Oh those diverse, integrated evangelicals!

colors pewsLet’s make another trip into that massive GetReligion Guilt file in my computer. I kept trying to write something about this one while I was in Prague, but never got to it.

There is so much that one can say about this recent New York Times feature story by Warren St. John. Frankly, I am surprised that more people did not write me about it.

We all like to take our shots at the Times, for obvious reasons. I doubt that will end anytime soon. However, it is also crucial to praise this giant for the amazing work done by its talented reporters, as well as harp about its struggles to understand life out in the Red Zones.

Well, folks, you don’t get any redder than Clarkson, Ga., and the Clarkson International Bible Church. So it’s important when the most powerful newspaper in the world prints a lede like this one about life in a Southern Baptist congregation:

When the Rev. Phil Kitchin steps into the pulpit of the Clarkston International Bible Church on Sunday mornings, he stands eye to eye with the changing face of America. In the pews before him, alongside white-haired Southern women in their Sunday best, sit immigrants from the Philippines and Togo, refugees from war-scarred Liberia, Ethiopia and Sudan, even a convert from Afghanistan.

“Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations,” Mr. Kitchin likes to say. “So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”

And it is even more important when the reporter gets to follow that lede with the following information, which is not new — but it sure as heckfire is new to most of the readers of the New. York. Times. I am reminded of a series of stories in a mainline Protestant publication about 20 years ago that noted that the most racially diverse congregations in America could be found in (a) the Roman Catholic Church, (b) the Assemblies of God and (c) the Southern Baptist Convention. The reporter’s mainline Protestant editors were not amused.

So this is hot stuff. You may need to sit down before you read the following. Ready?

The Clarkston International Bible Church, which sits along an active freight rail line down the road from the former Ku Klux Klan bastion of Stone Mountain, is now home to parishioners from more than 15 countries. The church also houses congregations of Ethiopians, Sudanese, Liberians and French West Africans who worship separately, according to their own traditions. The church’s Sunday potluck lunch features African stews and Asian vegetable dishes alongside hot dogs, sweet tea and homemade cherry pie.

The transformation of what was long known as the Clarkston Baptist Church speaks to a broader change among other American churches. Many evangelical Christians who have long believed in spreading their religion in faraway lands have found that immigrants offer an opportunity for church work within one’s own community. And many immigrants and refugees are drawn by the warm welcome they get from the parishioners, which can stand in stark contrast to the more competitive and alienating nature of workaday America.

Indeed, evangelical churches have begun to stand out as rare centers of ethnic mixing in a country that researchers say has become more culturally fragmented, in part because of immigration.

Wait! Wait! There’s more! We get to link this to Harvard!

So repeat after me. The following information is from Harvard, brought to you care of The New York Times.

A recent study by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam underscored the practical complications of diversity. In interviews with 30,000 Americans, the study found that residents of more diverse communities “tend to withdraw from collective life,” voting less and volunteering less than those in more homogeneous communities.

The study noted a conspicuous exception. “In many large evangelical congregations,” the researchers wrote, “the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed.”

This is a complex story and it talks about the hard times as well as the good.

But there are lots of Southern Baptist leaders who ought to be calling or writing the Times to praise this story. If I was with the communications department at the Baptist Vatican in Nashville, I would literally put someone on an airplane and have them fly to the Big Apple for a follow-up meeting. There would be much to talk about, believe me.

Or has the Times opened a Nashville bureau? It could happen.

Can I get a witness?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, it’s an excellent feature story. Thanks for posting it. It’s so good that I’ll even forgive its brief but totally unnecessary and misleading foray into politics:

    While an outspoken advocate for diversity within his church, Mr. Perrin is quick to point out that he is no liberal. He voted twice for President Bush.

    One other minor concern is the implication that older folks who left the church recently did so because they don’t want to worship with people of other races and ethnicities. The church has made a lot of changes, including tossing all hymns in favor of everybody’s favorite, praise music. Whenever you make fundamental changes to a worship service, you are going to lose long-time members. And when your stated reason is to attract people from other nations, you are going to get resentment about putting the wants of “foreigners” ahead of those of long-time members.

    Overall, though, it’s a top-notch piece from the NYT.

  • Jerry

    Psychology has shown that rewarding good behavior engenders more good behavior. So I do agree – praise where praise is due.

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  • John

    I thought this was a great piece as well.

    One thing:

    “Well, folks, you don’t get any redder than Clarkson, Ga., and the Clarkson International Bible Church.”

    What is your definition of red? Sounds like a very blue area to me. This is DeKalb County in Georgia. A quick Google search told me that it went overwhelmingly for Kerry in 2004 (74,000 to 200,000). And Clarkston itself looks more like Queens in NYC (or any other immigrant urban area) in its make-up than most counties in Georgia (the Clarkston City Council reflects this, too). Evangelical, maybe, but I wonder how red this city, county, and church are.