How Segregation Fueled the Evangelical Mega-Church Movement

His evangelical peers knew little of Soong-Chan's America, and their misunderstanding of his world underscored the depth of racial and economic splintering within evangelicalism. He learned that this divide was largely fueled by intentional racial partitioning by white religious leaders.
11/03/2015 10:37 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2016

The following is an edited excerpt from Deborah Jian Lee's new book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, available November 10.

In the 1990s, when evangelical race-relations expert Soong-Chan Rah attended seminary, he was the lone person of color in a class of white evangelical peers. During one discussion about poverty, he listened to his classmates speak disparagingly about "freeloaders," "welfare queens," and single mothers on food stamps who "exploited" the government.

Soong-Chan, the son of Korean immigrants, wanted to speak up about his single mother's backbreaking twenty-hour workdays and about how food stamps and the free lunch program for low-income kids helped him survive. But he said nothing. Instead, he quietly listened to his seminary classmates--future pastors--spew, as he called it, "vitriolic venom."

These peers knew little of Soong-Chan's America, and their misunderstanding of his world underscored the depth of racial and economic splintering within evangelicalism. Soong-Chan would soon learn that this divide was largely fueled by intentional racial partitioning by white religious leaders, a tactic that helped the white evangelical mega-church movement prosper.

The Homogenous Unit Principle
This tactic has a name - "the homogenous unit principle" - and it encourages churches to maximize growth by forming uniform communities. Missionary specialist Donald McGavran introduced this principle in his 1955 book The Bridges of God. The book lays the foundational concepts for what would become known as the "church growth movement," a pivotal evangelical expansion strategy that succeeded as a result of segregating the church by race and socio-economic status. "It does no good to say that tribal peoples ought not to have race prejudice," McGavran writes. "They do have it and are proud of it. It can be understood and should be made an aid to Christianization."

For decades evangelical seminaries have actively encouraged future ministers to employ the homogenous unit principle. A hunger for growth justified this initiative, explained Soong-Chan, who has studied this movement in the decades since seminary. He explained the reasoning this way: "It's easier to do evangelism with people who are like you. So if you look at Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Church, he actually identifies--these are the people we want." (Warren's Southern California mega-church, Saddleback, attracts about twenty-thousand people.) Soong-Chan pointed to a photo in Warren's book captioned "'Saddleback Sam'--Our Target" that portrays an educated, upper-class white man dressed in business casual attire, holding a cell phone to his ear. "The photo is about as blatant as it can be," said Soong-Chan. "That's the homogenous unit principle at work."

As a seminary student in the 1990s, Soong-Chan listened to his classmates excitedly talk about this principle, which dominated class discussions. Soong-Chan understood the need for some mono-ethnic churches, such as churches that catered to people who didn't speak English or to communities facing unique needs as immigrants. After all, as a young boy, Soong-Chan found faith at a Korean immigrant church. But he also saw how the homogenous unit principle was used for nefarious purposes--to justify white separatism and the benefits white communities reaped from turning a blind eye to inequality.

During his studies at seminary, Soong-Chan developed a very different vision for the evangelical community. As he saw it, evangelicals dominated the population. Their networks reached wide and their resources were abundant--they didn't need to segregate to grow. Multiethnic churches could serve various communities. They could also commit to racial and economic justice. And as a witness to the world, they could reflect Christian unity across cultural and economic divides. Multiethnic churches could do it all.

Multiethnicity: A History of Failed Attempts
Soong-Chan has pursued this vision for years alongside a growing number of evangelical leaders of color. And though American demographics are turning in their favor, they are working against generations of stymied attempts to integrate Christians of various races.

In the eighteenth century, when Christian clergy zealously sought new black converts, segregated seating quickly became the norm. In response, a subculture of black Christian faith emerged. Later, some leaders tried again to integrate believers. In the early 1880s, a white minister named Daniel S. Warner partnered with Julia A. J. Foote, an African Methodist Episcopal Church preacher, in leading revivals, which attracted white and black believers. Warner was a prominent leader in the Church of God movement, a nondenominational movement whose many leaders established biracial congregations across the country. But congregations split by race when, at the 1912 Church of God annual convention, white leaders encouraged black leaders to spearhead a separate event because white attendees did not want to attend a convention with so many African Americans present.

Of course, evangelicals do not own the market on racial conflict. Integration was and remains a problem for American society as a whole. In the Christian realm, every group, from Catholics to Pentecostals, experienced similar imploding events.

By the 1920s, roughly forty thousand pastors had become members of the Ku Klux Klan, bringing white supremacy to pulpits across America. Around the middle of the century, a handful of churches managed to maintain multiethnic congregations, but these were liberal outliers. African American activists tried to challenge the status quo. In the 1960s teams of mixed-race or black activists attempted to attend segregated white congregations, but were routinely turned away, arrested, or placed in separate seating.

White evangelicals not only participated in our country's larger racist patterns, but they also relied on them in order to attract more people to their churches in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, Peter Wagner gave new life to McGavran's homogenous unit principle with the release of his book Our Kind of People. The back cover sums up why this message held such great appeal to certain white evangelicals, explaining that the book "attacks the Christian guilt complex arising from the civil rights movement." Wagner argues breaking from this principle threatens "a higher rate of conversion growth." From there, the homogenous unit principle fueled the church growth movement, which caught fire and gave way to the megachurch landscape, single-ethnic congregations and churches catering to specific economic classes--and it established the massive evangelical base we know today.

Multiethnic future
Soong-Chan is entering the long legacy of leaders working against all odds to integrate evangelical churches. In the decades since seminary, he has established new churches, led his community in racial reconciliation and social justice initiatives, become a seminary professor, served on the board of major evangelical outfits, and traveled the country speaking about racial issues in the evangelical church.

Despite rising interest in multiethnic communities among mainstream evangelicals, Soong-Chan's hope for the future is tempered by worries that this growing initiative is rooted in a desire for membership growth instead of social justice.

After all, demographic changes suggest that minorities will soon make up the majority of the church. Soong-Chan absolutely believes that the American church must embrace diversity in order to survive, but at times he still feels uneasy about the way this is being done. Oftentimes, multiethnic initiatives still manage to omit real diversity--diversity of perspectives, of theology, of culture--especially at leadership levels.

Given evangelicalism's historical racial context, this kind of ornamental diversity leaves Soong-Chan wondering: "Are we (people of color) just being co-opted by the majority culture to simply advance the majority culture's agenda?" It's a question Soong-Chan and many evangelical leaders of color are asking. Together, they are actively working to write a stronger, more promising multiethnic future for the church. And how the broader community chooses to respond just may determine the future of evangelical racial unity.

Find out what Soong-Chan and other evangelical leaders of color are doing to reshape the evangelical movement.