Is Your Church Too White?

I’ve seen a number of individuals complain about the racial makeup of the LCMS over the past few months.  Some assert that at 98% Caucasian,  my denomination is simply too white to be an effective church body in America.  Others have gone further, flat out calling it racist. But if a congregation’s or a denomination’s racial demographics don’t match the demographics of the wider community in which it resides, is this really indicative of sin? Is it a failure of mission? Is it racism?

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is all-too-common in contemporary churches. Diversity is a big concern of the world at the moment. It will, therefore, inevitably become a big concern among worldly Christians.

To be sure, the Church catholic is for all nations, tribes, and languages. Nevertheless, no denomination or congregation is identical with the universal Church. It is not God’s Word, but rather the fashions of this age that say every particular institution must be racist if it doesn’t sufficiently resemble American diversity. If we mistakenly presume that our congregations bear such an obligation to be a random representative sample, there is a price to pay: By insisting on the random over the particular, we end up severing ourselves from both our church’s history and its posterity.

After all, if you pause to critically assess it, the expectation that either an LCMS congregation or the LCMS as a whole should be a statistically random  sample is patently absurd. LCMS congregations were not founded by random assortments of people. They were founded by people who both possessed and highly valued a specifically Lutheran heritage. Not only that, pretty much any LCMS congregation that’s 50 years old or more was founded by people with a specifically German heritage as well–just as the Synod as a whole was. It wasn’t that long ago that we were still doing services in German.

But while our sampling bias may begin at our origins, it does not end there. The new members our congregations have received over the years were no more random than their founders.

The most important group of people that a congregation receives into membership are its own children. These are the very people most Christians throughout history have personally evangelized. Far more of us have been called to be parents than, say, missionaries and church planters. And quite obviously, children are not demographically random. Sure, some spouses will be brought into the church from the community by marriage and end up diversifying our children somewhat. I, for example, may trace my ancestry back to 12th century Scotland, but I did receive both my Lutheran Heritage and some German ancestry from my mother’s side. Nevertheless, that dynamic does not cause a sudden and massive shift of the congregation’s demographics–especially if you’re only considering extremely broad racial strokes like black and white.

The next largest group brought into church membership are those evangelized or invited in the context of personal relationships. This includes the aforementioned spouses, but also friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and so forth. Will this diversify the congregation to some extent? Absolutely. But our personal and professional relationships are only modestly more random than our children are. The human tendency–across cultures, ironically–is to have these kinds of relationships with people who are demographically similar to ourselves. Ever since Babel, we self-segregate to a large extent. Despite the man-made traditions of today’s woke Pharisees, most of our individual vocations don’t actually demand that we defy this human trait (though there are some exceptions). Once again, the potential for a demographic shift isn’t so profound that it utterly overwrites the old patterns with sheer randomness.

And that’s really where most new Christians come from in established American church bodies like the LCMS–through their relationships with believers in one way or another. Sure, a few people dropped by after attending your bake sale or hearing your radio ad, but not many. God bless those who plant local missionary churches and simply invite the neighborhood, but they are the blessed exception rather than the blessed norm. As a result, there is a demographic gravity to our congregations that is powerful but also benign.

So church bodies large and small end up in a peculiar position: We offer gifts which transcend any and every demographic category we could invent, but still tend to reside within a limited selection of those categories. Both of those poles are reflected in our culture.

To be sure, the most important service the local congregation provides–Word and Sacrament ministry–transcends culture. The Gospel is for every tribe and nation. The Sacraments are means of grace for everyone. Even the liturgy should transcend the styles of local culture to a profound extent. Many of its historical elements date back well over a thousand years and have been used across countless languages and cultures. So do many of our hymns. It’s pretty hard to take Savior of the Nations, Come (written 1600 years ago by St. Ambrose of Milan) and call it an old German song. Contemporary worship is really the only style we dabble in that’s truly culturally narrow.

At the same time, the organized community that carries out the Divine Service, supports the congregation’s education, provides the venue, facilitates fellowship, and so forth is absolutely going to reflect the congregation’s cultural norms. Outsiders will not always feel comfortable within those structures, and the more different their own heritage, the less comfortable they will feel. But is that really a bad thing in and of itself? There are many different ways these tasks could be carried out, but they’re always going to be carried out in some way. And any given way is going to make more sense to some cultures than to others.

