“Why don’t more black men attend our churches?”
I was asked this question recently by a white woman while attending a meeting for a religious denomination.
Although the denomination loves people of all races and has made concerted efforts to increase the diversity of people groups attending its meetings, minority representation at this particular event was scant.
This has been true of all the events that I have attended for the group in the past.
“We can’t get black men, or many black people in general, to come to our church or participate in our events. Can you help me understand why?” she asked.
I imagine there are multiple reasons why her congregation has not successfully reached black people, such as there may be a black church in the community that people feel better meets their needs.
But, there may be other reasons why. The answers that I offered her were based on my personal experiences as being the lone minority, or one of a handful, attending a white church or predominantly white event.
First, I know that when I enter into any space that is comprised primarily of white people, I am suspect as soon as I walk through the door.
What I mean is that people wonder who I am and what I’m doing there. They wonder what my intentions are.
This is evident in the uneasy looks that I receive, yes, even from white Christians, the half-hearted handshakes and roundabout questions that are asked in order to gauge my intentions.
A group is usually put at ease when they learn that I’m a seminary professor and pastor. This assures them that I’m safe, articulate, accessible and not the type of black man that they see on television participating in riots.
Second, my experience has typically been that when white churches and leaders communicate, it is at me and not with me.
What I mean is that when I’m engaged in conversation in a white context, it is done from the position that the white pastor or leader is the expert and I am the learner, regardless of the subject.
This is also reflected in how some whites view black church experiences. They describe black church life in emotional terms, while white church life is described in intellectual terms.
Black church is where people sing, shout and “feel” the Lord, while white church is where a person’s intellect is challenged, as if any of these things is exclusive of one another.
Third, my experience has been that black people are asked to come to whites, while whites do not necessarily come to us.
What I mean is that when a white congregation wants to build a relationship with a black person or church, we are asked to meet them at their facilities or their place of choice.
A black pastor described it this way. “White pastors always invite me to meet them at a Starbucks in the county. I understand that this is where they feel comfortable, but I don’t drink coffee and I don’t live or serve in the suburbs.”
My experiences are not unique. These types of things happen when any church or group attempts to interact with or build relationships with millennials, gays and lesbians, or any other people group that is different from them.
I have had the privilege of serving as the first African-American pastor of two historically white churches, one of which was started specifically to serve the spiritual needs of white Christians who lived in a particular area.
Although both churches learned to love people of all races and makeup, diversity did not necessarily come naturally.
More often than not, it is a conscious choice to invite and welcome people who are not just like the vast majority in the congregation.
The following are three simple suggestions to consider that may help people who are asking the same question that the woman asked me.
First, remember that when we are hesitant to interact with people who are different from you, whether those differences are based on race or any other identifying quality, it gives that person a reason to believe that they are not welcome or wanted.
When someone who is different walks through the door, be friendly, smile, shake their hand and make eye contact in order to let them know they are welcome.
Second, when trying to build relationships with people who are different from you, get out of your comfort zone.
Be willing to travel away from your safe spaces and enter into theirs.
Finally, communicate from a place of equality.
Don’t posture and enter into conversation from a place of intellectual authority. Instead, participate from the position of a learner who is being introduced to a new world.
My hope is that by implementing these types of ideas, diversity within our churches and denominations will continue to increase exponentially.
Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. His most recent book is “The Lord Gave Me This: Understanding Historic Leadership Development Practices of the Black Church to Prepare Tomorrow’s Leaders.” He is leading a series of webinars for Central that addresses how people of faith can help bridge racial divides within their communities. His writings also can be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.