My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
– James 2:1-4
Martin Luther King Jr stated, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
For the last five years I’ve attended Salem Evangelical Free church, an amazing community of Jesus-followers here in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Before that I attended a similar church in the Brainerd area, and throughout the years I’ve been able to visit hundreds of churches as I’ve traveled and explored. I’ve noticed that, by and large, the evangelical church is a place for middle-class white families. It’s implicit in the architecture, language, staffing, and programs of most churches. It is, intentionally or otherwise, often as MLK Jr. said.
Oh, we’d never do what James is confronting the church about in the second chapter of his letter and make someone sit on the floor or stand in the corner because they’re different. At least, not verbally. But we do it incredibly well without using words. Our posture, our disapproving glances, our easy avoidance of conversation all work to exclude and declare that we do indeed play favorites and, as usual, it’s the middle class white folks who are favored.
The Problem of Privilege
If the racial tension and conflict that has erupted in the past few years around the United States has made anything clear, it’s that there is such a thing as ingrained, subtle “favoritism” (i.e. racism) in our country. It’s subtle enough that it’s found it’s way into the culture of many of our churches, setting up certain unspoken expectations that say loudly, “you don’t fit in here.”
The twenty four year old man who grew up in church, attended youth group, and is familiar with the cultural ins and outs of Christianity won’t feel uncomfortable if they enter a church and walk to their seat without being welcomed. But for the person not raised in church, for the person of another race, and for the person who doesn’t fit the expected “look” of a church person, being ignored is a declaration that they aren’t welcome.
In the above verses the apostle James makes it clear, “believers in our Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism,” and yet our churches are often structured to do exactly that. The culture we’ve created often communicates who we favor and who we don’t. Sermons that spend extensive time discussing “the greek” implicitly exclude the less educated. Immaculate, clean cut decor communicates that you need to have it together to fit in. Worship bands that play comfortable Chris Tomlin songs with no expression of emotion hint that those from more exuberant, outwardly expressive cultures should tone it down or find somewhere else to attend.
I could go on, but you get the point.
If we believe James’ words are the heart of Christ, then we must ask ourselves what we need to do to bend back against the default favoritism that’s shown to the middle class white families that fill our church and instead create a place that is equally welcoming to those of other races, lifestyles, socio-economic classes, and fashion preferences.
I want to offer four practical things that we as individuals and churches as organizations can do.
How To Not Show Favoritism
Determine to not define others by their appearance.
In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell discusses the incredible power of the human ability to make assumptions based on our first-glance impression. We are literally wired to make snap judgments based on stereotypes.
The first step towards not showing favoritism within our faith communities is to intentionally postpone your internal judgment about others until you’ve conversed with them, heard some their story, and known them as a person. Don’t let yourself assume that the guy covered in tattoos is a rough person. Don’t assume that the homeless-looking man is a lazy drunk, or that the young asian man is an international student. Determine not to define others by their appearance and you’ll make significant progress against prejudice.
Declare that they are welcome.
The real work of combating favoritism in our churches comes on the ground level of relationships, but requires corporate involvement as well. Pastors, worship leaders, and the announcement guy/girl should go out of their way to declare from the stage that the church is excited to have a wide variety of people present. They should affirm the fact that we have a God who delights in different cultures and the vast uniqueness of his human creations. Bonus points if you have people from other cultures and social classes in the role of pastor, worship leader, announcer, etc.
Operate with outsiders in mind.
On a corporate level it’s also crucial to operate with the outsiders in mind. Those who have the stage should speak with an awareness that there are people who are different than them present. Define things clearly. If there are non-native english speakers present use less plain English. If there are people with no church background there, give them tips as to what’s coming next. Help them navigate the waters of Christian culture so that they feel valued.
Finally and most importantly, those of us who are a part of Christ’s church must go out of our way to befriend those who are different than us. Pause the conversation with your friends after church and engage in real dialogue with the person who looks different from the rest of the group. Get to know the homosexual couple and invite them out for lunch. Discover the stories of the students from Bangladesh. Skip the sermon to chat with the homeless couple that wanders in just for the coffee.
Jesus refused to show favoritism. Instead of doing the expected and spending his time with the other teachers of the law and Pharisees since he was a teacher and a rabbi, he intentionally inserted himself into the company of those different from him. Even his incarnation is, in itself, a rejection of favoritism and a radical affirmation of crossing cultural barriers. Jesus went out of his way to welcome us into his Father’s household, going so far as to adopt us as brothers and sisters in his family. Because of what Christ has done we too are called to go out of our way to ensure that we are not the “judges with evil thoughts” who discriminate amongst the people present.
Let us, the followers of Jesus, be the ones who shower abroad the favor that has been poured upon us. As we do so may our churches become places that demonstrate the supernatural unifying power of the God of Peace who brings together men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation. What a beautiful declaration that will be to a country and a world so obsessed with race and division. As Jesus said, it is by our love for one another that they will know we are his disciples, and where love is there is little room for favoritism.