The Plantation Church
I recently had coffee with a former student of mine who now pastors a large and fast-growing African-American church. We were talking about the challenges of building a truly racially-integrated church, and the many dynamics of race in the faith community. He spoke openly about the racism that he has faced as a black man, and his church as a black church. But he also spoke of the awkwardness a white person would feel if they attended his church, and the stares that would follow a mixed-race couple.
He has attended Meck on several occasions, and commented on how we might be one of the few megachurches in the South that is truly integrated. I’m not sure how things like that are measured. All I know is that our immediate area is probably 30-35% African American, and that we have around one-third of our attenders falling into that category, including many mixed-race couples.
He envied our community, and offered a few observations as to why he felt it was “happening” at Meck:
*When you come to Meck as a person of color, or in a mixed-race relationship, you see others “like you” and instantly feel comfortable. There is no staring, because people “like you” are all around.
*People “like you” are represented as volunteers, as members of guest services, on stage and in media. By the time you’ve parked your car, walked through the lot and into the doors, registered your child and seen them to their class, entered the auditorium and taken your seat, you’ve probably seen people of every race represented at each juncture as Meck volunteers and fellow attenders.
*There isn’t a “plantation” feel to the church. Intrigued, I pressed him as to what he meant. “In many predominately white churches, there is a plantation feel, like the old south, where it’s okay if blacks sing in the choir or cook in the kitchen, but they aren’t allowed to speak or emcee, be on staff, teach or lead.” He was right. Most predominantly Anglo churches – even those with a significant black constituency - do not have a single black person on staff, or even a black person as a deacon, elder, trustee, small group leader or teacher. “Meck,” he said, “isn’t a plantation church.”
Is Meck perfect on matters of racial integration? Heavens, no.
Blacks, Latinos and Asians are still grossly underrepresented on our arts team. We’re in a frustrating situation where there are styles of music we’d like to pursue, but we don’t have the people who could pull it off with authenticity; yet until we showcase that kind of music, those who would be attracted to putting their artistic abilities into play with those styles will stay on the sidelines.
While black male leadership is strong in our children’s program, it has yet to carry over into our middle school, high school and Institute offerings.
While we have African-Americans on staff, and just hired our first coordinator for Latino outreach, we do not have an African-American pastor on our team.
All to say, we are a work in progress.
But I’ll admit he reminded me that we do stand out a bit in this area in terms of what we have accomplished. It’s true – we are an integrated church in the Bible-belt of the South. And there’s a reason. We’ve worked really, really hard at this.
Here’s what we’ve done (and continue to need to do):
*We’ve intentionally platformed people of color. I’ve written about this in a previous blog in terms of how this works with churches staying young in their demographic. It’s true for other areas as well. If you want to stay lily-white in your make-up, be sure to only platform white people. Who you platform is who you will attract. The same is true for your media presentations, announcements, and any other opportunity you have to feature a human being in front of the church.
*We’ve intentionally hired people of color, and want to be even more intentional about this in the days to come.
*We’ve intentionally invited people of color into leadership and teaching roles. For many years, our senior trustee was an African-American. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only predominantly Anglo church in the South that had a white pastor accountable to a team of men and women led by a black man.
*We’re intentionally color-blind. As leaders, we honestly don’t think about people being Anglo, African-American, Asian or Latino except in positive terms. Here’s what I mean: when I look at someone at Meck, I don’t think of them as white or black. They are just Brittany, Donald or Gail. But I will look at the planning of a weekend service, evaluate a media event, examine a leadership roster, poke my head in a classroom, or witness who is on a stage, and have an instant sensitivity as to whether it reflects who we are as a community – and perhaps more importantly, who we long to be as a community.
*We’ve intentionally featured people of color in any and all outreach materials, such as television commercials, direct mail campaigns and our website.
*We’ve intentionally ensured that key positions in guest services, such as Connection Centers, MecKidz sign-in areas, and other “front-door” areas represent people of all ethnic backgrounds.
*We’ve intentionally confronted any signs of racism in a member or attender as a matter of church discipline.
*And lest there be any doubt, we’re just intentionally friendly. To everyone. We are ecstatic about our racial make-up, and wouldn’t have it any other way. We think it’s dangerously New Testament.
It’s surprising how few open, transparent and practical discussions there are about racial matters in the local church; how seldom pastors of different backgrounds and color of skin talk to each other;
...and how many ways there are for churches of any predominant color to be a “plantation” church, and not even know it.
James Emery White
“Forever Young,” James Emery White, churchandculture.org, July 30, 2009. Read online.
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