Several decades have passed since the days of segregation and integration in the United States, and as one who grew up after those troubled times had blown over, it seems very strange to look back and see how unfair and prejudiced so many Americans were back in those times. But there is a remnant of all of that which still remains: segregated churches.
You can see it all across the South: in many towns, you have your “black church” and your “white church,” and at least in my experience (which is actually quite limited), the two don’t have many dealings with each other. Is this religious segregation right? Is it good? Does it go against Jesus’ desire for unity among His people in John 17:20-23?
In my opinion, which is admittedly mere opinion, there is nothing wrong with the existence of churches as such. And the reason, I believe, is due to culture. The two cultures of black and white people have coexisted in the South for many years, and although we share a language, still there is quite a difference between us, and this difference is reflected in worship and preaching styles.
In the culture I grew up in, we sang four-part harmony by the note, keeping the rhythm and melody in the form specified by the songbook. During the sermon, we all politely listened in silence while the preacher expounded the lesson from God’s Word that he had been working on. In a black congregation, the singing may be quite a bit more animated, and while the music is just as beautiful, they treat the songbook’s arrangement of the song more as a guideline and suggestion than the way it must be sung. The preacher may be quite animated as well, requesting “amens” from the audience if he feels that they’re not being attentive enough. It’s a wide difference, but Christians from different cultures are free to express their worship in different ways, as long as it’s in line with scripture.
Also, one must keep in mind that this type of segregation is by no means compulsory. A few years ago I attended a gospel meeting at a black congregation, and while the worship was different from what I was used to, I was very much edified, and the people were as friendly as ever, and happy to have me there. I can also attest that the predominately white congregations of which I have been a part always warmly welcomed any black people who wanted to join us as visitors or members.
While we enjoy being comfortable within our own cultures, I am a big believer in experiencing the cultures of others, and it seems that Christians in the South should do more of that. It’s OK to have different congregations, but do we ever interact with Christians of the other race? Do we have joint activities between congregations to fellowship and encourage each other? I’m afraid in many cases this does not happen–perhaps not out of ill-will, but simply because of people’s desire to remain in their comfort zone.
In closing, I want to mention the congregation that I worship with at present, here in Georgia. It is rather unusual in that its members are of both races, in about equal proportions. It’s been a wonderful experience getting to know all these fine Christians, and seeing them interact together in Christian love. In terms of worship style, ours is more on the “white” side, but I think it’s a good example of how people of all backgrounds can be family in Christ Jesus. Individual congregations are different, but we must not neglect the unity we have in Jesus, for “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”