Monday, February 7, 2011

Coming to Terms with a "Bad" Demographic Hand

We are an almost-all white church in the midst of a predominantly African-American City, in the weird position of being "Majority-Minorities" --18% in fact, by recently released census data. Jackson is 80% African-American, and I am as white as God made white folk. Our worship is as white, vanilla Presbyterian as one might expect from a fifty year old mostly-white congregation.

18% and not headed towards 19%, if you get my drift.

I am at two distinct disadvantages on the topic of race. First, it is really hard to be white and talk about race. Second, it is really hard to be Northern and talk about race in the Deep South.

Let me say from the first, from my white Yankee vantage point, racism in any meaningful sense is not an issue among our church. Trinity has been integrated in the past, and we have a few African-American members and visitors, and they have told me again and again how loved and accepted they have been by the congregation. One of them says, over and over again, "These people are my family." Another says, over and over, "I feel so loved at Trinity." These things warm the cockles of this pastor's heart.

The census data do not show, however, a larger troubling trend. It is not just that whites have largely left Jackson. African-American families that have the means to leave, are leaving too, to Rankin County, by and large, where schools are good and streets are safe. It's not wrong to want those things.

Our suburban congregations are burgeoning. First Presbyterian, the mother church of local Presbyterianism, remains several-thousand strong, with excellent preaching and teaching. A few of us are caught in between First Church and suburbia. Demographers would call this an undesirable thing. Praise God that Jesus is not a demographer.

Humanly speaking, we are at what demographers would call a "disadvantage." A white church in a black city. A wealthy church surrounded by poverty. An educated church in an area blighted by educational breakdown.

We are here by God's grace, and his plan. It would be an easy thing not to be here. Yet, as Piper says, God calls the Christian to move away from comfort and towards pain. But, I'm tired today, and I don't really want to move towards the pain all the time.

It is not always easy to see what this looks like. What does it require of us? Placing our children in failing schools? It is hard to see how that would be a good thing. We can work for a brighter day when people could live in the city and be involved in the schools in an incarnational way, but I just don't see it happening in the current mass bureaucracy of the Public Schools. We need parochial schools or charter schools or something that would serve as an option for parents of whatever income level who desire something better for their kids.

So, what do we do?

First, we are here, so we minister here. This may mean no growth, and even further diminishing. Some people will continue to move where life is (supposedly) easier. Churches in neater communities, closer to home, where community life is perceived to be easier. God bless them. I, for one, am glad to be part of a church where the homeless have been welcomed with open arms. I wish that had continued, and hope maybe God will bring us some again.

Second, many of us suburbanites will continue to feel guilty for living at some remove from the issues of Jackson. I do. If I didn't have kids, I would be in this city. Yet, our guilt should not stop us from caring for the city. As the city goes, so goes the metro.

Third, we can change what we do, but not who we are, at root. Churches have a DNA. Moreover, we have convictions about why we do what we do. We can change our approach to the outside world (and approach it more) but must never think that better music, downplaying convictions, or any sort of selling out will bring about real kingdom growth.

Fourth, we strive to show tangible acts of love and mercy in the name of Christ. We do not have the luxury of withdrawing in our walls. We need to be proactive in this city. We need to reach out to those who are lost, no matter how different we perceive them to be, or they perceive us to be. We must do this, not as superiors out of noblesse oblige but rather as ontological equals who have internalized Ephesians 2, "We are no better..." We are beggars telling where we have found bread.

Fifth, we must pray that God would flourish us as his kingdom is to flourish. No, scratch that. First, we must pray. First, we must pray. Ask and ye shall receive. Are you asking God to build his kingdom in this difficult place? God is glorified in doing impossible things. Let's ask him to do the hard thing through us here.


  1. Ken, I appreciate this informative and thought-provoking article. My head must have been in the sand to not realize Jackson's demographics are 80/20! I have been thinking along the lines of 60/40.

    You make some good points. Regarding maintaining a healthy, vital church in spite of demographics I like your comment, "Praise God that Jesus is not a demographer".

  2. Until the conservative churches start confronting "the easy life" that has become not just accepted but expected amongst middle-class and wealthy conservatives, they will continue to slip further from the biblical model of a church. Life isn't easy. The Christian life is even less easy. No, I can't say "God bless them" to Christians who consciously move away from trouble instead of confronting it as salt and light in the world. Where is the love for one's neighbor that is the second commandment? How can my neighborhood confront crime when people keep moving out of it?

    There is much talk in the conservative world about the horrors of passing on debt to our children, but by moving away from trouble instead of dealing with it and demonstrating Christ to the city, all we are doing is passing down the same problem to the next generation. Look at the first suburbs around Jackson, the true white flight suburbs. They are now on the decline. The next suburbs, still feeling confident and on the ascendancy, are next. Madison itself will be declining within the next 15 years if the historical trends stay on course. Just in time for all those kids who had such idyllic childhoods and never faced a community problem to have to deal with. What will be their solution? Abandon ship, move out, leaving all those rich suburban church campuses feeling bereft and wondering how in the world it could have happened. Anyone who doesn't think this could happen to Madison has only to look at W. Capitol in Jackson, which 60 years ago was the Madison of its day and today is one of the most hopeless cases of abandonment.

    I also think conservative churches have come to use the term "blight" and "city" so often that it's not worthwhile anymore. Yes, Jackson has blight. But that's material. Let's talk about the blight of the suburbs, which is pride and arrogance and the rich young ruler and the man who decided to build bigger barns to hold all his riches. These are spiritual blights, and isn't that what the church is supposed to be getting to the heart of? Isn't the drug addict who knows he is a sinner and can't save himself closer to God's salvation than the rich or middle-class person who has built his dream house and had no need of anything, including God? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. That verse is a condemnation of the "easy life."