The fear of a black church, from many whites’ viewpoint, is likely not even racial so much as it is economic. Having an investor's mindset, many whites view the arrival of blacks at their church in terms of value depreciation. The very best sense of multi-culturalism never needs to be announced. A truly multicultural church never has to actually call itself “multicultural.” A truly multicultural church will be all things to all people, that all visitors might find something of themselves there in your worship, in your smile, in your love. And they’ll know they’ve come home. Meanwhile, the black church whites should fear is the black church of Martin Luther King. The black church of Rosa Parks and James Meredith. But that black church is long gone now.

It all starts with the music.

We may believe white folks go to white churches because there are white people there. I don't think that's the case. I believe white people go to white churches because there is white music there. Or, more accurately, there is white culture, or a culture that is familiar and comforting to them, there. What I am discovering along my way is white folk, in general, can't abide black music. Oh, sure, they'll invite us over every once and again for a time of "special" music where we perform like circus animals and everybody gets a kick out of the good ol' Gospel hollering. But after we pack up, they go right back to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Jars of Clay or whatever their thing is. The segregation of God's church certainly does not end with music, but it surely begins there. I get restless and squirrely at white churches not because of the white people so much as the white music. Music sets the tone and creates the atmosphere of worship. It's been the exceedingly rare church I've visited that played successfully to both sides of the aisle. Usually the closest we can manage is Joel Osteen, whose Israel Haughton-led praise team sounds like, well, Israel Haughton—white music sung by black people. I've known precious few blacks who could sing white folks' music with any real authority or vice versa. We usually get overly soulful renditions of Third Day or anemic and embarrassing stabs at Fred Hammond.

I do not believe this to be a race war so much a clash of cultures. We just use skin color as a shortcut, figuring, accurately, that most white churches are going to appeal to this crowd and most black churches to this other crowd. Whites who enjoy a charismatic Gospel experience will, theoretically, feel just as at home in a black church as a white one. Blacks who are into Sandi Patti will likewise feel comfortable at a white church. There is a tribal awkwardness when someone new wanders into our midst. New black folk can often fly under the radar at a black church, but new white folk at a black church will glow like sea plankton. The reverse is also true, with white folks swarming to me, I suppose, in a misguided effort to make me feel comfortable (think about that—bum rushed by a bunch of white folks. Yeah. That'll make me feel comfortable). In one church, these folks spoke to me slowly, like I didn't understand English, and loudly, like I was deaf. ARE—YOU—HAVING—A—GOOD—TIME?

It was okay, I wasn't part of their tribe. And, next week, I was back in my tribe and life went on in theirs and that was that. Only, here's the difference: blacks aren't threatened by white folks coming to their church. We doubt very many whites will want to stay. In fact, many black churches would, frankly, love to have more whites join. But, in my experience, there's been an undercurrent of hostility present in white churches. Like, make yourself comfortable. But not too comfortable. There's this forked tongue thing going on: a cold welcome. An odd tension that seems present at any white church I visit. A paranoia that I might just take them up on their invitation and actually stay.

Which leads me to wonder what, exactly, are they afraid of.

Sabbath Apartheid

Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. Each week, Christian believers, united by a common faith, nonetheless move toward polarized cultural spaces at the Sunday worship hour. While there are, indeed, a growing number of “multicultural” churches, here in Ourtown, at least, those churches tend to be white churches, founded by whites, led by whites, with white folks in the key power positions. These are ministries led by men and women who, following the conviction of the Holy Spirit, have made strides to reach out to the community at large, no longer satisfied by clear racial and cultural demarcations. Black churches, on the other hand, do almost no work in reaching out to whites. I’ve observed black churches being fairly hostile to or, best case, indifferent to whites, as we blithely go about our business of hollering and wailing.

I was greeted by a Latino pastor at one powerful multicultural church in the Denver area, who warmly greeted me and took me on a tour of the facility. Winding through the office complex, we saw all manner of ethnicities in the staff and leadership. But, the closer we got to the executive wing, the fewer minorities we saw. When finally arriving at the Bishop’s wing, the Bishop’s executive secretary and the top tier leadership offices were all staffed by whites—a clear signal of who was really in charge here.

I’m not sure why, in our city at least, blacks have continually failed to build anything even reasonably close, even a fraction of the size of even the most modest of modern white churches. Our buildings are, with low-single-digit exception, small, old, run-down, raggedy remnants of glories past. Every so often we slap on a coat of paint and reupholster some pews, but our finances are only a fraction of white churches because our incomes are lower to begin with. Whites can and often do write bigger checks because their disposable income is so much greater than ours. Whites tend to donate out of their excess, while, in the aggregate, blacks tend to donate out of their need. Many middle-class whites tend to focus on investment, while most lower-middle class blacks tend to focus on survival.

