Thursday, April 03, 2008

Inclusiveness

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
– Galatians 3:26-28

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that in Christ there is no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963

Like attracts like. It’s so simple that there’s even an Immutable Law of the Universe associated with the concept. It’s called the Law of Attraction. And we see the fruits of that law all around us – in our career choices, where similarly-minded and similarly gifted people tend to congregate; in our choice of friends, who frequently share our interests; and in our choice of romantic/marriage partners. We tend to hang out with people who are a lot like ourselves.

The concept also is manifested in the Christian Church. In Mount Vernon, Ohio, where I lived for almost eight years, the local Presbyerian Church was full of buttoned-down professionals; doctors and lawyers and corporate executives who shared common educational backgrounds and a love of order and formally democratic governance. We had a board of elders, but it was still a board, and it functioned dysfunctionally according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Coincidentally, almost all of the dysfunctional doctors and lawyers were white. My current church, a Vineyard Church, is full of highly educated creative types; artists and musicians and writers and entrepreneurs. Coincidentally, almost all of the wounded artists are white.

And it begs the question: is this the way it’s supposed to work? The apostle Paul, quoted above, would seem to suggest No. The Rev. Martin Luther King, quoted above, would also seem to suggest No. In theory, our unity in Christ trumps all other distinctions. Paul even devoted an entire epistle (Philemon, for the curious) to the notion that the old, oppressive master/slave relationship had been turned upside down because of this unity in Christ. And if masters and slaves could find unity in Christ in a relationship that superseded the old power structure, shouldn’t it be possible for, say, white Christians and black Christians to find unity in Christ? And to actually, you know, maybe even hang out together as a way of showing that unity?

So why do we look and act so much like each other on Sunday mornings?

I’ll propose an answer: because it’s the easiest course of action (or non-action) open to us. Like attracts like. To change requires a serious commitment to be intentional about seeking out those who are not like ourselves. That doesn’t happen naturally. We have to work at it.

While realizing that we all (and yes, I certainly include myself here) have a long way to go, I’m seeing changes, and good changes. People in my church are discussing these issues, talking with the minority members in our midst, trying to understand better the cultural barriers we unintentionally erect and that hinder unity. And starting with our church’s minority members is probably the right approach. There are no easy solutions, but it’s probably the obvious place to begin.

But I would like to suggest that marginalization can occur at every point where there is a departure from homogeneity. It can occur if you’re black in the midst of an overwhelmingly white church. And it can occur in countless other ways as well. Kate and I are a part of a church that is growing in many ways, but one of the principle methods is via reproduction. Crank out those babies. And that’s a great thing. It’s what married people in their late twenties and early thirties tend to do in our culture. But it gets weird to hear the unending discussions about disposable vs. cloth diapers, or the best methods to help the kids sleep through the night, when our kids are leaving home. I have no idea if they’re having problems sleeping through the night. I tend to wonder more about who they might be sleeping with. And there’s a disconnect there. There’s nobody to talk to about those things. Nobody’s been there. Usually it’s no big deal. But sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s a lonely place to be.

If I’m pontificating here, I’m preaching to myself as well. I can be as ingrown and as clueless about the needs of others as anyone. But the truth is that we all have unique issues and life circumstances, little and sometimes big joys and tragedies that have made us who we are, and it would behoove us to understand one another as well as we can. I’d like to see 11:00 on Sunday morning become not only the least racially segregated hour in America, but the least stratified hour in terms of all distinctions -- social, educational, political, class, age, whatever. Our oneness in Christ never looks more apparent than when everybody looks different.

12 comments:

Brother-in-law Bill said...

I'm sure you're aware that H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold's brother, wrote "The Social Sources of Denominationalism" many years ago (50's maybe) and covered much of the same ground, with most of the emphasis on social class rather than ethnicity per se. Sad to say that, except for perhaps a rescue mission that may include alchoholic former professionals, social class seems to be the insurmountable barrier to fully integrating churches. I am absolutely convinced that, given present trends of racial tolerance and especially interracial marriage and cohabiting, we will soon see (soon being a relative term) more of a rainbow in the congregation, but I'm afraid that in my Presbyterian church, they will all be middle and upper middle class.

