1. Racial Segregation
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it best when he observed in 1963 that the “most segregated hour in Christian American” was 11 am on Sunday. Decades later—despite protests, marches, boycotts, sit ins, civil rights laws, affirmative action programs, and an increased sensitivity to racial discrimination in our nation’s institutions—very tangible racial segregation continues in American society. The best neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces continue to be very very white. Meanwhile, our worst neighborhoods, schools, and our prisons continue to be very very black.
Sadly, Christian congregations, if they differ at all from this snapshot of American culture, arguably are worse. Today only between 5% and 7.5% of churches have memberships more racially diverse than 20%.
The institutional quality of racism that was present in Dr. King’s time is no doubt of a lesser quality. But the sum total of people’s individual choices create a practical reality that finds much in common with 1963. People gravitate to congregations that conform to their comfort zones. We like the idea of diversity, but virtually no one wants to deal with the discomfort inherent in the personal choices that are required to actually make it happen.
The fact that Christian congregations are so racially segregated is both disappointing and revealing of deep problems within modern Christianity. To begin, God’s kingdom is made up of people from every race. John’s Revelation describes Heaven this way:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
The fact that we are not united on Earth the way John describes the great multitude of Heaven makes clear that individual Christians are on the whole unwilling to make the uncomfortable choices that life in the kingdom seems to demand.
But the sum total of our individual decisions strongly suggests that there could be something wrong with our model of church. I’m not writing here to denounce anyone’s worship style preference, or having worship style preferences at all. I have mine (and they make me a distinct minority in my church group and age group). But we have to ask whether, in such a highly diverse country as our own—which would suggest that our churches, in light of the scripture I quoted above, would also be diverse—if our churches are so homogenous, there might be something fundamentally wrong with the way we do church.
The answer is right in front of us. Our churches live and die based on growth in numbers. Churches have mortgages, paid staffs*, marketing budgets, etc. I have more to say on this below, but suffice it to say churches these days are a business, and businesses don’t market to people who won’t buy their product. White churches market to white people; black churches market to black people.
By “market” I mean everything obvious and subtle that would attract a new person to invest themselves in your undertaking: the songs we sing, the clothes we wear, the preaching style we demand, the decor of the building, and the places members evangelize.
Churches depend on numerical growth for they survival, so they invest their resources and “market” to their people. It’s rarely as nefarious as church leaders intentionally excluding racial groups (though sometimes it absolutely is). It’s more subtle than that. Sometimes it’s as simple as the conversations we have—or don’t have—when people walk in the door. It’s hard to go personally, emotionally, and intellectually invest yourself in people of different cultural backgrounds, people with ideas that sometimes make us uncomfortable. And so people settle into groups of like-minded people.
And as long as we grow our churches by making them appealing and entertaining, these trends will never change.
The first century of Christians certainly had issues with diversity, but the reason was not that it’s survival depended on growth and contributions. If we want to look like the kingdom in Revelation, it might be time to reexamine the motivations behind our personal choices and to explore how our model of church might be getting in the way.
2. Judging Non-Christians
I’ve passed the time in church pews for almost twenty-nine years now. In that time, I’ve heard vivid descriptions of a world outside that was bent on anarchy. Hollywood, scientists, Muslisms, atheist professors, politically correct politicians, pregnant teenagers, and gays all were launching a coordinated effort with the intent to destroy us and the country we love. Notwithstanding the questionable claims about the world in which I’m not sure these preachers had ever stepped foot, I can scarcely remember many criticisms directed at ourselves.
The truth is we love judging the world. Which would be fine if Paul didn’t say the following in 1st Corinthians: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”
With all the effort we put into condemning people who are not in the church, we have little to say about ourselves. I could absolutely belittle my waitress after worship service. I could be dishonest with people with whom I do business. I could totally neglect my family in order to afford a bigger house, and no one would say anything as long as I continued putting money in the collection plate to support the preacher so he could continue preaching about other non-Christians.
3. Shallow Theology
There is a problem with Biblical illiteracy in our churches. In my experience, there are two varieties of the problem.
One problem seems to apply more to younger generations. As Jayson Bradley—a fellow troublemaker—points out, this generation has not lost their appreciation for the Bible. It’s just that when they learn about the Bible, they seem to read and listen to everything else.
I think part of the problem is that Christians now prop up their biblical understanding with secondary sources: they read Max Lucado books, they watch their favorite pastors online, they listen to Christian music, they read Christian romance novels. And because all these sources use biblical language, allusions, and passages, there’s a feeling that biblical understanding is being increased—but that’s not necessarily the case.
This generation has a deep appreciation for the individual experience of the Christian, and for the cultural context of the Bible’s works of literature (good things), but often lacks knowledge of the actual literal text. This is especially true of the parts of the Bible that haven’t yet been appropriated by some mediocre work of Christian literature that every one of the people in their youth group swears is “so good”.
Viewed this way, the Bible is considered a “love letter.”
