Grading religion writers involves evaluating their work on stories both simple and complex. I always offer extra credit to those enterprising and creative journalists who seek out important stories that transcend today’s headlines. That’s why TIME’s David Van Biema gets a gold star for his 2,400-word piece, “The Color of Faith.”
Race has been a difficult issue for Christians since the time of the Apostles. Today, most of us might wish for the beautiful vision described in the song:
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
But we have largely settled for the much sadder reality described by Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the most segregated hour in America was from eleven to twelve on Sunday morning.
Here in Colorado, where evangelical parachurch organizations grow like the Columbine flower, efforts to transcend racial barriers have met with greater (Promise Keepers) and lesser (Focus on the Family) success.
Van Biema turns his attention to a Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, the suburban megachurch that was America’s most influential congregation before Rick Warren and Saddleback came along. The story shows how Willow Creek’s founding pastor Bill Hybels has worked “to aggressively welcome minorities to his lily-white congregation.”
Van Biema mixes personal stories and national statistics in his powerful story:
Despite the growing desegregation of most key American institutions, churches are still a glaring exception….It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings–and those most safely beyond the law’s reach–remain color-coded.
But in some churches, the racial divide is beginning to erode, and it is fading fastest in one of American religion’s most conservative precincts: Evangelical Christianity. According to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University, the proportion of American churches with 20% or more minority participation has languished at about 7.5% for the past nine years. But among Evangelical churches with attendance of 1,000 people or more, the slice has more than quadrupled, from 6% in 1998 to 25% in 2007.
Call it the desegregation of the megachurches–and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith.
Willow Creek remains influential, in part because of its Willow Creek Association of 12,000 churches, which fills the role denominations formerly played for many churches. Van Biema shows us what Hybels and Willow Creek have successfully done–and have not yet done–on their long and challenging journey to desegregation.
The light went on for Hybels in 1999 after he read Michael Emerson’s book, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” and realized:
…that racism is “not just an individual issue but a justice issue” with “structural and [systemic] aspects” violating dozens of biblical admonitions. “I went from thinking ‘I don’t have a race problem’ to ‘There is a huge problem in our world that I need to be part of resolving.’”
The catch was that “I hadn’t [preached] about it in 24 years.”
Willow Creek hasn’t yet achieved King’s dream of a color-blind society. This reality is most apparent to church members who note “that Hybels never promoted a nonwhite member to a pulpit pastorship or senior staff position at the main Willow campus.”
But as he closes his story in a mixed-race Willow Creek Sunday school classroom, Van Biema eloquently gives credit where credit is due:
Here, today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation about Sunday school is finally refuted. In one room of one huge church striving to do the right thing, the harmony of His kingdom has already arrived.