Thursday, May 7, 2009


The Segregated Church

My family and I currently attend an "ethnic" church, populated largely by Filipinos. This is a new circumstance for me, and I haven't altogether come to a conclusion of what to think about it.

In past conversations, Presbyter has expressed discomfort with this arrangement on the basis of Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Moreover, a pastor friend of mine has told me, "I have great trouble with a church planting endeavor that makes race a uniting principle." I don't disagree with any of this ... hence my discomfort.

Many of us have been uncomfortable with the notion that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. I come from a pretty racially diverse family: my younger brother and sister are black (adopted by my parents when we were very young), my wife's family is Filipino, and my brother's wife is Hispanic. The kids show all the various mixtures. When we get together for family occasions, we look like a UN meeting. So this is personal to me.

On the other hand, our church seems to be successful at reaching Filipinos for Christ in a unique way, and there is another part of me that sees our cultural appeal as the way God has equipped us for this particular ministry.

I recall being stationed at an Air Force base a few years back that had a large, mostly African-American chapel service each Sunday. For a while this caused me some angst and frustration, as we couldn't seem to pull the communities together. As I came to know them better, however, I realized that God was using them to reach out to other African-Americans on base, and that they were doing great work. They were specially equipped for that mission.

My best attempt to justify this "Sunday segregation" comes from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
I know that segregation is a loaded word, and I use it deliberately. We do segregate ourselves on Sunday, not de jure (by law) but de facto (by practice). In so doing, we must confess that sacrifice our unity.

Do we perhaps gain some advantage in becoming a Jew to the Jews to win the Jews ... or a Filipino to the Filiponos, to win the Filipinos ... etc.? This is my fond hope, or it is my vain rationalization. I haven't entirely decided which.


  1. Brother, I feel your pain. I can understand if you live in a community that is mostly "one race" of people. That would justify a mostly "all one race" congregation. Outside of that, I can not understand the segregated Sunday's in America. I attend a very integrated church. I believe the fact that the pastor and his wife are of different ethnicity has something to do with it. However, in the county where I live, the same Sunday segregation that most of America experiences is felt here as well. Long before I gave my life to Jesus (in the early 80’s) I was working in Grand Rapids Michigan. As part of my “search for the truth”, I decided to visit a church. To my great surprise and dis-belief, I was told at the end of the service that I would “be more comfortable at a sister church in my neighborhood”. The person who told this to me was one of the church leaders. I was deeply hurt and felt in my heart that if I was looking for the “truth”, it would not be found in church. That was almost 30 years ago. I gave my life to Jesus 6 years ago. This issue is still very personal for me and I look forward to the day when “ALL CHRISTIANS” can stand up and realize that God loves each and every one of us the same. Come Lord Jesus Come!

  2. I believe one of the major reasons that 'foreign' missions has done so very poorly overseas so often is that the Missionary has brought, along with the story of Jesus, his or her ethnic, cultural baggage instead of learning their unique culture, as given them by God, and then offering a culturalized picture of God's love. I'll never forget the story of the first time a Navajo Indian read a Wycliffe translation of the Bible in Navajo and exclaimed, "Ahhh! Now God speaks to my heart in my own language!"
    What about here? I love to fellowship with the young people in our church. However, as they worship with their hard-rock music, my heart is anything but in the Spirit. When I worship through the old hymns, I find peace and contact with God - as my friends have as well through the medium of their culture. In our study time, our outreach times, in our fellowship time, we enjoy each other's company as Brothers and Sisters in God's family.
    There was a time when America was the 'melting pot' society. For many years now, we have been carefully taught by our government and its schools to celebrate our diversity. I don't believe this has been of God. However, I absolutely believe God is more than capable of still being God - even in this thoroughly diverse society and works in each culture represented here - as He is beginning to througout the world.

  3. Very interesting post! 1 Cor 9:19-23 is an appropriate passage for this. At our church here in London though we have at least 27 different nationalities, majority of the members are Filipinos and therefore the congregation attract more Filipinos despite our efforts to reach out to the other ethnic groups. As a pastor's wife and a Filipino, I try not to show any favoritism but sometimes I still end up offending some people when they see me hanging out on a Sunday afternoon with the Nigerians or any other ethnic group. When I was new here I did wish there were not very many Filipinos in our congregation because of the 'gossips' and other cultural problems we have had to deal with. However, I believe that the Lord has brought all of these people to us and He has made our church the way it is and I've learned over the years to simply embrace that and try to become "all things to all men . . . for the sake of the Gospel."

  4. Several years ago, I spent two weeks in Sweden on business. Knowing pretty much no Swedish wasn't a problem for me most of the time, since English is their official second language and most people are happy to practice it. But, on Sunday, in a town where there was no worship service in English, it certainly became an issue: In the service I attended, while they were happy to talk with me before and after - and even mention my presence in English once during the service - worship itself was, of course, done in Swedish. Curiously, I found the experience uplifting, since I knew that, because of Christ's blood and righteousness, I was welcome to enter into God's presence in worship, and so the situation made the point to me that just being there was an wonderful privilege, even if I couldn't understand a word! However, I certainly wouldn't seek out a situation like that as a regular practice, since I know I need to be fed by hearing the gospel preached to me.

