Why Do Christians Segregate? August 14, 2008

Why Do Christians Segregate?

From a reader (emphasis is mine):

I have a serious question, even though it’s from an atheist to a believer: why do Christian groups segregate by race? I have friends who respectively go to multiple Asian Bible studies — that is, it seems to be a completely regular Bible study, but all the participants are of Asian descent (sometimes it’s even specific to Chinese or Koreans). I’ve heard of them for other ethnic groups, too. And this is on a college campus, where people don’t already live in homogeneous neighborhoods like they might in the outside world — any segregation is intentional.

As far as I know, they’re not studying Asian-specific parables, just the same stuff as everyone else. It strikes me as odd, and a little disturbing, that people are divided like this even within the same denomination. Can one of the Christian commenters tell me if there’s a completely healthy reason why Bible study is divvied up on racial lines?

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  • I taught for years at an all nations Bible study. We did whatever we could to bring the different groups together and on many levels we were successful.

    I believe the answer to your question is that though Christian, we are still very much human and fall short of what God expects of us. Many still feel comfortable with those who share the same culture. Just because one shares the same faith, doesn’t mean that the culture they grew up is like minded. It’s a sad commentary on today’s Church.

  • brightbluelizard

    I don’t think Asian students (or any other group, for that matter) preferring to stick to their own people is necessarily “segregation” in the racist connotation of the word. While it’s healthy to create as many opportunities as possible for people of different cultures and subcultures to mix freely and share their humanity, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when people are more comfortable within their own group in other social contexts (such as a bible study).

  • Doreen

    I’m an atheist, so I can’t speak for Christians. However, because you used the Asian example, one thing did come to mind and it’s in the same vein as Pastor Mike.

    America is the most extreme individualist society in the west. Many eastern countries are collectivist societies. That can have a major impact on the way one thinks, despite sharing the same scriptures.

  • Sarah

    Well, I suppose it’s the same reason that there’s a Pan-Asian club, or the NAACP, or a Society of Women Engineers. People like to get together in cultural groups and examine their lives within the context of shared experiences.

    While an Asian bible-study group may not be studying different parables than any other group, the function of bible study groups is more than just memorization.

    By the way, at my church bible study groups were divided by any sort of characteristic you wanted, if you were willing to organize it. My brother attended a Young Men’s Study group. My parents attended a Couple’s group. Of course there was a Youth Group, and an Eldery group, and a Widow’s group, and even groups targeted at very specific topics like Life After Abortion and A Christian Divorce, etc. etc. Yes, they are all studying the same bible, but the focus is vastly different.

  • TheOtherOne

    Well, the Seventh Day Adventist church here in the U.S. has a national “General Conference”. Beneath that are regional or state-specific divisions and conferences. And the white conferences and black conferences geographically overlap each other.

    Why? Because back in the day, the founding “prophetess” was a racist who didn’t think it was worth preaching to non-whites. Her sons, on the other hand, disagreed. So they’d go out and preach, and invite everyone – but racially segregate the audience. (Or at least that’s the history I was taught at an SDA college.)

    On one of the conference websites, they mention the decision to form separate conferences rather than integrating – “both had a good idea of the resistance that complete integration would face from members accustomed to segregation and certain privileges.”

    When I left the church (around 1994), individual churches were making real efforts to be more inclusive. But there was (and I assume there still is) a lot of holdover separation, as well as precedent for segregating the organization.

  • Well, I’m not a Christian. But sometimes people ask the same question about the GLBT community — “why do you need a gay church/ contra dance/ bowling league/ poker night/ etc.?”

    And the answer for me is this:

    If you’re any sort of minority — racial, sexual, cultural, whatever — it can be important to have a social support group of people who understand, people who you don’t have to explain everything to. Speaking as a queer, sometimes even well-meaning straight people can be unintentionally homophobic (I guess “homophobic” isn’t the right word — “homostupid” is more like it).

    And I don’t want to do Queer 101 education everywhere I go. Sometimes I just want to contra dance, or bowl, or play poker. So it can often be a lot more comfortable to do that with other queers.