Let's face it: as Pogo said long ago, "we have met the enemy, and he is us." As you said, we all prefer the company of folks like us. While we will all try to make the economically disadvantaged visitor feel welcome, we probably won't socialize much with them. There's those awkward pauses as we search for a subject that we are both comfortable with.

I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see this changing very soon. Another example of how far we still have to go before we are truly in Christ's image.

CarolN said...

Good thoughts, Andy. Hanging out with people who are different (and I mean really different, not fashionably different) doesn't come naturally, so it will probably never be a mainstream phenomenon. But that doesn't mean we can't do it in our church; we have the Holy Spirit, after all, which is a bonus in our favor.

I'd be curious to know how you think the Columbus Vineyard is doing on this score. There are lots of different ways to approach the diversity thing, including forming partnerships with churches of other racial or socio-economic backgrounds.

Andy Whitman said...

Bill, although there are formidable barriers, including the class/economic barriers you mention, I think the Church can work to overcome those barriers. It's not easy.

As Carol mentioned in her comment, the Vineyard Church of Columbus has seen its demographic profile change significantly in the past ten years. They have been intentionally downwardly mobile, if you will. And they've changed from a middle-class, almost exclusively white church to a church where the entire economic spectrum is represented (and fairly equally represented), and where 20 to 25 percent of the congregation is black, Hispanic, or some other ethnic minority.

They've made two significant changes. They've changed the style of their worship (for some reason, blacks don't seem to be attracted to the Christian equivalent of mid-'70s Fleetwood Mac). And they've opened up a massive community center, where they offer an array of free or nominally priced services to the community, including car repair, legal services, medical services, ESL classes, music lessons, and a phenomenally successful series of athletic programs.

They're a huge church (10,000+ members). And that certainly helps in terms of undertaking the scope of what they've done. But it works because the church understands the priority of such a focus, and because hundreds if not thousands of individual members volunteer their time. Most people respond favorably to acts of love and service. And people -- poor people, at that -- are more likely to show up on Sunday morning when you finally convince them that, yeah, you're willing to provide a tuneup for their car, and yeah, it really is free.

It's a very good thing. And we have a tangible model in Columbus of how to do it. But first we have to want to make it a priority. And really, that's a big challenge, because I like my comfortable life. What Vineyard Columbus is doing is not comfortable. But it's good.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

Now, I wouldn't mind having more of a black church worship service, but I'll bet I'm in a real minority there (no pun intended). And, not to sell our church too short, we do have a very successful Korean congregation, made up primarily of Ball State students and faculty, as well as other ethnic Koreans from the surrounding area. While these folks prefer their separate Korean language worship service, we do get together at special times (Christmas Eve, Easter, etc.), and several Koreans participate on a regular basis in the choir, choral accompaniment, etc.

However, changes in worship can be really difficult in a church like ours, which I think is closer to the norm than Vineyard is. And, I'll be interested in finding out how successful you are in integrating folks who start out in a dependancy relationship fully into the life of the church, including leadership positions. We do have less fortunate folks in the congregation, but I have to say that they are still outsiders, for the most part, and some of that stems from their own discomfort.

Know that I'll be rooting for you, because we need more positive role models like this.

Gar said...

I am in an interesting church out here in California. It is a Lutheran church that consists of 2 services, 1 white, the other Hispanic/Latino. Pretty much if you are white you go to one and Latino the other, but there are some who go between the two. I have attended both and both are different.

The fun thing is that in between services I work with the youth and we mix both congregations together. We are trying like heck to get them to co-mingle, share life, share stories, but it is hard. It goes back to we gravitate toward what we are comfortable with. We intentionally make it uncomfortable for them so they can see each other as more of the same and not different. Also, they get to experience each other's cultures which is huge to me.

Anyway, great post....and no matter how many times people say what you said, it is constantly good to be reminded to get out of our comfort zones...it is what Christ calls us to do...

Gar...

Ps...just go the new Matthew Ryan and I love it...also, the new Sun Kil Moon is a beautiful as can be..

Andy T said...

I always forget whether or not Blogger does trackbacks. Here's a manual one:

http://www.onlineveracity.com/2008/04/05/congregation/

Joe said...

