It’s been more than 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. quipped, “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”
If we are honest with ourselves, churches are nearly as divided today as they were 40 years ago. We call it culture, and we call it personal preference. But the truth of the matter is that we just don’t want to rock the boat. (We like the comfort, staff members like their paychecks.)
So we allow racism, sexism, and a lack of cultural diversity to run rampant in our congregations.
It’s time those of us who are called to be leaders lead our churches into a new paradigm.
And it starts with a sober assessment of where our congregations are.
Simple measurement tool
Make a written observation of the demographics of your congregation this Sunday morning. (Age, marital status, socio-economic status, race, gender) Then compare what you observe at your church against the data set of your church’s zip code as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
- Does your congregation reflect its neighborhood’s demographics?
- Does your church staff reflect the demographics of the zip code?
- If there is a disconnect, is your church leadership making serious, active efforts to close the divide?
Cutting to the chase: While most evangelical congregations don’t have white, middle class theology, they predominantly attract white, middle class congregations. And it’s scary how many church staffs are filled with white, middle class males. (Go ahead, look at the staff pages of 10 of your favorite churches.) That disconnect you observe should lead you to make changes!
Changing your behavior: If you are like me, a child of the 1980s, you were raised in a dogma of multiculturalism.
From kindergarten, I was taught that all the cultures in my community have value, deserve equal rights, and should be given access to the same things I am given access to as a member of the dominant culture. That value may have been taught to me from a secular perspective, but I believe it also reflects a biblical perspective on how Christians are to live in society as well!
If you want to express that same value on Sunday morning, you need to take some steps (maybe radical ones) towards that value.
In other words- Maybe you need to change churches? Maybe you need to stop funding something that doesn’t reflect your values and start funding a congregation that does? Maybe you need to lead the way and stop waiting for church leadership to lead you?
Personal testimony- This is what I’ve done. For the past 2+ years, my family has been a part of a congregation that works hard to reflect its neighborhood. At times, it is simply beautiful, and at other times, it is wholly awkward. But it’s been a radical transformation for my walk with Jesus. So know that I’m not just pushing an idealism, I’m encouraging you to participate in something that I’m finding tremendous joy in.
If you are a church leader who is taking a serious look at bridging the divide between the Sunday morning demographic you have today and the one you’d like to see in 12 months, may I suggest some action steps?
5 Radical Steps Towards Becoming a Congregation Which Reflects Its Neighborhood
- Hire staff members that reflect the demographics of your zip code. (Race, gender, marital status, age)
- Require all paid staff, from the janitor to the senior pastor, to live within the zip code of your congregation. (Give them a few months to move, make it financially possible, remove staff members who won’t move within 12 months.) Take it a step further by requiring all board officers to do the same.
- If you live outside of the neighborhood, lead the way by moving into the community that your church is trying to reach. Don’t contribute to the disconnect- lead the way!
- Get involved in neighborhood issues. Lead the way on issues of justice, advocate for the poor, let your congregation be a voice in the community. (Here’s 10 suggestions for your church to be good news to the neighborhood.)
- Adopt a local public school. The local schools are the access point to the people your church is called to reach. Get involved, not as an agent of adversary, but as a community partner. (Here’s 10 suggestions for your church to be good news to the local schools.)
Is this a magic growth formula? Of course not. But as you take these steps, you will earn the trust of a community who has learned to ignore you. When you care about what they care about and when you reflect who they are, you will be amazed at the social currency this will earn your congregation.
I recognize that these steps may seem extreme. (And I’m certain someone will tell me that firing staff for this is unbiblical.) But that’s the nature of leadership, isn’t it? Sometimes God asks you to push past what you are comfortable with or what feels right to do what is right. Remember the rich young man in Matthew 19? He asked Jesus how he might enter the Kingdom of God, but he left disappointed because the cost was too high.
The reality is that if those in leadership don’t take radical positions so that their actions reflect their theology, the church will never change.
We simply cannot survive as a viable faith if we continue to act as agents of discrimination on Sunday morning. The church cannot be the most segregated place in our culture. It is time that the church takes a good, hard look at who they are in their community and makes some radical changes.
It’ll never get any easier or cheaper to do so than it is today.