As Christians, the second greatest commandment we've been given is to "love thy neighbor." And while most believers adhere to that principle, for the most part, it is important to remember that most Christians in America tend to live within neighborhoods where their neighbors look alike — that is, there is not much racial diversity.
This doesn't mean that folks are racist; it is merely a geographic, historic and/or social reality.
Likewise, Christians who live in homogenous neighborhoods also go to homogenous neighborhood churches. Churches in Harlem are going to look like Harlem neighborhoods, just as churches in the suburbs will look like those neighborhoods.
A recent Lifeway study found that 86% of churches have congregations that are predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group, and 79% of respondents said their congregations "look very similar to the people in the neighborhood."
What this means is that, if we are going to begin to resolve some of the racial discontent in this country, the notion of loving thy neighbor isn't enough — we need to do more.
The ultimate goal is unity.
In John 17, Jesus prays for unity among His followers so that "the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
Our credibility in the eyes of the world is expressed by our unity as believers. Racial unity starts with us. Our cities need a maturing and deepening of relationship and trust between diverse Christian leaders within the same city.
In order to begin to achieve unity, pastors and church attenders need to be intentional about building relationships across racial lines. Christians need to learn about different ethnic communities, and need to be empathetic and develop sensitivity to the challenges facing different communities.
The church must lead in these efforts. As an organization that trains Christian leaders in cities, I can say that it is very common for church leaders to have no idea what is going on in other churches in their own city or local area, especially if the neighboring churches have different racial makeups. This is not intentionally done; leaders instinctually focus upon their flock and do not consider the potential impact of co-pastoring their community in collaboration with other leaders.
Pastors must be compelled to proactively pursue relationships with churches that are different. People need to get to know one another so there can be unity and transformation of the common issues impacting communities — homelessness, underperforming education and injustice to name a few.
Some fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the most segregated hour in America is 11am on Sunday mornings, in the pews. In order for this to begin to change, Christian believers must become learners about different ethnic communities. They must become empathetic and develop sensitivity to the challenges facing different communities. Most importantly, Christians must become intentional about building relationships across lines that give expression to unity, which will lead to better race relations.