“Separate but equal” may remind us of that dark period of time in the history of the United States when that phrase was used to justify and legalize segregation. It allowed for public facilities and the education of children to be separate based on race under the guise of claiming that the conditions of those facilities and the educational system would be equal. Yet, as we found out in 1955 during Brown v. Board of Education, in nearly all cases, conditions were not equal, and the separation itself had a profound impact on the way African-Americans were perceived, not just by whites, but by African-Americans themselves.
Ironically, the similarities between how the body of Christ justifies its own segregation and how society once justified legal segregation are astounding. Just like in legal segregation, some churches boast about being predominately white or black and glorify their perspectives on worship styles and the doctrines associated with those distinctions, all while in the same proverbial breath declaring, “We are all God’s children.” And similarly, these churches are spiritually unbalanced, causing a huge crisis of identity within the body of Christ.
Pastor Stephen Rhodes, a leader in multicultural ministry for the United Methodist Church, drives home the inconsistency between what many churches advocated for during the civil rights movement and how we currently function: “We said to culture that it was a moral imperative to integrate our schools, workplaces and neighborhoods while simultaneously preserving the segregation that we practice in services of worship. By refusing to embody the truth claims of the gospel that we preached to our culture, we lost our credibility. Before the church can ask our culture to believe the gospel, we must show our culture that we believe it by how we live together.”
Whenever a debate about multiculturalism ensues, there is often a faction that questions whether there is even a need for such an emphasis. Do churches really need to “market” the gospel to a diverse audience and if so, why? It is easier to believe that if you live in a primarily urban community or in a rural one, you can silo your ministry and center its goals on only those in your immediate reach. However, that is not only unbiblical, barring any specific assignment or mandate from God, but also increasingly impossible to accomplish. The media, through television, radio, and the Internet, has exposed everyone to all cultures. Hip-hop, a phenomenon birthed in the African-American and Hispanic community, now counts suburban white kids as its primary consumers. Country music, a genre that thirty years ago rarely reached past Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, now has American Idol and pop artists to thank for its popularity.
The growth of the Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American communities in America has made what is still deemed a minority in the public sector a physical and economic majority for the population and gross consumer buying power.
Even if, to some extent, the images of these groups are still skewed and often stereotypical, there is no denying that this global exposure along with God’s global mandate makes rethinking the church’s position and relevance to the culture as a whole a necessity.
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