Segregated Sunday: The Church and the Problem of Preference

churchesEveryone has preferences. Everyone.

When my wife and I wrap up a busy day by vegging out on some random series on Netflix, we typically discuss first what we’d like to watch.

Ultimately, I usually end up laying aside my preference for Law & Order, or the like, so that she can indulge in Everybody Loves Raymond re-runs (oh, the torturous boredom). And maybe, just maybe, sometimes she lets me watch what I like to watch.

Okay, that was a lie, it’s more like a lot of the time she lets me have my way.

But the point is that we are a preferential people.

There are some things in life that we like, enjoy, prefer, while other things—not so much.

We have preferences when it comes to music, food, clothing, cars, sports, and so on. These preferences often shape how we think, feel, and act throughout our lives.

And at a much a deeper level, this truth even applies in our relationships and interactions with others.

More often than not, our preferences are the natural byproduct of the shaping influences of the people, culture, education, and experiences around us.

In the 1940s, during the time of Jim Crowe-regulated segregation within school systems, there was a group of psychologists that performed an experiment dubbed, “The Doll Tests.”

These tests used dolls with different skin colors in order to measure the racial perception of children, ranging from ages three to seven.

When asked to identify the race of each doll, as well as which doll they preferred, African-American children often chose the white doll, believing that the white doll was cleaner, purer, and more beautiful than all others. The phycologists then concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.”

What a travesty. These African-American children had been so indoctrinated by racism, that they did not even prefer to be whom they had been created to be.

The preferences of the majority culture—in this case, white America—had reshaped the way minorities saw themselves, and in so doing, motivated them to abandon their cultural uniqueness for a more “acceptable” norm. Whiteness had become an idol to attain.

Fast-forward to today, and we find churches all over America, that are defined by a majority culture.

Just look around in American-church culture and you’ll find pictures of messianic whiteness, portraying Jesus with flowing blonde hair, and baby blue eyes.

A culture calling for others to assimilate, or be cast aside as an outsider, while incidentally being dis-fellowshipped from the life of the church.

They may not do so explicitly, but it is apparent in the very way in which they organize and clique-up around their commonalities and preferences (often having nothing to do with their commonality in Christ), while failing to invite others who look, think, and act differently than they do into their immediate circles.

Our churches are fine with cultural assimilation—that is, come on in, so long as you can adjust and adapt to our standards—rather than allowing structural assimilation—or, equal opportunity access to lead and to influence—to re-shape a church culture in to one that defies homogenous communities, and celebrates the beauty of unity amidst diversity. That we are all created equally, yet differently, in the image of God.

But sadly enough, our churches don’t want that.

Preferential treatment is the new segregation within the American church. Who needs Jim Crowe?

Sure you can come and sit among us. We just won’t acknowledge that you are there. We won’t love and enter in to a relationship with you like we do with others who look more like us.

The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. And just because you are a diverse congregation, does not mean that you are a reconciled congregation.

In order to overcome indifference, and break down the barriers that hinder us from living and growing together as the body of Christ, it’s going to take some work.

It’s going to take the willingness to work hard and to see it through. It’s going to have to be motivated by something—or Someone—greater than ourselves.

In Christian community, it goes without saying that our chief motivation is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The finished work of Jesus Christ is the reason that all are welcomed into the household of God; that we are no longer at enmity with God.

The Cross of Christ was the very reason that Paul himself was able to set aside his preferences around Jews and Gentiles, the weak and the strong—indeed, all people—so that he might be a witness and a testament to the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

It is the love of God, through our Crucified King, that has broken down the dividing wall of bitterness, fear, and anger towards one another, so that we might be brought together as one people, united in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22).

Jesus Himself, motivated by His love for us and His obedience to the Father, set aside His preference to remain in constant fellowship with God, by becoming sin and taking the weight of the wrath of God onto Himself, in order to save and to sanctify us.

And if we are to ever reflect the sort of unity and oneness that Jesus prays for in John 17, then it is going to require us to crucify our preferences.

It’s going to require you to embrace the Hip-Hop head with a hug after church, invite the family on welfare over for dinner—not to feed them, but to know them—and spark a conversation with the strange tattooed couple during life group.

It’s going to require us to deconstruct the false belief that you have to become white, or rich, or well educated, or any other thing in order to be accepted by God, and others.

It’s going to require us to admit that the African-American child’s decision to choose the white doll is a direct result of White America’s own racist actions and ideologies.

It’s going to require that we, in turn, let the the African-American child know that it’s okay to prefer the black doll, because black is beautiful. Black is the image of God.

It’s going to require the setting aside of our own preferences, and preferring one another instead.

That’s the essence of fellowship. That’s the Church.