(RNS) Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”

bilingual service

Bilingual Sunday morning service at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Jan. 13, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On Sundays, 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 discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.

As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job and education can’t overcome.

Recent violence against women revealed a similar safety problem. Many women flinch whenever a man draws near and feel demeaned on a daily basis by sexist behaviors at work. Abuse stories are common.

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 without any need to avoid eye contact with whites.

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 felt safe inside a church for the first time in years.

I have wondered why female clergy 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 gays 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 be safe places first.

RNS-TOM-EHRICH

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich

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 hyperneedy and disruptive to poison public conversations. The anxious treat basic facts of life such as change and diversity 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, nor are diverse congregations inherently dangerous. 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.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

YS/MG END EHRICH

32 Comments

  1. The point about leadership and people who speak Truth is right on! We need
    people to preach the Truth! It’s shocking how many people in church still
    get drunk,be mean,smoke dope,gossip,gamble,are coveters/greedy/jealous,
    sleep around/are fornicaters/have premarital sex and think they are saved.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved. We all must Repent!

    • That’s not a very enlightened view and kinda misses the generous hand of non-judgment that Jesus extended to people who were mistreated and ignored.

      Don’t you suppose there’s a reason the room where worship is conducted is called a SANCTUARY?

      • E.
        That is an utterly innocuous and baseless statement. Where do you get this “non-judgement” Jesus crap? Jesus judged, A LOT! Have you read the Gospels?

        The “area” or room as you call it called the “sanctuary” has nothing to do with your prattle. Sanctuary comes from the Latin “sanctus” meaning “holy” which is the area of the “holy of holies” (derived from the Catholic/Orthodox Church) where the Mysteries are celebrated (where the altar is placed and Christ becomes really and truly physically and sacramentally present on the altar.

        You might want to do your homework.

    • Art Deco:
      BRAVO!!!!!!!
      “I didn’t go to religion to make me “happy.” I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
      -CS Lewis

  2. Daniel Berry, NYC

    Well–the first three postings about from Karla, Frank and Art Deco are perfect examples of why people don’t feel safe in churches and shun them: all three of those postings have a note of harshness, judgement and an all-too-ready willingness to refuse to accept people unconditionally–you know–the way Jesus accepted people? No, I guess you don’t know. All three of you seem to feel you’re appointed to judge who passes muster.

    I wouldn’t come anywhere near a church that sounded like any of the three of you.

    • Daniel Berry- You don’t know the real Jesus then and you are like many
      people today you don’t want to know Jesus/aren’t a real Christian you
      just want to go to heaven and that’s it. The church today is fllied with
      unrepentant people who just want to go to heaven and the Bible teaches
      that people like that are not real Christians/followers of Christ. You really
      need to open/read a Bible. 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole entire chapters
      are a great start because Jesus said you are one of Mine only if you follow
      Me/many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! We must Repent!

      • He can get to ‘knowing the real Jesus’ when he gets over the notion that the proceedings in a religious ceremony are about him (his ‘safety’) and not about prayer, praise, teaching, and sacraments and gets over the notion that its appalling that someone should suggest his anxieties should be somewhere other than front-and-center.

    • @ Daniel Berry, NYC

      “I wouldn’t come anywhere near a church that sounded like any of the three of you.”

      Excellent observation. You forgot to mention the hypocrisy that’s evident in such comments. If it could only be known what these people are really like.

      Any church should have as its mission statement — Enter To Learn, Go Forth To Serve.

      But what should we learn?

      Here’s a good start —

      1. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way……….Romans 14:13

      2. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God…..Romans 15:7

      3. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…..Ephesians 4:2

      4. Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble…..1 Peter 3:8

      5. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…………Philippians 2:3

      6. Be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone…….Titus 3:2

      7. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven………..Luke 6:37

      8. ABOVE ALL, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, because love covers over a multitude of sins………..1 Peter 4:8

      9. Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near……….Philippians 4:5

      10. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others……..1 Corinthians 10:24

      Should these be the New Ten Commandments?

      • Billysees-You can’t just preach part of the Bible but all. What about the
        Repenting parts? Read 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole chapters. Very
        convenient for you to not talk about sin. What are these people really
        like? We are sinners like you that chose to Repent/follow Jesus which
        is what the Bible says to do! What are you really like Billy? We all fall
        short but that is not an excuse to practice sin! Jesus said you are one
        of Mine only if you follow Me/many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not
        enter heaven! Many people today never talk about specific sin unless
        it’s gay marriage or abortion? Why is that? It’s becuse they don’t want
        to face their own sin/Repent and by some of your other posts that were
        very vague/not confronting of sin I would say you need to Repent and
        follow the real Jesus/read the whole Bible not just part of it. The do not
        judge verse always gets twisted by people that aren’t living right so you
        really need to look at yourself. Bible says Repent or perish! Bible says
        Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We must Repent/follow!
        Getting drunk,sharp tongues,gossip,gambling,being mean,coveting,
        jealousy,greed,pride,fornicaters in any form,liars,thieves are all sin so
        why don’t those sins ever get talked about on here? Ephesians 5:18 says
        don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that all drunkards go to hell.
        The wine that Jesus made was from the fruit of the vine/new wine and
        diluted plus the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people
        who get drunk with wine are also wrong! We all must Repent/follow!

        • Billysees- It doesn’t matter how spiritual the people are if they aren’t
          Biblical they are still lost and headed for hell. If you say you love Jesus
          then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in you! We must Repent!

