Why Do Christians Segregate on Sunday Mornings?
It’s a good question for anyone who knows Jesus’s prayer for the church:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23, NRSV)
A careful reader of this prayer will rightly conclude that unity is essential to any community that calls itself Christian. Therefore, the fact that most Christians in the United States worship in segregated spaces (see Dougherty and Emerson for recent statistics) should deeply trouble anyone who takes Jesus’s prayer seriously. And if those deeply troubled people wish to respond well to the current segregated reality, they must first ask the question, “Why do Christians segregate on Sunday morning?”
I have heard well-intentioned Christians explain the current black-white segregation of the church this way: “we simply developed different cultural preferences, so it’s fine that we worship separately.” True, black and white churches developed different religious cultures, but different cultures are not the reason they separated. The black-white separation happened for a reason. And that historical reason is both complex and tragic.
The story begins more than 400 years ago, when Christians participated in creating the idea of “race.” Race is an idea or a construct, not a reality. First, European colonizers began lumping people into “colors”—“red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight”—right? No. People are not actually red, yellow, black, or white. But Europeans colonizing the world and using African slaves for labor began categorizing the world’s people into colors that correlated with “races” that they believed were biologically different. By the end of the 17th century, Europeans saw themselves as “white” and superior to the other colors of people. Europeans created a hierarchy of colors/races—they said white people were supreme (biologically superior) and the other colors/races and were inferior. They consistently placed black people, whose slave labor made Europeans rich, at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In their American colonies, British colonists passed laws that codified the “colors” of people and white supremacist hierarchy. These laws ensured that all non-white people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy—they typically reduced or eliminated the humanity, freedom, and rights of people they believed to be not white and not European. The laws attempted to prohibit the mixing of “races” and ensure that white people remained free and in power. Racist laws and other systems were justified by appealing to religious, “scientific,” and cultural arguments that identified “black” people as inferior, barbaric, and sexually promiscuous. So the modern “races” were constructed in the 16th century, codified in the 17th and 18th centuries, and remain part of everyday conversation in America in 2019, despite the fact that we now know “race” is not a biological reality (see RACE—The Power of an Illusion).
Throughout hundreds of years of colonization and slavery, both proslavery and most antislavery white Christians adopted the view that black people were biologically and unalterably inferior to white people. Some white Christians even argued that enslaved people could not become Christians. But most white Christians eventually believed that enslaved black people would be better slaves if they converted to Christianity. Regardless, most churches were segregated. And before the end of slavery in the 1860s, if white Christians did allow non-white people into their churches, they had to sit in the back or in balconies. One can understand why black people left these white churches as soon as it was legally possible—the racism black people experienced in white churches was insufferable and anti-Christian. The final segregation of American Christian communities happened after the Civil War of the 1860s: most black Christians left white communities and created independent African American denominations and congregations that are still with us today. Black people left white churches because of the sin of racism.
Furthermore, most white Christians favored the segregation of churches from the 1860s to the 1970s. Many white Christians, including Churches of Christ, even gave of their resources to ensure that black people had separate spaces for worship. From then until now, when Christian communities gather on Sunday mornings to worship a Savior who broke down every potential division between his people and called us into unity rooted in the love of God, we worship for the most part in racially homogenous communities.
The historical answer to our question is simple and tragic. We segregate because of the sin of racism. This problem we inherited is rooted in more than 400 years of history that has powerfully shaped all our communities and all our national and ecclesial institutions. And there are no easy answers. But when we’re reflecting on Christ’s prayer for Christian unity, and when we live in a nation that has systematically sorted “white” and “black” and other “colors” of people into different groups, and when our Christian communities reflect this racist division, surely we should not be comfortable with our current situation.
What can we do about this? That is the next question. But white Christians cannot properly address that question until we own and repent of the church’s complicity in racism. We are segregated today because of the racism of white people in the past.
Lord, have mercy! Give us the humility to repent and the courage to tell the truth as we seek racial healing and unity in your church. May we be one so that the world may believe.