The following article is the second in a seven-part series discussing racial issues in the PCA, each one written by an African-American with pastoral experience in the denomination. The authors seek to provide a voice of experience along with wisdom and insight from a biblical perspective.
The negative effects of racial segregation in America’s past are yet exerting force on the church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not powerless in this struggle; I believe it has the ability to make right whatever is wrong with the church. However, I think the church is far from finished with the race problem.
I have been a pastor in several denominations: the Church of God in Christ, Missionary Baptist (both predominately black), and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). My 14-year journey in the PCA landed me in a cross-cultural church and in a predominately black congregation—an anomaly in this denomination.
I want to stress that the following comments about race, culture, and church are not from the standpoint of despair or anger. As a pastor of two black churches, I heard what black people said and saw what they did. Though my last church was in a middle-class setting, I have pastored blacks in north St. Louis, Mo., and blacks on Army installations. In each setting, the comments about racial division in the church follow the cliché: “same stuff, different day.”
The Journey To Today
For hundreds of years, whites enforced segregation, and blacks adjusted to it. Unfortunately, this is basically where we are ecclesiastically. During slavery, whites had church on the main floor of a building, and blacks—when they were allowed in—went to the balcony. Eventually, blacks formed their own churches, and nobody seemed to care. We “circled the wagons,” and now we can’t get them un-circled. So when the concern about racial reconciliation in regards to church attendance arises, many blacks respond with the attitude of “What’s the problem now?” One of my former church members once told me, “I believe that if there had never been a ‘white’ church, there would never have been a ‘black’ church.”
When it comes to reconciliation, I am definitely for it. Ephesians 1, 2 Corinthians 5, Revelation 7, and many other places in Scripture speak to the gospel’s power to reconcile. I believe that my presence as a black teaching elder in this denomination—at the risk of being ridiculed by my former denominational colleagues—speaks to my commitment to bringing down the walls.
My Experience in the PCA
Until recently, I pastored Redemption Fellowship, a PCA congregation in Fayettville, Georgia, made up almost entirely of blacks. That church is within a mile of a PCA congregation whose members are predominately white. I want to be cautious about using the terms “black” and “white” to describe these congregations because they deny the diversity one encounters among people of the same color. For instance, although the congregants of Redemption are primarily black folks, they don’t all share the same heritage. They are from the United States, Panama, Haiti, Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Africa. Most of the members of Redemption believe that their congregation is diverse. I am sure that there is a similar Anglo-European diversity in the sister church up the road.
The two churches have a great relationship. We co-sponsored denominational conferences, community youth initiatives, participated in joint services, shared building resources, and the pastors preached in each other’s pulpits. However, there has never been an outcry from the leadership or members of either church to join the two congregations into one. Everybody seems to be fine with the present arrangement. I think I know why. Each congregation’s members believe they are self-sufficient, autonomous representatives of the church of Jesus Christ. They don’t think they need to be physically connected or integrated with each other to be validated as a communing body of believers. Each is a particular church. Each has a session.
Along these lines is the strong desire at Redemption to maintain its own worship culture—a “Bapto-Presby-Costal” worship style encompassing traditional and contemporary black gospel music, hymns, passionate preaching, and a culture where the pastor’s wife is called “First Lady,” etc. Many at Redemption say that although they believe in Reformed doctrine and appreciate the structure and accountability of the PCA, they don’t relate to many of the PCA churches they have visited. One Redemption member stated, “It isn’t my place to tell people how to have church; but after I hear the Word of God, I want to rejoice out loud.”
Last year I polled the Redemption congregation to find out what they thought about the following questions:
How do race and ethnic culture influence your decision to attend a church?
Would you attend a church of predominately white people?
Would you attend an inter-racial church?
What draws you to a black church?
Some responded that they would not mind attending a racially diverse church, but they would not want to be one of only a few black members. One respondent asked, “Why don’t whites come to our church and sit under black leadership?” Another said, “I have no problem being in the PCA, but I am not a white Presbyterian; I am a black Presbyterian.” Finally, one respondent asked, “Do whites realize what it takes to be black and be in the PCA? My family thinks I am nuts.”
In the book Divided by Faith, authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith offer what I consider significant insight into how racial groups define themselves. They state: “In many respects, we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an in-group always has at least one out-group by which it creates identity. Blacks are not whites, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, evangelicals are not mainline Christians, Carolina Tar Heels are not Duke Blue Devils.”
We may not like what these authors say, but I think this is what has happened. And when it comes to having church, I have found that most blacks are happy about who they are not.
To read the first article in this series, “Redeeming Racial Tension,” please click here.
Mike Higgins is the former senior pastor of Redemption Fellowship in South Atlanta, Ga; former Associate pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a retired Army chaplain with over 30 years of service. He is presently dean of students at Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Mo.