Last modified: Jun 13, 2019

One time, my Sunday School teacher asked me why I don’t bring my friends to church. To my ethnocentric, uber-Indian, stuck-in-a-time-capsule-from-1970 church. I laughed. If I had been drinking a beverage, it would have come spurting out of my nose like a TV show caricature à la The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. It was that ridiculous a proposition.

The truth was, my church — like a lot of ethnocentric churches — talked a big game about being for the community around us. It just wasn’t authentic.

I explore that idea a bit in this piece — after talking to friends and leaders who have done things the right way.


Uncomfortable, Rocky, Challenging

My wife and I lived in Harlem for about a year, and we were lucky enough to live on 125th Street — a few doors down from the hallowed Apollo Theater. It wasn’t lost on us that, at some point in history, African-American legends of both past and present had walked our block to get to the cultural landmark.

Adelaide Hall. Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. Malcolm X. Richard Pryor. Ray Charles. Aretha Franklin.

Now, Charles and Rachel Samuel?

popping a collar

It was pretty cool living on our block.

There were other critical stops nearby that, as New Yorkers, we valued tremendously: a Whole Foods, a good deli, and an H&M (my wife is a fiend).

Oh, and there was also a local movie theater: the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem.

Let me tell you about this movie theater.

Of all the movie theaters in New York, we happened to live near my least favorite one.

Why was it my least favorite?

First of all: it had no reclining seats. I still shudder when I think about that. In fact, I’m shuddering now as I’m typing this. My back is starting to hurt.

Additionally, the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem theater was comically understaffed, kept in pretty poor condition, and was way too rowdy for a truly serious moviegoer. And that last part is a feature, not a bug — when it came down to more racially-charged or black-themed movies they showed. If you were gonna watch a movie like 2018’s The Hate U Give in Harlem, you had to prepare for a lot of audience participation in the theater.

There’s something authentic and beautiful about that last point. If you wanted a capsule-sized dose of Harlem’s frenetic, fantastic energy, you’d find it in bursts at this theater. (It’s just not so great when you’re like me and you want to watch a movie in silence.)

My wife and I watched The Hate U Give in this theater. (And she’s pretty demonstrative, so she got into the action, too.)

As the movie played, the action on the big screen ebbed and flowed like the energy from the audience around us. The suspenseful moments were met with nervous popcorn-eating, the poignant moments were met with thoughtful silence, and the lighter moments were met with hearty howls and laughs.

There was one moment in particular that I remember.

The lead character, Starr, was bringing her prep school romance home to meet her father, a reformed ex-gangbanger named Maverick. There are just two problems:

  • She lives in a very traditional black neighborhood with her family
  • Her father doesn’t know she’s dating anybody

Oh, and her boyfriend is white.

So, three problems.

Three. Huge. Problems.

Here’s the entire scene if you want to watch it later:

Initially, as Starr walks into the house with her guy, the audience reacted much like Maverick does onscreen, with a sort of reserved hostility stirred into a steaming bowl of indignation soup. Starr shouldn’t be with this dude.

And then he asks the question that everybody in the theater was thinking (at around 2:14 in that YouTube clip).

“You got a white boyfriend?”

There was absolute hysteria in the theater, y’all.

Everybody. Was. Cracking. Up.

To understand the actual importance of this specific scene, you have to disconnect from the Harlem theater reaction and peel the onion of its layers. Judging by just the reaction from that line, you’d think this scene was just some white-boy-hating hilarity.

But it’s not.

It may even feel like a light scene, but it’s meant to be a little heavier.

The scene isn’t even really about a black dad who doesn’t want his black daughter to date a white dude. Nothing is ever that simple in a story this well-crafted.

When you watch the film, you realize there’s a quiet depth to Maverick, and he reacts like he does because his instinct is to protect his baby girl from the vitriol and venom of racism. Even in the 21st century, people are not ready for this relationship.

His incredulity at that moment is funny, but also sincere.

This isn’t merely about not wanting his family associated with this white boy; it stemmed from a deeper fear of how racism can tear lovers, people, and entire communities apart.

His daughter lived on the wrong side of town; the boy lived on the other side of town. One group would disapprove of her; the other would disapprove of him.

This wasn’t some rose-colored glasses world where everybody would go frolicking into the happily ever after together.

He knew that there were real fears to take into account.

This was not going to end well, and it felt like, in this moment playing out on screen, he was the only one who was weighed down by the actual gravity of this.

“You got a white boyfriend?”

Maverick knew that in their world — in their contexts — this relationship wasn’t “normal.” It was going to be uncomfortable. And rocky. And challenging.

We laughed because the scene felt funny.

But, really, the scene was about fear.

food spilled on carpet

Holy Trifecta of Grossness

Fear, on a psychological level, is a critical factor in decision-making. Fear is basically our minds taking inventory of all of the danger and risk we face, which we then create bespoke solutions around to help us survive or develop.

In other words, fear informs our behavior.

