Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the ”most segregated day of the week.”
On Sunday, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.
This phenomenon, however, is more than a matter of diversity. It is also a search for safety.
People need safe places, and church has provided that safety to many. In church, a young black male can play drums with the choir, serve as an usher, hang out with friends and feel loved and accepted.
Years ago, after a horrible time in a congregation, a friend took me to a black church. He wanted me to rediscover safety inside church doors. There, among the marginalized, I was treated with dignity and respect and for the first time in years felt safe inside a church.
I have wondered why female ministers tend to hire female staff, to select female leaders and to emphasize female needs. Was this the ”sisterhood” taking over? Turning the tables on patriarchy?
No, I think it’s part of providing a place where women can feel safe. Not just in charge, but actually safe: free to be themselves, not needing to please men or to fear men, free to imagine God as more than patriarch.
A similar search for safety has led homosexuals to seek out gay-affirming congregations where they can be fully themselves. Some churches are entirely oriented to gay constituents.
Young church folks tend to avoid congregations led by the elderly, because they want to avoid the glares and heavy-handed control battles common in older churches.
Because safety matters so much, established congregations have an even larger dilemma than grappling with financial stress and declining numbers. They need to stop being unsafe places.
In too many congregations, people fight over trivialities. They bully each other over doctrine, tradition, lifestyle or political views. Power struggles are more common than generosity.
Insecure leaders allow the hyper-needy and disruptive to poison public conversations. The anxious treat basic facts of life such as change and ambiguity as dangerous intrusions.
Living as a Christian in the world should be more dangerous than it is. But when the faith community itself is a dangerous place, who will speak truth to power in the marketplace? Who will stand with the oppressed? Who will turn away from the false security promised by wealth? Who will embrace the enemy?
Monochromatic congregations aren’t inherently safe or unsafe and neither are diverse congregations. Safety in church is a matter of solid and secure leadership, self-discipline by all, effective norms for behavior, and putting dignity and respect ahead of winning and getting.
Churches need less fussing over perfecting life within the walls and more sending people out to do as Jesus did outside the walls.
TOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to freshday.org.