Cross Cultural Church Pt. 3

Are Church Growth Principles Perpetuating Segregation?

Most students of church growth have heard the often quoted phrase “Church worship times on Sunday are the most segregated times in the United States”.  The major reason for this is racism and the need for racial reconciliation.  I served in a church of Christ in Tennessee that takes it roots back to 1835; one of the earliest “Restoration Movement” churches.  Some of the historical stories that were passed on should make the church cringe today.  For instance; the women and men sat on separate sides of the building and African Americans could stand in the foyer.  Eventually the African Americans started their own church.  A perfect example of this is the history of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C.  Today most churches are content with their segregated status and the second biggest reason may have been provided by Church Growth Principles. The following are few Church growth principles that one can decide for themselves if they are perpetuating segregated churches in the 21st century.

Principle # 1:  Homogeneous Groups

The principle behind homogeneous groups is the phrase “like kind attracts like kind.”  This phrase is not meant to perpetuate segregation; however, it is still the number one growth principle.  It is justified in many ways; such as, people are more comfortable with their own ethnic group, different ethnic groups have their own set of problems, and these churches are the fastest growing.   So churches continue to plant Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and other one hundred percent ethnic group churches, in the name of salvation. All of these churches would openly welcome anyone who desired to come, but it is very difficult to cross ethnic groups in a predominantly one ethnic church. The latest statistics show that only 8.5% of churches in the United States are multi-ethnic.  Multi-ethnic defined by church growth as a church that has at least 25% of another ethnic makeup.

Principle: #2 Targeted Group

In the 1990’s the book Purpose Driven Church, became the manual for church growth principles and many still advocate these principles today. The principle for evangelism is to find a group of people who are going to be most receptive to the church and target them.  In Purpose Driven Church this was a fictional character known as “Saddleback Sam”.   Please keep in mind that this book is nearly twenty years old and was written before social media; such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. However, most churches are still picturing who their “Saddleback Sam” is and are transferring their ethnicity on him.  It does not occur to the White church that if they are targeting a White demographic group, that this is perpetuating segregation.  The same is for any ethnic group that practices this church growth principle.  In church growth terms this is called “extension growth”.  Extension growth is when a church plants another church like itself.

Principle #3:   Contextualization

“Christian contextualization can be thought of as the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as it is put forth in the teachings of the Holy scripture, and that it is meaningful to the respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts”.[1] This means the best way to plant a church is to put the message in the context of the hearer’s culture.  Contextualization takes into account; geography, demographics, linguistics, history, and culture.  While contextualization is very important, it cannot be an excuse to justified segregated churches.

Global diversity is at its highest point in the United States.  The millennial’s do not think about diversity because they have lived with it their whole life.  In fact, they think it is strange that people even talk about it.  It is going to be very hard and virtually impossible for an established church to change.  However, established churches can plant new churches that follow through with the idea of racial reconciliation.  The New Testament church was not concerned with homogeneous groups, nor target groups, or contextualization.  New Testaments churches followed the pattern of Jesus and that is everyone needed the good news of the Gospel.  I believe that church growth principles can still be applied to a multi-ethnic setting.  A multi-ethnic church is a church that has been gifted by the Holy Spirit to “go and make disciple of all ethnic groups” (Matthew 28:19).


[1]              David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Pasedna, CA: William Carey Library, 1989), 200.