Take, for example, somebody who fears going broke or going paycheck-to-paycheck. This person may avoid those pitfalls by choosing not to spend frivolously, living below their means, and unsubscribing from Amazon Prime because it entices them to buy way too many coffee table books for one lifetime.

(I feel personally attacked by that last example.)

Or take, for example, me. I grew up in an attached house in The Bronx, and — through no fault of my family’s — had to learn to step over mice, roaches, and ants every so often. (And we were a pretty “clean” family.)

You have no idea how much I still shiver when I think about mice, roaches, and ants.

Or, the Holy Trifecta of Grossness, as I like to call it. (I don’t actually call it that, but I could. It’s a debilitating fear.)

And so, my wife has learned that my fear of infestations has manifested in borderline neurotic behavior around the house: I am crazy about keeping the house spotless.

I will do the dishes every day so nothing ever piles up. I will clean the counters. I will vacuum. (She cleans the bathroom because I’m a massive wimp about that, and she’s a better person than I am.)

But I do all this because, deep down, I don’t want my family to ever have to step over mice, or roaches, or ants. I will do my part in keeping them away as much as I can.

And you’ll notice this if you ever come over to visit. If something spills on the rug, I’ll run like a bat out of hell to my impressive (and growing) collection of spill-eradicating liquid spray products, find the appropriate one for the surface in question, and blast the hell out of the stain before it ever gets a chance to set.

You’d think I’m insane.

But I don’t care, because you won’t see mice, roaches, or ants. And that’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

This brings me to my larger point.

It’s true that fear informs our behavior. But, our behavior also reveals our values.

If all you ever knew about me was that anytime you came over to our clean and minimal-aesthetic home to play Codenames with friends, I was running around to stamp out a few wine stains off the carpet, you’d think I valued keeping the house tidy. You’d be right.

If all we ever knew about somebody was that they lived below their means and didn’t spend too much on frivolous things, we’d think they valued being disciplined with their spending. We’d be right.

This is true for people — but it's true for organizations, too. Fear informs behavior, and behavior reveals values.Click To Tweet

To gauge a person’s or organization’s authenticity, then, you’d ask two questions:

  • How does their behavior stack up with their stated values?
  • How does their behavior aim to solve for a fear?

It’s simple enough when people or organizations behave consistently and honestly.

But what if, after telling you I genuinely hated seeing mice, roaches, and ants around the house, I chose to behave like a slob anyway?

What if an organization behaved so inconsistently that you couldn’t figure out what values it truly stood for?

What happens when churches confuse the hell out of us?

man winking at camera

Wink-Wink Christianity

I grew up in a pretty homogeneous church environment.

It was hard to miss. Everybody looked the same and spoke the same language. If somebody who didn’t look like us or speak our language visited the church, we’d know.

Oh, we’d know.

Sometimes, guests would also be brown — but just a different shade of brown than the rest of us. Often, they’d have other indicators to let us know they were an “Other” — they’d wear jewelry, they’d have tattoos, or they’d be wearing clothes that looked less than and not equal to our own lofty Sunday Best standards.

(In case you’re wondering — I’ve asked around for years if anybody has a hard copy of these Sunday Best standards, but nobody seems to have a pamphlet lying around. Darn.)

In a lot of ways, a lot of ethnocentric churches operate under a sort of “Wink-Wink Christianity.” It’s pretty close to actual Christianity, but not quite the real thing.

It looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, but it's really just a pigeon with a sore throat.Click To Tweet

On the surface, ethnocentric churches often do a lot of the right things to knock off items on a Christianity checklist. Growing up, my church made sure to mention “Jesus” X amount of times from the pulpit on Sunday, they scheduled a gazillion prayer meetings during the week, they’d have us distribute tracts to the neighborhood every once in a while, and they’d be cool with non-Indian people showing up (on occasion) to our services.

You know — Christianity. Wink-wink.

Under the guise of being Christian, a lot of churches really don’t embrace the world like Christ. Growing up in a largely ethnocentric church universe, my church didn’t. At least not authentically.

On occasion, we’d have a non-Indian family or individual that showed up to our church.

And we’d be nice to them, sure. We’d open the doors, point them to our pews, hand them the up-to-date leaflet on the goings-on at the church.

But it’d feel almost like a circus. Like we were putting these “Others” on display and then touting some sort of Ethnocentric Church Badge of Honor.

Stop me if you’ve heard any of these phrases.

“That white family came to church this morning.”

“The North Indian guy came to our tarry meeting.”

“The Spanish doctor friend from work is coming to church this week, and he’s bringing his mother.”

They were — wink-wink — totally welcome to show up… just as long they didn’t start dating one of our daughters.

woman unsure how to respond

While there’s an understanding that pews should be filled with members of the community — even those who look and live differently — there’s an inherent worry of what would happen if we begin to love too much.

Or empathize too much.

Or commiserate too much.

Or try to understand too much.

Those worries become hilariously obvious when you ask — like I have — why ethnocentric churches tend to shy away from truly pursuing a multi-cultural vision: “We don’t want our kids marrying outside of our culture.”

My parents have said some version of this before. So have pastors. So have friends. So have relatives.