    And if that’s true for something like bowling or poker, I’m guessing that it’s even more true for something as personal and important as religion.

  • I imagine that it’s because Christianity is a pretty diverse thing and different cultures experience it differently. If you’re going to be doing something as intimate as a bible study you might tend to fill the group up with people who’s experience in Christianity is similar to your own.

    I’m betting it’s more a cultural thing then a religious thing.

  • One of reasons we see segregation in some denominations is because of their history. Look at the Southern Baptist Convention; it was actually founded to promote the right to own slaves.

  • David D.G.

    In addition to the points others have mentioned, one reason why you might have an all-Korean or all-Chinese or all-Lithuanian congregation is so that the services and Bible studies and such can be conducted in their respective (first) language, rather than in English.

    Despite America being touted as a “melting pot,” there are many thousands of people who fail to “melt” and assimilate into the dominant culture here — sometimes out of individual difficulty (some people just have enormous difficulty learning the language, especially if they come from a country with a language not even remotely related to English, such as Korean), and sometimes out of defiance (e.g., Hispanic immigrants, legal and otherwise, who maintain their own culture and language within this one, sometimes for multiple generations). And some, of course, may just be relative newcomers and are not yet proficient enough in the language yet to follow the subtly nuanced and topic-specific vocabulary of sermons and Bible studies.

    ~David D.G.

  • I have a lot of friends who are in a Chinese Christian Fellowship. They are college age, speak fluent English; many were born here or moved to the West when they were young. Culturally, they are not much different than a white person born here, i.e. they are completely Westernized. Yet, they isolate themselves ethnically. They even go to churches that are nominally Chinese.

    So I’m not sure about the cultural explanations. In other aspects of their social lives, my Chinese friends interact perfectly well with people of other races. Why would it be any different when it comes to religion?

  • I was gonna say, and then Dave D. G. said it, that most of the time the Asian and Latino separate worship services and classes are more about a language barrier than anything else. Truth is, the fact these exist in the same building – English-speaking Whites, Latino, Asian – is a sign of openness and acceptance in that particular congregation. It’s not segregation at all.

  • Ron in Houston

    Sarah nailed it:

    People like to get together in cultural groups and examine their lives within the context of shared experiences.

    That’s just human nature.

  • Jay

    Common monologue from mom concludes with, “and when will you bring home a nice, well-educated (Chinese, Korean, or Japanese) (Buddhist, Protestant Christian, or Catholic) (boy or girl), hmmmmmm?” So if you are looking specifics in a spouse, you can’t get more specific than joining a collegiate Korean Christian organization.

    If the Korean or Chinese person managed to make it to a US college, they speak English. Due to university requirements, the student at the very least has to be conversant in English. I would say most are fluent in English (I speak from experience as a Chinese person who attended a university just like the person who posed the question describes). I remember seeing members of such organizations lolling on the campus green with an ever-present acoustic guitar at hand ready to belt out the next folk Christian number at the drop of a hat. They all spoke and sang in English, no question.

    The world is so segmented as it is, and these groups’ struggle for homogeneity makes their world even smaller, which I find sad and unfortunate.

    What I can glean from the question at heart is, if one were truly Christian with the whole love thy neighbor message, why be so compartmentalized? It’s hypocritical, isn’t it? Wouldn’t God frown on it? If you truly loved your neighbor, you wouldn’t slap a bunch of labels on your organization to uphold such a picky criteria. (uh oh, if somebody manages to organize a university Chinese Atheist Society, I’d say we are really in trouble).

  • I have noticed this same division in Christian circles as well. But the one time I went to an American mosque, I noticed people of different races were all mixed together; blacks, whites, semites, hispanics, all next to one another.

  • Loren Petrich

    I’m reminded of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King’s comment that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

    And Christianity is supposed to be a trans-ethnic religion, something that goes all the way back to the New Testament.

  • Gullwatcher

    There was just an article on this topic on CNN, especially the black/white divide. It mentioned several factors, including people just wanting a ‘racial timeout’ once a week, and different styles of services. It also mentioned that multiracial churches will often lose families when the kids hit dating age, for fear the kids may actually start dating someone of a different race, which is just really sad.

