A Church Just Like Me

In an article in the July/August issue of “Touchstone” Magazine, James Harrison describes a recent visit to a Mosque in Detroit, Michigan. Harrison, a Baptist pastor from New York, was struck by the variety of people in the mosque that day. He called it a “true rainbow coalition.” Many, he writes, were “Middle Eastern” in appearance. But there were many others who were not. He writes, “Americans of European ancestry, or who were European-born, sharing something akin to my Irish complexion, knelt beside African Americans, North Africans, Persians, and Arabs of various stripes.”

One of the worshipers caught pastor Harrison’s eyes particularly. “He appeared to be in his early twenties and as American as apple pie.” So, after the service, Harrison approached the young, pale-faced Muslim convert. He asked him what it was about Islam that would cause him to convert. Interestingly, the reason was not about theology.
“I grew up in church. My parents took us to Sunday school every week. They even went to church themselves, on and off. And what I remember about church is that no matter where I went, everyone was just like me. As I grew older, I noticed, too, that people who were not like me all had their own churches, as well.
“Islam is different,” he said. “I’m sure you noticed that. It’s the first thing I noticed when I began to investigate Islam. And that’s what prompted my conversion. If Islam can accomplish that, it’s something that I can commit myself to.”

That is a profound observation. The churches I have been a part of have, in most cases, been just like me. And the reason is simple. I am most comfortable around people who are like me. This is true for most of us. And that fact was not lost on the architects of the church growth movement in the later half of the 20th century. One of the first principles discovered in the “science” of church growth is that churches grow best when structured along lines of homogeneity. In fact, “homogeneous groups” became official language for the church growth movement.

People are attracted to people like themselves. In contrast, people are not comfortable around people who are not like them. It became an easy equation. If you desire your church to grow, then target a specific group. Interestingly, it seems that most pastors want to target rich, white, suburbanites. I don’t know of very many pastors who feel called to plant churches in poor “black” neighborhoods. I know of many churches that moved from the city to the suburbs. But I know of no churches that moved from the suburbs to the city. North Dallas and Suburban Atlanta are far more attractive church planting fields than are Compton or Detroit.

Harrison writes, “When we allow our comfort to cage us in when we should be reaching out, we refuse to be and to do that which Christ has commanded, and our comfort has become a less obvious kind of sin.” He points out that early in American history many denominations came to be defined along lines of national origin: Swedish Baptists, Dutch Reformed, etc. However, these nationalistic designations did not reflect well the barrier breaking character of the Gospel. “Eventually, many came to see this desire for comfort as a hindrance to the mission of the church.”

I do not believe that the push for homogeneity among the church growth experts is racist or bigoted. It is, I believe, simple pragmatism. The leaders in the church growth movement were not prophets. They were marketers. They understood what people wanted. Therefore, the conclusion was that if the church would simply supply consumers (George Barna’s language) with what they wanted then the church would grow. One of the things people want from a church is comfort. And one of the things that makes most people uncomfortable is being around people who are different from them. The conclusion was simple. Create churches for people just like me. This could be done, we have been promised, without compromising the message. But is this true? I believe not.

Harrison continues:
“The idea seems to be that if we can be more like the culture, or like a specific subset of the culture, the people will be comfortable with us. If they are comfortable with us, we’ll be able to convince them that not only are we just like them, but Jesus is just like them, too. And if they think Jesus is just like them, maybe they’ll want to follow him. Why they would want to follow someone who is just like them, however, remains a mystery…
“But what makes the Gospel unique is the way in which Jesus is not like us. I don’t need someone who is just like me. I’m sinful. I need someone holy. I’m human. I need someone divine. I cannot stand under the wrath of God. I need someone who has stood there in my place. I cannot raise myself from death to life. I need someone who can raise me up because he himself has been raised…
“[T]his emphasis on similarity is not a good thing for the church. It runs counter to the biblical ideal of what the church is to be, and also counter to the biblical example of what the church is to accomplish before a watching world.
“In the New Testament, whenever a problem of cultural or racial division arose within the church, the solution to the problem was not separation into compatible social or racial groups. The solution was to foster ever-increasing union around the gospel and its implications…
“The church is to be an earthly representative, imperfect though it is, of the heavenly glory, in which men from every tongue and tribe and nation are gathered together, worshipping the One who sits on the throne, and the Lamb.”