Have to say, your thoughts in paste on griffin's new record really disappointed me. it seemed pretty quick, a little to concerned with turning a phrase, using wit. Really, he's better than that. meet him sometime, it'll make more sense.

best,
taylor bruce

d&a said...

As a member of Vineyard Columbus I've played in worship bands and worked in the community center. I agree that our efforts have sent a very clear "hey, we care about you" message to the African-American community, but I firmly believe that it's Rich Nathan's challenging, no-nonsense preaching style that is bringing about the change in demographics.

Need help with diversity? Take a trip to the mall. At DSW Shoes I noticed an incredible balance of colorful faces. All were just looking for great shoes and a good price. I saw no marketing toward ethnic or cultural pandering going on.

There is a great lesson here for churches. Excuse the crudeness of this analogy but Rich Nathan sells a great line of Christianity without the hype, fancy clothes, pastor parking spaces and drama.

BTW, The inside tip on African-Americans at VCC is the Worship Leader they respect the most is Sarah Higgins. A young, white, honest and sincere gem. Want to be soulful? Just be yourself.

Gar: A good read on this subject is Mark Dymaz's "Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church." I know that VCC leadership has read this too.

Julana said...

Don't forget including people with disabilities.

Many people with disabilities end up being among the poor. I wonder if Vineyard Columbus's current emphasis on ending poverty will raise awareness of, and interest in serving, people with disabilities.

Andy Whitman said...

Taylor? Joe? I've liked Griffin House's previous albums. I didn't like "Flying Upside Down." I don't know him, but I wasn't reviewing a person, I was reviewing an album. I'm sure he's a nice guy. I just thought his songwriting, at least this time out, was fairly trite. It's nothing I haven't heard about 10,000 times before. And yes, it was a short review. I had 150 words, about the same number I've used to respond to your comment. But I appreciate your input.

Andy Whitman said...

Julana, thanks for your comments.

These issues are so complex. Although I applaud what Vineyard Church of Columbus is doing, sometimes I wonder if this isn't the spiritual equivalent of a bandaid on a gaping wound. Sure, it's great to get people all fired up about ending poverty, and if hundreds, if not thousands of people go out and build new houses for Habitat for Humanity, then that will be a glorious thing. Meanwhile, the root causes of poverty will remain unaddressed.

My wife and I have been reading a great book called "Bridges Out of Poverty." What the book emphasizes, and what seems to often go unaddressed, is that moving from a culture of poverty to, say, the middle-class world is almost as difficult as flapping your arms and flying to Mars. People literally have to leave one world and one culture and journey to another, often without maps, and without a tour guide, only to find that the natives are indifferent to hostile.

Still, the VCC focus is well-intentioned, and I hope it makes some difference in the city of Columbus.

Julana said...

Hi Andy,
I can generate a fair amount of emotion and analytical energy on this subject for some reason. I had to delete when commenting, a couple times.

I have the greatest respect for what Vineyard Columbus is doing, but agree with you about the complexity of the task.

We've sat in the back row of the church for about three years--because of a family member with a significant disability. Part of the reason for presence is because of the church's great strengths in areas of ministry and attempts at inclusion.

I think the core of the church's responsibility on issues of poverty is similar to what I've come to see as the core of responsibility on issues of disabilty: the slow hard work of building relationships with people. It is time and labor intensive. This doesn't seem to be done through formal ministries, beyond the scope of the initial 10-12 people closest to the minister.

Some of the small groups where relationships happen don't take children. Those that do aren't set up to integrate children with special needs. This makes it hard to participate in relationship building as a family.

I would imagine there are sometimes similar barriers to participation for the poor, such as transportation, ragged work schedules, hidden prejudices, cost of meals at group events. (One Bible study I attended for awhile, we took turns furnishing a meal), things middle class people wouldn't think about.

I once had a conversation with a disability ministry staff person. She told me there seemed to be more family satisfaction in churches where people with disabilities were integrated as part of the community, rather than being targets of ministry.

Sometimes I hark back to Eugene Peterson's recommendation to attend the smallest, closest church. And maybe the best way for Vineyard to fight poverty would be to support the small, local churches in poor neighborhoods.