So here, the particular prevents the random. And there’s nothing nefarious about that. By-and-large, the ways that we choose should make the most sense to the people who are actually carrying out those tasks on a day-to-day basis.  In other words, they need to make sense to the non-random current membership. This will be true no matter what demographic boxes they check.

That doesn’t mean things should never change–that the LCMS should always do things the way we’ve always done them. Even the simple passage of time should change these things to some extant. The same 10 boards you had in the 1940’s may not be the best way to cover the congregation’s needs today. Robert’s Rules of Order might not be the best way run your meetings. Your phone tree may be obsolete. Your current building might be either too small or a too-big financial anchor around your neck. You may even be failing to educate your children because you mistake your cultural norms for God’s Word.

So it’s good to change and adapt to the present challenges so long as we continue to treasure the riches of God’s Word that we have received. Congregations that fail to do both of these things will die–and many are doing precisely that. Even our simple failure to adapt to the sexual revolution in a fertile way has proven the death knell of many (we are in decline primarily because we didn’t reproduce.)  So there’s plenty of room for criticism when it comes to how we preach, how we disciple, and how we live. Nevertheless, we don’t judge ourselves against worldly concerns like diversity quotas.

And one does have to ask: If you’re so cut off from your church body (both your immediate ancestors in the faith and the immediate descendants that the congregation will be welcoming) that you’re actually offended that its heritage isn’t random… is it truly a heritage that you share? After all, to claim a heritage as your own is a matter of particularity rather than randomness. If you’re expecting a random sample, then you have cut ties with your past and are no longer talking about change, but replacement.

Whether inside or outside the Church, if you wish to institute Year Zero in this way, you should actually do the hard work of building something new rather than trying to consume the work of prior generations. And if you’re doing it at the behest of the Spirit of the Age rather than God’s Word, then whatever you create won’t be a church.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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12 Responses to Is Your Church Too White?

  1. B. Gordon says:

    When they complain it’s too white they (mostly) mean it’s not black enough and, to a lesser extent, not hispanic enough.

    Lutherans are concentrated in the Midwest and particularly the upper Midwest. Blacks are more numerous in the South and Hispanics are more numerous in the West and Southwest (Mexicans and mesoamericans), Florida/Northeast (Carribean Hispanics).

    Also, Lutheran liturgical worship and history doesn’t appeal to most blacks and Hispanics. Also most blacks are historically Baptist and most Hispanics are historically Roman Catholic. Most blacks aren’t interested in Word and Sacrament, ministers in robes, baptizing infants, “Norma normans”, whatever. We used to be High Church Anglican and managed to fool some Mexican immigrants who probably assumed our (former) church was some sort of traditional Roman Catholic.

    The Catholic Church believes it is THE and THE ONLY universal church and it is only something like 3% black in America because black Americans as a group aren’t particularly interested in becoming Catholic.

    I bet Apostolic Lutherans are REALLY Caucasian – for shame!

    • Matt says:

      A lot of good points there. And when people completely ignore factors like those because they’re white multiculturalists who ironically assume everyone else is just like them, all they’re going to see is racism, racism, racism.

  2. Some great thoughts, thanks.

    I consider this a confession of sin: “And that’s really where most new Christians come from in established American church bodies like the LCMS–through their relationships with believers in one way or another. Sure, a few people dropped by after attending your bake sale or hearing your radio ad, but not many. God bless those who plant local missionary churches and simply invite the neighborhood, but they are the blessed exception rather than the blessed norm. As a result, there is a demographic gravity to our congregations that is powerful but also benign.”

    Our lack of being missional, specifically an “all the nations” missional, truly needs to be addressed and solved if we’re to carry out the Great Commission.

    Yes, our church is too white, because we are not effectively missional.

    • Matt says:

      Could you define what you mean by “effectively missional”

    • According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there is no such word as “missional”. Seems to me this pseudo-term is psycho-babble or liberal clap-trap.

      By the way, Mr. Hartley, are YOU too White?

      • Matt says:

        “Missional” is a buzzword in LCMS circles–referring to a kind of nebulous focus on evangelism programs–but I wanted to give William a chance to define it more firmly before responding. But even with that loose definition of “effectively missional”, “too white” remains a worldly measurement.

        The LCMS has planted churches in many places like Ghana, Korea, and Japan and brought the Gospel to many many people there. I’d certainly call that an example of being “effectively missional.” But none of that makes the LCMS any less white because they’re not LCMS members! Making them members of the LCMS was never the point. Effective mission is declaring God’s word to people, not giving them membership in a bureaucracy of questionable value so that we can virtue-signal about racial demographics.

