Segregated Churches

Most American churches are still racially segregated. Martin Luther King called Sunday morning, “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” Are Christians really that racist? What is going on and what can be done about it?

Schelling’s Model of Segregation examines how mild intolerance of outside groups by individuals leads to extreme segregation. For a moment, dear reader, please spend a few minutes with this nifty game that demonstrates Schelling’s model: The Parable of the Polygons.

Welcome back! For purposes of discussion, let’s treat the Parable of the Polygons as an allegory for black and white Americans self-segregating into churches. It would work similarly if more groups were in the picture, like Hispanics and Asians. Now that you understand the mechanism, can Christians un-do racial segregation?

First, we should decide whether there’s a problem. Do we want separate but equal? Jesus said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we believe Jesus when he says our “worldly” differences don’t matter, separating churches by race is arbitrary and weird. If we don’t believe Jesus…we have a malignant cancer.

Second, can the problem be fixed? The website does a good job explaining how segregation disappears if everybody’s preferences change and the groups are equal size.

However, my mother taught me, “You can’t control what others think - only what you think.” Imagine there was a single, open-minded polygon in the Parable of the Polygons who had no racial preferences or preferred a mixed-race church. It would settle somewhere, some racist polygons would move away, and churches would continue self-segregating as before. If there was a group of open-minded polygons, they would all end up together, and the closed-minded polygons would continue self-segregating as before. Now, there would be three groups: mixed race, white, and black churches. Sound familiar? The more Christians become convinced of the value of diversity, the larger the mixed-race share of churches will become.

Third, consider whose “problem” is the segregation. About 15% of Americans are black. For black Americans to solve racial integration by themselves would require entirely dissolving black churches and for black church-goers to tolerate 85% of parishioners being different than themselves. Even then, if white Americans would not tolerate at least 15% black parishioners, this movement would set off “white flight” and churches would remain segregated. Thus, it is neither fair nor possible for church segregation to be solved entirely by black people. If black churches are more segregated than white churches, it merely reflects white people’s unwillingness to be in the minority.

My recommendation: Leave your church - for a visit or permanently. Experiment with being a minority. Make some church people uncomfortable. Change starts with you.

Economics is an academic framework that is broadly used to study how (mostly selfish) people interact. In Biblical terms, economists study the ways of “the world.” Jesus responds, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This article is one of several that present simple economic models of how everyday people interact and discuss how Christians could act differently.

Written on June 2, 2020