MESQUITE, Texas (ABP) — When Anglos, Hispanics, African-Americans and Nigerians gather in the same place on Sunday morning, planning worship can be a challenge.
“It's a lot more than just a question of hymns or choruses,” said Charlie Brown, pastor of The Crossing Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas.
When people in the pews look at the front of the sanctuary, Brown wants them to see somebody leading in worship — praying, singing, and preaching — with whom they can relate. He also wants worship services to include elements that reflect the cultures represented in the congregation and the increasingly diverse community around the church.
“Theologically, we say that sin is separation. But practically, we don't do enough to break down separation,” Brown said. “We have to be intentional about it.”
When Brown and others started The Crossing Baptist Church 10 years ago, all of its members were white. Now, non-Anglos make up about one-fourth of the congregation.
“We are richer, much richer, for it,” he said.
Brown realizes his congregation still has a long way to go before it is “a genuinely multiracial, multiethnic church,” but he said it has the right vision for the job.
“We want to reflect the kingdom of God. We want to look like what God's people look like,” he said.
But in most American churches, the observation Martin Luther King Jr., made more than 50 years ago, still holds true: 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour” in the United States.
Some blame the church-growth movement — fathered by Donald McGavran, the longtime senior professor at Fuller Theological Seminary — for perpetuating Sunday morning separation. McGavran pioneered the homogenous-unit principle, which is the idea that congregations grow when people don't have to cross racial, linguistic or class barriers.
Bob Perry, a congregational-health team leader with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, refuses to lay the responsibility for lack of diversity in churches at the feet of the church-growth gurus. He said McGavran and others “simply stated a theory that is born out of nature and social tendencies.”
But Perry also said that healthy churches put forth the effort needed to reflect the larger communities they serve.
When Perry served as director of missions in the Richmond, Va., Baptist association, it had 15 predominantly African-American churches, about 60 Anglo churches, a handful of other ethnic congregations and not one truly multiracial, multiethnic church.
Perry made attempts at the individual level to bridge divisions. He and his wife, Marilyn, joined a black church. He led the association to call its first African-American moderator and include African-American church leaders on associational councils and committees.
“All of this was just taking small steps to try to move in the direction of greater inclusiveness, diversity and unity,” he said. “But I can't claim that we moved very far in my six years there toward truly integrating a church or creating a multiethnic church. I did come to believe that the easiest way to achieve the goal was to start a new church deliberately designed and strategized to be broadly multiethnic.”
Now, Perry says worship style remains the dividing line between races, particularly between African-Americans and Anglos.
“I don't think there are theological barriers to black and whites worshipping together. I don't think there are sociological barriers that prevent it — we have learned to integrate almost every other institution of society. I think the major holdup has been the varying expectations people have developed about what genuine worship of God looks and feels like,” he said.
“If everyone would be a little flexible, and if the church would make a real effort to accommodate the preferences of those they hope to reach, we will see more multiethnic churches.”
Churches that want to bridge barriers of race and culture need flexibility and patience with each other, Brown agreed. Based on his experience at The Crossing Baptist Church, he has become convinced that includes not only issues regarding worship style, but also matters of church governance.
Black members whose previous experience has been limited exclusively to African-American congregations often want to leave decisions about the church to the pastor, he observed.
Some Hispanic members have told Brown any disagreement expressed in church business meetings make them uncomfortable. They are accustomed to reaching a consensus after private conversations rather than openly debating issues and deciding matters by an up-or-down vote, he said.
The Crossing offered a seminar on Baptist polity to help its members understand the importance of congregational governance. In the process, members have grown in their awareness of the varied decision-making processes that different cultures follow.
Brown said one additional ingredient is essential in multiethnic and multiracial congregations: humility. Church leaders who represent the majority in the congregation need to recognize they don't have all the answers, he stressed.
“We have to stop all the nonsense — the over-under relationships and paternalistic attitudes,” he said.