Special Assignment: Separate Worship

By: Jonathan Martin
By: Jonathan Martin

We've all heard it: 11 am each Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, due to racial division in churches.

In a Special Assignment, News 12's Jonathan Martin looks at reasons for the separation and what can be done to bridge the gap.

It's a subject many say is ignored far too often.

Many churches pride themselves as places of unity.

But racial unity is rarely seen in the pews and pulpits on Sundays.

And as you'll see, the answer to why there is segregation is fairly complex.

Worship services at Augusta's Macedonia Baptist Church and First Baptist Church are strikingly different.

But as different as the two churches are, they and most churches share one thing in common: their congregations are primarily one race.

"It does bother me that we are more segregated on Sunday morning than any other time of the week," says Gregory Fuller. He's pastor at Macedonia, one of Augusta's larger historically black churches.

Fuller points to a difference in music and preaching styles as a main reason for Sunday segregation. He says problems begin when one group thinks the way they worship is the only way to worship.

"The curse is in the attitude that we take, that it has to be done my way--if the worship is not done the way African Americans do it, then it's not real worship," he says.

Pastor Greg Deloach of First Baptist agrees that traditional styles are the big reason for separate worship. He says that while his church has gained some minority members over the years, establishing a colorful congregation can be difficult.

"We cannot be all things to all people," he says. "That has no racial overtones, it just means we have to make decisions every single time."

And then there's the issue of acceptance. Many have visited churches where they were the minority...but it's often just a one-time visit.

Pastor Fuller says there's a reason.

"I've been in some Caucasian churches where when I walked in, you could tell I was not really wanted."

"The mentality of if an African American comes in and worships, we all look and say, 'That's odd, that's different, we don't see that as much'," Deloach says.

A recent study at the University of North Texas found prejudice and racism are the main reasons for church segregation.

The study found people of color often look at church as a place of refuge so that they can escape from whites.

And it also found whites are more likely to leave a church that is becoming racially diverse when they have children of dating age because of fear of interracial dating.

"If we had true love for one another, there would not be that separation," says bishop L.A. Green. Green is president of the CSRA Clergy board of directors, a group of local pastors of all races and denominations. He says for an answer to why there's racial division, look no further than the pulpit.

"We have some black pastors that will not socialize with whites, and we have some white pastors that will not socialize with blacks, and they both have failed to understand that God has no color in heaven."

Green says too often, preachers are delivering the wrong types of messages.

"We can't preach color, we can't preach race, we can't preach nationality. We've got to preach Christ," he says.

But if there's a church that has been able to overcome struggles and integrate, it's Augusta's New Hope Worship Center.

"I don't think we have what you would be able to categorize as a white or black or red or yellow worship, we just simply worship," says pastor Bryan Cockrell.

From the choir to the crowd, you'll see a potpourri of people praising and worshipping.

But this didn't happen overnight. Cockrell credits years of prayer.

"I don't believe there's a color to a soul," he says. "A soul is either washed in the blood of Jesus, or it's not."

And Cockrell has an interesting story. Growing up, his father was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Cockrell says that after coming to know the Lord, he realized the importance of Christians being leaders in racial reconciliation.

"There should be unity in the body of Christ that should be an example for the rest of the community to see and to follow," Cockrell says. "And sometimes, we haven't set a real good example of that in church."

Several religious researchers have found over 90 percent of churches are racially segregated. What will it take to bridge the gap, and will it ever be done?

"I think churches of all stripes also have to look at ministries that are particularly intentional and will reach people," Deloach says.

"There will certainly always be division, folks that will always be comfortable in that," says Cockrell.

"We're going to be this way here until Jesus comes," Green says. "The reason why is, you're going to have pastors forever learning, but not coming into the knowledge of truth."

Some researchers believe there will always be church segregation, because unlike schools--and even sometimes the workplace--in churches, there is no mandate or law that can force people to come together.

Still, there is definitely a change from 20 years ago.

Some churches have tried what they call "pulpit swapping", where a preacher from a predominantly white congregation will go preach in a black church and vise-versa. Some say that's a start...but others disagree, saying it seems like "faking it" for a week.

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