        Furthermore, established churches do not, can not, and should not operate like brand new missionary churches. According to recently commissioned studies, the LCMS is actually pretty favorable on evangelism compared to other established denominations. As I recall, it takes us 44 adult members to gain a single convert. That puts us right between Southern Baptists at 47 and Mormons at 40–who are famous for their extremely rigorous missionary efforts. Again, for an established church, I’d call that “effectively missional.”

        But it only takes *two* fertile Lutherans to catechize their kids and create 1-6 new members. In terms of our demographic makeup, baptizing our children has absolutely dwarfed evangelism programs when it comes to LCMS membership.

        Going the route of criticizing mission is easy because there’s literally always something more you can do. But complaining about the racial makeup of our membership is still just meaningless virtue-signaling. It comes from the Spirit of the Age, not the Holy Spirit.

  3. B. Gordon says:

    Just a hypothesis not an attack on Lutheranism (or Protestantism for that matter).
    When you remove the distinction between venial and mortal sins you remove the implication that most people frequently commit mortal sins that must be repented of sacramentally (and the penitential follow up).

    Most people (in traditional Catholicism and Orthodoxy) were too busy focused on avoiding actual sins, the ones that send you to hell, repenting of them and doing penance, to spend much time and thought on goofy pseudo-sins like whether or not your invitation to Tyrone at the bake sale was sufficiently enthusiastic or to worry about your failure to evangelize the Milwaukee ghetto from your suburb in Waukesha or to worry about your synod racial demographics vs. your national demographics.

    Or Christians now just ape leftists (holier than we are?). Take your pick.

    • Matt says:

      Not quite, but I do think you’re on the right track.

      We do actually keep a distinction between mortal and venial sins–we just define them differently. (Mortal sins are sins that kill a Christians’s faith, while venial sins are the everyday things that are daily forgiven.)

      That said… we have a tendency to avoid talking about specific sins altogether. A lot of Lutherans prefer to talk about broader categories–original sin, thought/word/deed, etc–and avoid most the specifics of the Law (aside from a few of the big ones like abortion.) The thing is, a person can’t learn practical ethics exclusively from broad categories bereft of specifics. So many of us in the pews end up learning those from the culture instead. And since most of our cultural fixtures are leftist… yeah, too many of us end up aping the left because we’re using their details to fill in our own gaps.

  4. Harry Anchorite says:

    Dear Matthew-

    It has long been recognized that the Sunday morning worship service is one of the most segregated hours in modern American life. This is not, I suggest, because either black or white worshipers wish it to be so. In my experience white congregations welcome black people and black congregations welcome whites, and both would be delighted to have congregants from the other group.

    However, we have different ways of worship, just as we listen to different music and watch different TV programs. The minister to a white congregation delivers a sermon in a quiet reserved manner while the congregation sits with its mouths closed except at specific and well-ordered times. Black congregations tend to be more charismatic and ecstatic. The minister delivers a more emphatic sermon and his congregation responds in kind. Neither is better than the other, and both can find Scriptural support: David danced before the Lord, while elsewhere God speaks in a still small voice. Black worshipers still dress up to go to church, and the ladies wear hats, maybe even gloves. White worshipers may appear in jeans, and the only hats may be baseball caps turned backwards. We do, I hope still, believe in freedom of worship, and the right for all of us to choose that which leads us the closest to God. Otherwise, could we not simply interact with courtesy and respect, and worry less about integrating our services?

  5. Malcolm Smith says:

    Correct! My wife’s family is Lutheran (and white). When we visited her aunt in Chicago, it turned out that the congregation to which she belonged was predominantly black. And boy, was the service different from the usual staid Lutheran variety!

  6. Augusts says:

    I am doing a course on Mission in our Theology school here in Latvia and we had some writings to read from the LCMS, and frankly, though the text wasn’t bad by itself, I felt the author deserved a punch, because not only was “We find ourselves burdened by white congregations” but into a bolded excerpt, it was done twice.

    I feel there is a lot of wrongheadedness in the current mission paradigm. Perhaps it is time to see that the waters have come and it is time for our church plants in the foreign land to see for themselves wether they are upon sand or stone. Also I think that by emphasizing “Church serves everyone but itself”, I think we are neglecting the neccessity for spiritual discipline and discipleship among the saints.

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