I am seeing lots of persons of color in white churches. I am not seeing them sitting with white people but sitting with other black people, surrounded by white people. What I am not seeing are persons of color in executive positions at these places. I am not seeing cultural diversity in their graphic presentations, in their branding, not hearing it in their music. The recession was the defibrillator jolt that dislodged many black churchgoers from their home base and sent them out surveying, as I have been surveying, the landscape in search of a more meaningful Sunday experience. But, at what cost? What does the migration of blacks to white MegaChurches mean for our tradition and culture?
A friend brought to my
attention that, in 2013 black acts were almost completely
missing from the top levels of Billboard’s Hot 100, replaced
instead by white acts making a fortune by sounding black—Justin
Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and others.
Meanwhile, over on the Gospel charts, we have a different
phenomenon: black acts finding commercial success by sounding white.
Hezekiah Walker, J. Moss and others all now seem eager to
follow in the Oreo footsteps of Kurt “Angry Moose” Carr, Israel
Haughton and like-minded Gospel music sellouts who’ve abandoned
most anything that sounds like soul or, for that matter, Gospel
to instead produce mainstream (i.e. white) Contemporary
Christian music: banal, repetitious four-chord ditties
consisting of barely a handful of lyrics repeated ad nauseam
until the audience is hypnotized into a religious frenzy. This
frothy, lightweight pap is several French fries short of a Happy
Meal and an embarrassment to the art and tradition of Gospel
music in that it lacks both substance and anointing. Were I
still pastoring, I would not allow this pap to be sung in my
church or, alternatively, would insist actual lyrics which
actually feed people spiritually be written for it. Thus, we
have this new phenomena of white acts sounding black in
mainstream pop, while black acts (and everybody else) is
sounding white in “Gospel” music.
I imagine this trend is in likely response to black Church Folks' penchant for not buying new music but illegally downloading it, burning discs and passing them around to their friends. I have an alarming number of friends and acquaintances, some of them pastors, who brag about having illegally downloaded the latest Hollywood thriller and who certainly think nothing whatsoever of passing around copies of the latest music. These men and women have absolutely no conscience whatsoever about their practice. It has never, to my hearing, been preached from any black pulpit, as even black churches tend to have stacks of CDRs lying around with the latest tunes on them, brought in by the faithful. Whites, on the other hand, not only pay for their CDs but also buy the ridiculous and unnecessary CCL license, wherein the churches support the musicians by paying some small royalty whenever a licensed song is performed. This is unnecessary because U.S. copyright law includes an exemption for houses of worship, but that's another essay. Bottom line: our black Christian music acts are turning toward the white dollar and I can't really get all that mad at them because we Church Folk are acting just like hypocrites, stealing their work, breaking the law, then shouting and falling out in Sunday services.
This sea change ties in with the phenomena of blacks migrating to places where our culture is ignored or, worse, eliminated, and the parallel phenomena of white churches marketing themselves as “multicultural” while practicing a kind of cultural nullification and having no minorities in leadership. So long as your church—black or white—does not position itself as “multicultural,” there really is no beef. There’s absolutely no shame in embracing the reality that yours is a white (or black) church. But claiming the larger and more biblically responsive vision, of being a House of Prayer for All People [Matt 21:13], requires self-examination, discipline, education and sacrifice.
Calling your church “multicultural” just to fatten up the Sunday crowd with x-percent of minority attendance while not promoting any kind of cultural blend in the worship service is cynically self-serving. Using stock images of dusty, crying African children or smiling folks from India or impoverished Latin American families in your church's literature and slideshows to help bolster the illusion of multiculturalism while having no faces like them in leadership is exploitative. I imagine it makes church members feel good to think, "Well, our church sends money to Africa." Beloved, there is so very much work that needs to be done right here, on the very block your church is located on. The multi-ethnic trend in churches becomes a marketing gimmick more than a reality. Diversity and inclusivity become sources of pride to a congregation that may be happy to say, "We're not a white church," or "We're not a black church." Real diversity is much harder than it sounds. The test of real diversity is not Sunday worship but Tuesday's board meeting: who's in the room? Who has real authority?
Lest anyone conclude an agenda to just holler at white folks, the black church is likely the most racist of all. Generations of harsh oppression has left us feeling absolutely no responsibility toward any culture other than ours. However, as we wash up on the shore of these massive, multi-million dollar white churches, we experience bitterness and resentment that these places—built largely by extensive, prolonged and sacrificial giving on the part of the church membership—don’t simply hand us the keys.
My focus, here, is on the new crop of white MegaChurches and the growing black memberships at these places. I doubt the white leadership of these places wastes any time at all wondering why blacks would even want to come there, or what experience led blacks to seek God at a place so alien to their cultural norms. This is incredibly lazy pastoring. Everybody has a story. If you’re a pastor, you should be curious about your flock. You should wonder why they are there and you should work hard to serve them. To my experience, this is not what’s happening at many of these huge churches where it’s easy to melt anonymously into the crowd. I have to imagine not all white church members are happy to see an increase in black attendance and, to my limited exposure to these places, it feels to me as if the liturgy and general presentation in all the churches I’ve visited has felt indifferent to the fact of our presence; white churches making absolutely no perceptible effort to make blacks feel part of the goings-on. We are, instead, mostly observers, watching them have their church service.
The same is absolutely true of black churches. In my experience, white attendees to black churches tended to get stared at, assuming they were lost or somehow wandered into the wrong place. The service rolls on in complete indifference to these people as we have our worship, and only the absolute die-hard white attendees tend to stick around as most others simply move on to congregations where they feel more welcome and included.
Whites being the majority demographic with a history of oppression toward people of color, the dynamic within black churches is a bit different in the sense that I assume many black churchgoers feel no need to make whites feel at home. Whites have plenty of churches to go to, the finest in the city. Why should we deprive ourselves or water down our tradition to make room for whites? I also know of black pastors who deliberately target whites, turning their worship service into a kind of Oreo experience, in a really stupid and ill-advised attempt to portray their church as ethnically neutral, even though the membership is 98% black. Face it, pastor, you lead a black church. Be proud of that. Pretending to be otherwise undermines your authority because you come across as inauthentic if not untruthful. But black churches can and should be willing to broaden their worship experience to, yes, welcome whites and Latinos and Asians and whosoever will. All of which is to say, the criticisms I lodge against white churches, here, are easily charged against black churches as well. We all need to reevaluate, we all need to do better.