The second variety of Bible illiteracy applies more to people who have been in church since the Great Depression. These sorts of people can flat out quote the Bible. No problem. Where this group gets into trouble is the shallow appreciation for the culture and history in which the letters in the Bible find themselves. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” is a good summary of their theology. If the correct way to interpret the Bible required any more than reading the words before them, God would be the author of confusion (never mind that their proof text, 1 Corinthians 14:33, is actually just talking about how many people can speak in tongues at one moment). What they fail to grasp are the profound Western and even American filters through which they interpret what the Bible “says”.
Viewed this way, the Bible is considered an “instruction manual.”
The first group pulls out isolated words of encouragement. The second group pulls out isolated commands. But both groups overall are not good at understanding how the Bible works as a comprehensive unit. The Old Testament comprises more than 75% of the Bible, yet neither group can really tell you why it’s there—why Jesus didn’t just come to Earth immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, and instead waited about four thousand years (by the way, I make a stab at that here). It turns out that the collection of books we call the Bible is a rich, weird, baffling, and amazing literary unit, written by flawed humans with sometimes flawed and incomplete personal understandings of this life and the next, that shows us what depending on God’s power looks like.
Missing this causes us to fall victim to all kinds of good-sounding but bad ideas. Many rich people believe that God wants us to make a lot of money, and that government sponsored welfare programs are sinful (because if you don’t work, you shall not eat). Many high school graduates believe that God has a plan for them to prosper. Many people who lost a loved one believe God caused it to work for everyone’s good.
Shallow theology also has opened the door for…
4. Political Church
There’s an important detail that often gets overlooked when Pontius Pilate offers to crucify Barabbas instead of Jesus. Barabbas had a first name. Do you know what it was?
You read that right.
Go look it up. It’s in Matthew 27.
Pilate offered two Jesuses to the Jews, and the distinction between is more important and profound than just one was good and the other was bad. One cared about freedom from political oppression; the other cared about freedom from spiritual oppression. One fought his enemies; the other remained silent before his accusers. Not that every Jew would accept God’s son, but any Jew who had heard their local rabbi read Isaiah 9 would have picked up on the distinction in the two Jesuses.
The gospel writers’ unmistakeable lesson for God’s people is that God’s kingdom is not an earthly civil government. It’s not a political fight. And America is not Jerusalem. If this wasn’t so, it would seem odd that “God’s servant for your good” referred to by Paul in Romans 13 would ten years later turn out to be Nero.
Despite this, there is no shortage today in churches, blogs, and tv shows of teaching in the thinking and assumptions of Barabbas. How many sermons have you heard about Christian persecution in America and how we must fight back to reclaim our rights? And liberty blah blah blah. (You can see bald eagles flying into scene).
First of all, even if this was scripturally sound, the factual assumptions on which this thinking is based are preposterous. Today’s American Christians have never been less persecuted in all of history. Preachers—who usually have little more background or training in political science than the average taxicab driver—it turns out can just as easily be manipulated by Fox News anchors as anyone else.
But there’s a more important point within preacher’s training that most miss. The first century church was not a political church. Fighting for our civil rights is not the work of the Lord. Peter— like Barabbas—fought for his, and Jesus rebuked him for it.
To non-Christians, political church confirms everything they fear about us. To them, we aren’t fighting for a spiritual kingdom; we’re fighting for an earthly one. And when they hear people we elect say things like this, they quickly conclude that there are better earthly kingdoms.
5. Corporate Church
Paul, in his letter to Galatia, commands Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Does church feel like a place where people will bear your burdens? Does it feel like a family? Or does it feel like a slick program run by a corporation?
Every corporation has three components: (1) shareholders, who invest money in the corporation; (2) board members, who oversee the entity and appoint corporate officers; and (3) officers, usually led by a CEO, who works full time to provide a return on the shareholder’s investment and to attract new investors.
Modern-day churches are organized virtually the same way.
Church members are the shareholders. In corporations, shareholders vote to appoint officers and invest money in the company. In churches, member are emotionally blackmailed into tithing every Sunday (never mind that the weekly contribution described in Paul’s letters was for a specific famine in Jerusalem and that tithing didn’t begin in churches until the 8th century).
Pastors are the board members. Board members are responsible for hiring the company’s officers. In churches the pastors make fundamental decisions for the church and usually hire preachers and other full-time staff. Usually, they are appointed by a vote of the members.
The preacher is the CEO. In corporations, the CEO is responsible for the company being profitable. In churches, the preacher is responsible for attracting a crowd (and ultimately, tithing church members).
The corporate structure is great for raising capital and becoming a profitable enterprise. It’s not a great family structure. It’s not great at encouraging people to bear each other’s burdens. When the company becomes unprofitable, people sell their stock and move on. We do this with churches. When church becomes hard or makes us vulnerable, we move to a different church. We search for a place that will produce a greater return on our investment and provide greater security.
And so our churches have no culture or expectation of vulnerability. What we do have are a bunch of people with iron skin—a flawless showcase of people who have it all together. And if everyone is there to impress everybody, then obviously everyone will look down on you and your problems—or so the thinking goes. If church is a fearful place for you, your church may be a corporate church.
*My aim here is not to argue that financially supporting people who give their full time to ministry is inherently evil. There are numerous missions that could not happen
with without financial support. My aim is not to condemn those things, but to raise awareness of the problems that come with the model of church that requires constant donations from new converts.