The fear of a black church, from many whites’ viewpoint, is likely not even racial so much as it is both cultural and financial. Opening their doors to us might invite a flood of benevolent fund applicants. Poorly-disciplined youth who wear down or damage the facility. Pushy, arrogant church ladies making demands. Well-meaning mothers frying chicken. And the music, what a headache. Gone is the soft strumming of acoustic guitars and the even tones of their praise ensembles, replaced by screaming Hammond organs and banging drums. White churches have no bass. $50,000 state-of-the-art sound systems and no bass. It's how you know you're in a white church.

Many whites become anxious about their property values when they see blacks move into the neighborhood. Having an investor's mindset, many whites view the arrival of blacks at their church in terms of value depreciation; perhaps fearing too many black faces will signal an exodus of their white congregants (and their checkbooks), replaced by blacks who will give little or nothing, or worse, will line up for handouts from the church's benevolent fund.

Long Gone: Abernathy and King: the church we emulate while lacking the courage to actually be.

The Black Church Whites Should Fear

Multiculturalism, in practical application, is usually lip service. It’s usually surface. It usually has little or no teeth. To my observation, multiculturalism is simply a structure set in place to relieve white folks’ conscience while protecting their interests. Following unwritten rules safeguarding their investment, they open their doors to us, they warmly receive us, perhaps even recruit us to sing and dance and what have you. But the glass steeple is firmly in place. We are welcome there, to be sure, but are welcome much the way a houseguest is welcome: we are extended every gracious thing, but the house clearly belongs to someone else.

The black church of today is nothing for whites to fear. We have no unified message. We do not, by and large, preach Jesus or even offer salvation. We have no demonstrable economic or political clout. White conservatives virtually run the tables at every election because politics are not widely discussed in the black church, and black Christians are easily as disenchanted with the political system as black non-Christians. The black church poses zero economic threat as the church is so fractured that no organized boycott of anything is reasonably sustainable anymore. Remember Black Solidarity Day, when Black America is supposed to point out its economic and political clout by taking the day off—literally boycotting everything and not spending money on anything that is not black-owned? Whatever happened to that?

Whatever happened to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday? Many if not most businesses either do not observe that day or force their employees to take a vacation day. And that’s just fine with the black church of today, having long ago forgotten the sacrifices of our fathers and mothers and all that blood shed to gain us the most basic of human dignity. We just go to work like it was a work day. Shamefully, I know churches—black churches—that don’t even close their church offices on MLK day. It’s just another day. At my former church, MLK Day came and went one year without one word, not one, mentioned about it from the pulpit.

This is not, by any stretch, an institution whites should have any reason to fear. They outnumber us. They outspend us. They out-vote us. And, even in their most benign “multicultural” configurations, they hold all of the power. All of which makes the anxiety of the average white believer just silly and foolish. Other than our occasionally screaming at the top of our lungs and racing around the sanctuary, there’s not a lot of harm we can do to their church.

The black church whites SHOULD be afraid of is the black church of Martin Luther King, Jr. The black church of Charles K. Steele and Fred L. Shuttlesworth and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The black church of Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy. The black church of James Meredith, Emmet Till, and the Little Rock Nine. The black church of Maya Angelou and W.E.B. Dubois. The black church of Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall. We should all fear the black church of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins who were killed while attending Sunday School when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.

Ironically, this is a black church most white churches would actually welcome, with open arms. That black church, that effective black church, that powerful black church, could actually be a threat to white churches in a way the black church of today never could be. But the discipline, integrity, and genuineness of that institution likely would have made it a welcome addition to most white churches today. This isn’t a church today’s white church would fear, though they should. The black church many white churches fear is one they have absolutely no reason to fear—the black church of today.

The black church of faith, the black church of sacrifice, the black church of risk, of integrity—that church has evolved into the Crefloe Dollar clown school and the Juanita Bynum makeup academy. That church, which once polarized the entirety of the free world, has spiraled into pathetic self-parody, fighting amongst itself while fleecing the flock. Careening off into “prosperity” doctrines at one extreme while desperately clinging to the 1960’s at the other—with both extremes being completely wrong.

I do understand the anxiety. I do understand the hesitation, and I do understand the safeguards white ministries put in place before “welcoming” blacks and other minorities, conditionally, into their midst. That hesitation is fair condemnation of not our culture, not our race, but of our failure to honor the proud legacy of men and women who suffered and died to make our materialistic, petty, lazy, selfish way of life possible.

Separate But Equal: Whites head to air-conditioned cathedrals, blacks to run-down hand-me-down buildings.

Celebrating Differences

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  -- I Cor 9:22

Diversity is a gift. Differences of opinion. Differences of doctrine. Not to fuss and fight but to win all to Christ. We should celebrate those differences, not use them to divide us and to paralyze the work. The very best sense of multiculturalism never needs to be announced. A truly multicultural church never has to actually call itself “multicultural.” A truly multicultural church will be all things to all people, that all visitors might find something of themselves there in your worship, in your smile, in your love. And they’ll know they’ve come home.

Christopher J. Priest
October 2000
28 January 2007

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