      • Amen Billysees, amen! Jesus Did not accuse or condemn. Accusing is the job of Satan and his followers. The church is meant to be a family of believers, a safe place, a place where we worship together, learn together, and pray with and for each other. The majority of these comments describe a unhealthy view of God. God is love, unconditional love. God and his son welcome all. After all who among you are perfect? Not one, not one. How is it that we see the tiny spec in another’s eye, but miss the beam in our own eye? True Christian behavior is lacking today. And these comments bear that out. God is love. God is love. God is love.

        • Jack-You obviously don’t read your Bible! What you and many in the
          church today have done is create a god/idol to suit yourself which is
          idolatry! We are to love people yes but in Truth! Jesus said many will
          say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! The fact that you are now
          agreeing with Billysees just proves what the Bible says that many will
          depart from the faith and not stick to sound doctrine. Read the Bible!
          1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole chapters are a great start. Bible says
          Repent and believe the Gospel. We all must Repent and then follow!

          • Jack-The devil accuses of past sin and the Holy Spirit convicts us of
            our current sin so if the Holy Spirit is not convicting you and others of
            your sin then you are not a child of God…Period! You really need to
            read a Bible!

        • @ Jack

          “God is love. God is love. God is love.”

          You can’t say that often enough.

          Unfortunately, in many ways the scriptures are lacking in this very important virtue. If it wasn’t for the work of the ‘Spirit’ in us, we wouldn’t be able to know and recognize what love is. But love is often compromised by ancient Biblical narratives created during a culture with prevailing attitudes different than our own.

          Paul describes an interesting ‘reality’ about the scriptures, especially what he has written —

          1. …our knowledge is partial and incomplete…
          2. …we see things imperfectly…
          3. All that I know now is partial and incomplete…

          (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)

          This honesty about his own writings is essential in enabling and encouraging us to move forward with allowing the ‘spirit’ to lead and guide us in the future.

          The spirit and the spirit alone is all that really matters.

          • Billysees- Bible says man shall perish because of their lack of
            knowledge! You have created a god/idol to suit yourself which
            is idolatry and no idolater will enter heaven! You really need to
            read the Bible because Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord
            and not enter heaven! Bible says Repent or perish! We must Repent!

    • Blah blah blah. If you wish to feel ‘safe’, there’s the inside of your own four walls.

      all three of those postings have a note of harshness, judgement and an all-too-ready willingness to refuse to accept people unconditionally–you know–the way Jesus

      It’s no one’s job to be a cloying nincompoop. It’s not the clergy’s job. It’s not the job of the police. It’s not the job of schoolteachers. It’s not the job of your supervisor. It’s not even your mother’s job. And no one on this Earth ‘accepts’ you ‘unconditionally’ and you, sir, cannot tolerate even by implication the notion that someone is not impressed with blancmange.

  3. Your comments are an interesting take on “birds of a feather” church syndrome. Odd that the “feathers” that are supposed to bind us—unity in Christ—are so elusive.

    I have never felt more vulnerable than in the church. I question my own loyalty to the what has always been a huge part of my and my family’s life. Is it misplaced?

    The church community—the congregation—is not threatening. Our congregation remains delightfully mixed in many ways. Trouble entered the door with regional leadership who thought we should be all one color—the easier to control and make the claims of diminished membership (just count the white folks) and thus lay claim to property. We saw just how strong the self-interests of clergy can become and how willing the Church is to attack the laity, using the pooled resources of all churches and their protected status in the courts to do so. We saw how tacitly condoning the clergy and sister congregations can be.

    After six years of lawsuits, I flinch when pastors walk by!

    • I think Christians have to get used to the fact that they are not going to see any large-scale unity for a long time, probably not within their lifetimes.

      Look at your own post. It is indeed well-written, but the most that can be gathered from it is that you disagree with some Christian “regional leaders” and “sister churches” on a controversial matter affecting your area.

      And I would bet that if one of THEM were to post a reply here regarding the same issue, it would likely be a seriously different assessment of the situation (or of who’s to blame) than what your post offered.

      So what to do? One can pray for unity, and one can live one’s own life in a way that promotes reconciliation and unity within one’s own sphere of relationships and ministry. After that, forget it.

      I’m black, and I expect I will never be “in unity” with Al Sharpton as long as he’s messing up and rushing to judgment on the Brown case. (He also supports legalized gay marriage, so he’s totally screwed-up on THAT issue too.)

      So I’m not going to support his “National Action Network” or whatever that mess is. He doesn’t need my support anyway, he has plenty already. So there will not be any unity there. C’est la vie.

  4. People freely choose to be around other people like them. We don’t need to pursue diversity just as an ideal, or to make hypersensitive whiney pants boomers feel good about themselves and their conditioned guilt. Long term demographic/housing studies have been done in houston, chicago, and detroit proving that neighborhoods that were once reasonably “diversified” ethnically segregate over time. Certainly there are many reasons beyond just skin color and language for this, but thr point is people chose it if their own free will. How can anyone, like mr fart-for-brains Erich stand there and believe themselves valid when they want exactly the opppsite of people using their own free will and decision making abilities?

    He’s not valid in this judgement….but he still will attempt to shame personal choice, which makesme laugh at him that much harder.

  5. It goes beyond the groups you mentioned (as I am sure you realize, the article having to be finite in length!) I left my church because it was not a “safe” place for my mentally ill son. It was not a place of acceptance where he would be loved for who he was. Thank you so much for this article.

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