I’ve heard people who attend multi-racial churches (or MEMA churches) condemn ethnic-specific churches, using the word “segregation.” Every time I hear it, it makes me grieve. Here are three reasons why.
It is misleading.
First, the word “segregation” is far from a neutral term in America. It is a deeply loaded word that is associated with hatred, civil rights, and attitudes of superiority.
Allow this quote to shed light on the associations of this term:
The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. The underlying philosophy of Christianity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul’s Letter to American Christians, 1956
In other words, segregation exists when one group believes it to be superior to another and purposely excludes others on this basis. While I cannot speak for all ethnic churches, this is not the intent of the ethnic-specific church at all. Largely, ethnic churches do not exist because of some attitude of superiority. Ethnic churches have a vision and mission to reach and disciple a specific people group, much like age-specific ministries or gender-specific ministries. To accuse them of “segregation” is unfair and misleading.
It is manipulative.
Because of its loaded nature, the term “segregation” automatically causes a visceral reaction in many Americans. It is a negative buzzword that riles people up and causes an emotional reaction. They are using it in an attempt to shame those in an ethnic church. Using this term causes some to be automatically defensive, responding with “Oh, no. I’d never support segregation! (That’s UnAmerican!)” It also causes other people to look down on the ethnic church automatically without having to make a logical or biblical case against it.
Therefore, by using this term, one is taking advantage of its politically-loaded nature and manipulating the situation so that people react in an emotional or visceral way. In debate language, this is the “Buzzword fallacy“– using emotionally loaded language to create a “knee jerk” reaction to one’s advantage.
It is divisive.
Using this misleading and manipulative term creates a rift between ethnic-specific and non-ethnic-specific churches. I see churchgoers refuse to associate with ethnic-specific ministries because they “don’t want to support segregation.” I’ve seen a notable evangelical pastor of a well-known church make it a policy to refuse all speaking engagements with ethnic-specific ministries. I’ve seen those in churches with multi-ethnic visions continue to put down and condemn ethnic-specific churches. Using this term causes division in the body of Christ. This is ironic, considering how those who use the term say they don’t want separation. It’s also ironic that some use this term because of its loaded nature to set themselves up as somehow morally (or ecclesiastically) superior to others.
My plea to American churchgoers: please stop using a politically-loaded, manipulative, prejudicial term when discussing race and the church. Let’s use a conciliatory stance and have open dialogue about how the Church (at large) can express its unity together.