Challenges To Racial Integration: Cultural Preferences

This is the fifth of a multi-part series on racial integration. For the previous post, click here.

The best of intentions cannot, by themselves, achieve the goal of racial integration in our churches. There remain significant obstacles, and while I believe that we can overcome these obstacles, the first step in overcoming them is understanding them.

Perhaps the most rampant hindrance to racial integration is that of cultural preference. Cultural preferences run deep. There still exists what I call “the great white myth,” this idea that because white people repented of our racism, all the African Americans in our community would come rushing back into our churches, thanking their lucky stars that we were so magnanimous. Very few of us would put it in these terms, but the idea of this myth underlies a lot of what we say and do.

Part of what makes this myth so absurd is the reality of cultural preferences. Some churches make whites comfortable; some make blacks comfortable; some make Latinos comfortable. We all come from distinct cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and it should not be a surprise to us that we are comfortable around people like us. Whether this preference is sinful or not, we need to recognize that it is real.

If we change our style to make our church more accessible for non-whites, as I believe we should, a lot of white people will get uncomfortable. That means that we will reach a lot less of them. Ultimately, we would love for people to overcome their personal preferences. Multi-ethnic churches can only thrive when people are, so to speak, “comfortable being uncomfortable.”[1] But we cannot always expect people to be mature before we reach them.

Now, there are some, like the African-American Boston preacher Eugene Rivers III, who argue that cultural preference is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, they often fight against racial integration, not from a standpoint of racial supremacy, but because they claim it is bad for minorities. I have some sympathy for what Rivers is getting at, but based on the multi-cultural scene of Revelation 5, I think he goes too far. But there is something to be said for culturally distinct worship. It is, of course, easier to reach people when you have a more homogenous culture. The answer has to involve some kind of balance.

[1] Mark Deymaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, 110.

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  1. Alan Cross   •  

    The problem, JD, is that cultural preferences between blacks and whites exist not because of a celebration of distinct cultures but primarily because of past sin. You don’t see that kind of division between Asian, Hispanics, and Whites or Blacks after the 2nd or 3rd generation of immigrations. Blacks and Whites in America have lived alongside one another for almost 400 years and we still have trouble worshiping together and trusting one another. That is more than just personal preference.

    When personal preference gets in the way of Mission or distorts the witness of the Body of Christ the way that this issue has, then it is no longer a positive good. It is a detriment to the gospel and should be seen as such, in my opinion. There are some personal preferences that are neutral – what kind of ice cream you like, your favorite food or vacation spot or type of music perhaps. But, when your preference is used to keep parts of the Body of Christ separated from one another along historic sin patterns, then it is probably NOT helping us really reach people after all. We all have personal preferences, no doubt. But, on this issue, I think that it is time that we all died to ourselves for the greater good and glory of God.

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