  • Language seems like the most obvious reason.

  • An area of my expertise. My father is the pastor of an all-Chinese congregation,which is weird, because we’re white- the only whites there, though.

    Language is really only ever at issue in places with a large non-English-speaking community. He lives in the Chicago suburbs, and the church he pastors was originally an off-shoot of a much larger Chinese-speaking church in Chicago’s Chinatown. As second and third generations became more affluent, moved to the suburbs, and started losing their culture, they opted to form an English congregation in Des Plaines rather than commute to Chinatown on Sunday. The reason the church stayed segregated was because it was basically an excuse to have a weekly reunion of extended family and friends- many of those in consistent weekly attendance aren’t at all fervent in their beliefs as would be expected.

    It is the cultural and familial associations, then, that drive racially segregated churches when language is not an issue, as in this university. Language is often the reason these churches start, often as a means to keep recent immigrants connected, but when it stops mattering, the church stays together, if only as a social club. Same goes for black churches, Dutch churches, Norwegian churches, German churches, et cetera.

  • Brad

    I went to Church in Toronto and it was not segregated at all. There were Asian, African, Arab (in a general sense), Caucasian etc. all in the same congregation. There was also a black and a white pastor. The Bible studies were not segregated. My friend (the black pastor) and I taught English as a second language to Asian immigrants, and the Church as a whole would try to find them descent jobs.

    Segregated congregations do not speak about the universal church. Though, I do not believe that it is necessarily wrong to have a Bible study, or even a Church with all Asian people, White people, Black people etc. Language is a relevant arguement, but there is also more to language than just words. We speak different dialects and tell different stories within different cultures.

    I have a Chinese friend and a Korean friend that do not like to talk about love or be hugged etc. Though they were raised in Canada and speak fluent English, their parents raised them in a different way than myself. On the other side of the spectrum, my black pastor friend (from Antigua), is nothing but laughs, is completely laid back, loves hugging and is very expressive with speech and body language.

    In my home life, my wife is French Canadian and speaks fluent French and English. She is very expressive no matter which language she is speaking in. I am a mix of Irish, Scottish and Belgian, but my parents did not raise me to be overly expressive, though I am more expressive than my Asian friends. I am kind of caught in the middle somewhere. I can get frustrated with her overly expressive nature and she can get frustrated with my lack of “passion”.

    All of these people speak fluent English, yet have very diverse ways of communicating. People that get together with others of the same race to study the Bible (or anything else) are not necessarily elitists or racists. They are just trying to find ways in which the story of the Bible can speak to them in a language they can understand. In doing so, they can communicate the message of a God who loves you no matter what colour your skin is more clearly.

  • Mriana

    As a mother of two bi-racial sons, I have noticed that profoundly as they were growing up and asked the same question. The Episcopal Church down the Street is 99% White, while the AME the other direction is 99% Black, the Evangelical Mt. Caramel Church is 99% Black, the Catholic Church is 99% White… You get the picture.

    I don’t have an answer for the person who is asking the question, but I do have theories and assumptions. 1. Possibly goes back to days of Slavery, where slaves had their own Christain service- had to be Christain, not their “Pagan worship”. How the slave owners knew what they were doing while they were at church, I have no idea- maybe it was guided by a White preacher, I don’t know. 2. Habit of tradition- again dating back to slavery. 3. Religious Ideology dealing with racist views, found in the Bible, which still exists today consciously or subconsciously in the minds of believers, but few churches rarely come out and speak about it. 4. all the above.

    Those are my theories at least. Sounds harsh against religion and U.S. history, though.

  • Mriana

    Sorry, double posted. Guess it did post when I got the Suspended deal about this site. 😕

    Double posting isn’t so bad in this case, for I think I should make note, that I live in the Bible Belt which is South of the Mason Dixon line, so it maybe different up North.

  • Craig

    A new book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart” by Bill Bishop is I think directly relevant here and offers some more explanations

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