    I recount that experience to make an obvious point: There are certainly situations where cultural choices can make the gospel more accessible to us, and, in those situations, we should certainly opt for a more accessible gospel. The difficulty will come when the cultural choices involved are more subtle than language. When do we reach a point where the differences involved don't really get in the way of the gospel, unless we choose to let them? At this point, I think we need to think about the following passage from our Lord's High Priestly prayer:

    "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me." (John 17:17-21)

    I cite this passage, since it emphasizes part of what Francis Schaeffer called "The Mark of the Christian": Unity, "so that the world may know that you have sent me". But, this passage also makes the point that this unity must be based on the truth of God's Word. Therefore, as long as that truth is there, and there is nothing really difficult in the context of the congregation that impedes access to it, it seems to me that we need to be very careful indeed when we separate from one another. Indeed, while we may feel much more comfortable worshipping with people who are like us, is it not reasonable to think that a good part of the power that unity has to convince the world that Christ is indeed who we say He is arises from the power of His Spirit, working to unite people who, by worldly standards, don't really seem to belong together?

  5. I'm married to a Filipina, and don't quite know what to think about it either. ;)

    OK, my brother, now that I've read the article I'll try to balance my earlier jest with a serious response.

    Your family looks like the U.N., you're well aware that every race has its special characteristics. I asked my lil filipina one day, "Honey, what are the filipinos known for? You know, French are known for their cuisine, Germans for their intellect, Africans for their physical prowess, Jews for their financial acumen. What are filipinos known for?

    Without hesitation she said "Hospitality". Certainly that is true. Watch a documentary on the travel channel or history channel, you'll hear phrases such as "The hospitable filipinos...", "The friendly filipinos....", "The fun-loving filipinos...."

    But that's just one race, a family tie we have in common, isn't it? What about the others? Until we moved to North Carolina 2 years ago, I served with a church in PHX that rented space to a Mexican congregation. Their music, preaching style, and food different from ours. While welcome in our congregation (and we did have joint services regularly), they were more comfortable with their own service. That's OK.

    Here in Monroe our church lets a Mong (sp?) congregation meet in one of our classrooms. Most of them do not speak English.

    In Anchorage there was a black congregation whose choir was universally regarded as the best in the state. But I could not worship with their music (much, much too loud) nor could they worship with the music that lifts my spirit (much, much too bland). It wasn't that they weren't welcome in our church; on the contrary, the most respected deacon at Grandview was (and probably still is) Herb Cotten, a giant of a man with a heart as big as Texas. Active Gideon, past President of the Alaska Baptist Convention. 12 years after I left Alaska, Herb remains kind enough to e-mail me his daily devotions, all thought-provoking and spirit-filled.

    Worshipping at and serving with Grandview was his choice. It was not a common choice.

    In the New Testament, Paul was called to the gentiles, Peter to the Jews, Thomas (tradition has it) called to India. More recently David Livingstone was called to Africa, Hudson Taylor to China, Nate Saint and Jim Elliot to the Aucas of latin america.

    It's OK that some individuals are called to specific races; it's OK (IMHO) that most churches meet the deeply-ingrained social and spiritual needs of their people. Each church, like each individual and each race, is different. That's OK. I believe we should be open to all, but recognize that those who are different will seek different places and modes of worship. And that's OK.

  6. I think the segregation by race or culture is just as dangerous (I chose dangerous on purpose)as segregating by doctrinal belief...the segregation leads to a "confirmation" that "we are right". Any influence that gains authority that is against God's word can more easily become "viral" and stopping it is much more difficult.

    The question in my mind is not is this ok, but why does it happen? If it happens for a reason that is NOT directly due to a call of the Spirit, and it is simply a man's action to increase his own comfort, then isn't it questionable?

    I wonder if the issue is less that we do choose to segregate ourselves and more about asking why we do not make those unlike us feel welcome in our congregations?

  7. Great post,

    The way I see it is that in Heaven we will all be one yet REMAIN identified via every nation, people, tribe, race etc.

    Revelation 5:9"And they sang a new song, saying, " Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

    Revelation 7:9 " After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands"

    The ethnic and cultural differences are somehow kept so that one could identfy them yet are not an obstacle to unity.

    Because of this I have no disagreement with Churches on Earth being filled via segregation in order to expand the kingdom of God knowing that in Heaven, God himself puts it all together AND knowing that ONLY when we get to heaven will it be put together.

    For me personally I'm a white American married to a Chinese, my brother married a German, my sister married a Brit.. My younger sister is adopted she is Mexican and married a Black African. My Dad is Jewish, American Indian and a few Euro mixtures, my Mom is mainly Euro mix. :) My bother is a missionary to Israel and the Middle East, I'm a missionary to China. The three mentors of mine are one African, one Indian and one American. I've been a member of a half dozen denominations and have enjoyed attending Black Churches, White Churches, Chinese Churches, Vietnamese Churches, Catholic and Protestant. At the end of the day I have concluded that the Kingdom of God, and the Church, is massive and has room for all people from all ethnic backgrounds yet is segregated while on Earth and will be united in Heaven.


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