship styles don't always jive," he said.

In many cases, where many white worshipers are more reserved during services, black worshipers tend to be more expressive during services, Slack said.

He added that there are historical and cultural differences between the races that contribute to the different worship styles. He said the black Church and African Americans in general "place a higher value on experiential knowledge than they do on existential truth. Black people have to feel you," he said, whereas the predominant culture in America is more "heady."

Slack said he attributes this to what he sees as the classic Afro-centric school of thought which is circular, whereas Euro-centric thought is more linear.

Overall, Slack does see racial problems still existent in America, but he is not sure that the nation wants to talk about it. He said that whenever black people say anything about the problem, "we run the risk of being called bellyachers."

Though racism may not be institutionalized, Slack said many whites still have skewed views of blacks today, including a resistance to trust African Americans.

"I don't think America has crossed over into thinking blacks are of infinite worth," he said. "We are often asked subtly to give up what makes us different and be more like white people."

Instead, he said America needs to be honest about the differences between whites and blacks and agree to work through those differences. Comparing society's racial problems to a marriage, Slack said it's okay to have "irreconcilable differences," but just as a marriage should not shatter based on those differences, the country should dialogue and work through those differences, especially in the Church.

"The blood of Jesus has not erased the color of our skin; it has given us a bond that is stronger than anyone can see," he said. "Our love transforms race."

It boils down to a spiritual battle, he said. The devil wants the Church to be divided because of differences like skin color, dress and worship style-things that have "nothing to do with eternity."

Nabors, a white pastor, also sees persistent racial problems within the U.S. and the Church. His church, New City Fellowship, is an intentionally cross-cultural and cross-racial church.

Nabors grew up in inner-city Newark, N.J., in the mid-60s, a racially tumultuous time for the city. Like Detroit and Washington, D.C., Nabors said, Newark went from being a predominantly white city to a predominantly black city. In 1967 and '68 he watched race riots engulf the city and the first national black power conference convene in Newark.

"You could not escape the issues of race," he said.

He said he tried for years to find ways to move beyond his life in the inner-city. Then his life changed when he found himself, years later, in a Bible study in his home, surrounded by young black men. He then said to himself, "I need to stop trying to escape the ghetto and the inner city."

Now his church, located in the inner city of Chattanooga, primarily focuses on racial reconciliation and mercy ministry to the poor.

"Eleven o'clock, Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week in America," he said, because of "insidious racism" and "cultural prejudice" on the parts of whites and blacks.

Like Slack, Nabors said that a natural separation between the races on Sunday is fine, but he thinks too many people use "separation" to justify racism. Racism occurs, he said, when people intentionally refuse to share Jesus with people of a different race. When people perpetuate that separation, they act in racist ways, he said.

The key to his church's success in reaching across cultures, he said, lies in the fact that everyone in the church sacrifices a little of their comfort to accommodate others.

"Everyone gives up something to be here," he said.

For example, Nabors sees many of the separation problems in the Church today as being a problem of class. With New City's location in inner-city Chattanooga, Nabors makes it a point to reach out to the less wealthy.

"Class is a spiritual issue," he said. "If you harden your heart to the poor, you're sinning."

Nabors said he asks his church to give of themselves to the community around them. He said some middle-class families have taken issue and even left the church because they feel that the New City youth program does not address enough of their children's needs, but Nabors said that his church's focus should be ministering to the needs of the lower class around the church.

"The self-satisfied, middle class church doesn't look like Jesus," he said. "We call upon the majority to focus on the minority, and we seek to serve God by serving others. If you give yourself away, you'll be happy here."

And it really is a majority who have to minister. Nabors said that to have 25 percent of attendees be of a minority is a good day for his church.

The Chattanooga area has also seen an influx of Latinos in recent years. To accommodate them, all praise and worship songs displayed on the screens at the front of the sanctuary also have the lyrics in Spanish at the bottom of the screen. The congregation even sings in Spanish from time to time. Nabors said many visitors, even non-Christians, are happily surprised to see white, black and Latino worshipers together, singing lively Gospel songs and other songs in Spanish.

"This is what they [non-Christians] think Christianity ought to be," he said.

Still, intentionally reaching across cultures and races as a church is challenging, he said.

"I can't say that to make conscious choices to change a congregation is easy," he said.

Nabors summed up ministry and outreach in a cross-cultural church with two words: "focus" and "complication." He chose focus because he said his congregation is primarily focused on ministering to African Americans in the community. Though they see all races equal before God, he said, "We don't see every group equal in need."

Nabors also chose the word "complication" because he said some members want to be ministered to more and not have to minister to others as much.

Overall, Nabors hopes that New City can be an example of a church bringing together races and cultures locally so that the American Church can begin to do that naturally. If the Church is to be racially reconciled, Nabors said three things must happen: Christians need to understand culture-too many, he said, don't see the difference between the Bible and culture and see anything "abnormal" as being wrong and anything "normal" as being right; second, Nabors said all Christians need a great measure of humility about their heritage and about themselves; thirdly, Nabors said each Christian needs to love each other-to love them enough to make efforts to understand their language, their art, and their history.

Slack, meanwhile, said he does think strides toward "racial transformation" are being made, but the Church needs to be more open and intentional.

"I do think we're getting better," he said. "I don't think we're intentional and intense enough. If the Church wants to make a difference, we can do it by beginning to dialogue intentionally."

Slack also said he is reminded of an adage his parents used to tell him and thinks the Church-black and white-would do well to remember it as well: "None of us have arrived until all of us have arrived."

Next month, we'll look at ministry and missions in America's different Christian communities.

Michael Reneau is a senior journalism major at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn.,
and worked as a summer intern for Pulpit Helps.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
Disciple Banner Ad