I’ve asked around, and it’s a root cause of a lot of inherent limitations homogeneous churches unwittingly place on themselves.

If it seems silly, that’s because it is. But there’s some merit.

Without getting into the history of legality and appropriateness of interracial marriage in the United States, and without getting into the bad theology of being unequally yoked with other people, here’s the reality: truly loving people can be uncomfortable.

It’s easy to give your church pals high-fives. It’s harder to carry their burdens and do life with them.

It’s easier to bring flowers to a funeral than soup to somebody who’s sick.

For many ethnocentric churches, the unspoken mandate to preserve culture trumps the charge to reach community.Click To Tweet

It’s why bringing that white dude to a Sunday service at your Indian church is okay. But the moment he starts getting too close to any of the girls his age, it’s time to pull the plug on this whole operation.

That could lead to romance, which could lead to a relationship, which could lead to marriage… And how would we explain this “unequal yoke” to everybody?

It’s absurd, but the fear is real.

A lot of churches kinda want to do life with community, but getting too close is just uncalled for.

I refer to girls here in this example (or somebody getting too close to the girls at church), but I could have just as easily mentioned boys instead. The typical patriarchal leaning of many ethnocentric churches — especially in Asian circles — makes the former a tougher pill to swallow than the latter.

But was this all just about actually dating people? Or was there something else about truly embracing community that makes this uncomfortable?

We’d plan homeless ministries to — wink-wink — get needy people back on their feet… but we weren’t quite ready for a homeless, tattooed single mother-of-two to start attending our church every Sunday.

We’d plan mission trips to Haiti so — wink-wink — we could help build houses and care for basic medical needs… but we silently cheer when our Christian political heroes bashed their voodoo-loving, nation-infesting, shithole ways.

As long as we checked some boxes, we were Christian enough to get to heaven someday.

jim halpert looking super awkward

Growing up, I understood that my church was going to play a game of pretend and that it was my job to learn the limits of this game. I became proficient at learning the unspoken barriers to entry for anybody we deemed to be the Others.

And I believe this dissonance is what turns people away from church.

Ethnocentric churches tell us they value community. But then they behave in mostly self-aggrandizing ways, which makes you wonder if they actually value what they say they do. And they’re often fueled by a fear that they don’t really want to admit being crippled by… which further makes you wonder what their true values are.

Ever wonder why millennials leave church?

Or what’s the deal with dying churches?

Churches don't die because of termites hiding behind pillars and under pulpits. Usually, it's because of the pillars and pulpits themselves — the former with nothing to hold up and the latter with nothing to stand on.Click To Tweet

But because of this game of pretend, ethnocentric churches — or, really, any churches that are effectively dying — never tell us the truth about what it is they fear.

And so it’s hard to take their stated values seriously.

Authentic Organizations

Another way to think about the connection between fear, behavior, and value is to consider an organization’s mission and vision.

An organization is usually trying to solve a problem or meet a need. In other words, they’re combating a fear. In the day-to-day, their mission statement reflects how they choose to combat this fear (or solve this problem… or meet this need). And in the long-term, their vision statement reflects what they want the world to look like once they’ve combated this fear (or solved this problem… or met this need).

When we think of authentic organizations, they're usually the ones we can point to and say: What they say they're about lines up with what they actually do.Click To Tweet

Furthermore, authentic organizations tie their vision and mission statements to a real problem.

Wink-Wink Christianity? Not so much. There’s a stated set of values, and then a set of behaviors that seem to match up… but only up to a certain point.

Growing up, my church was indirectly saying: people are free to come to our church, show up to our events, be in our newsletters, be in our photos… but dating one of our church girls is a big no-no.

I was 10, and I knew that was messed up.

woman approving sarcastically

For ethnocentric churches stuck in Wink-Wink Christianity quicksand, there’s an overriding belief that they must hide their fears, behave by doing a lot of pretending, and somehow that will show the world what they value is worth subscribing to.

What it does instead makes people scratch their heads.

We see this when the Indian church in a Spanish-speaking community opens their doors to the community… to teach the kids Malayalam songs instead of something more useful for their community’s reality.

We see this when the Haitian church considers removing the “Haiti” in their church’s name in an effort to be more inclusive… without being open to the idea of new folks in the community filling board, leadership, or teaching positions.

“When we say all are welcome but then act as if only insiders are really welcome, we’re perpetuating the church’s unfortunate reputation for hypocrisy.”
Pastor Angela Denker

So what aren’t these churches telling us?

What do these churches really fear?

Is it interracial marriage? I know I keep bringing up the “marrying our daughters” trope, but… naw, it’s gotta be deeper than that.

… Right?

What Do They Fear?

Consider two important stats about churches in America:

  • 65% of churches are declining or have plateaued
  • 49% of communities don’t see a positive impact from their local churches

The data tell us that, whether we want to admit it or not, some churches are dying and some churches don’t really impact their neighboring communities.

A lot of ethnocentric churches struggle with the latter while not being honest about the former.

But what do they fear, really? Can we even pinpoint that?

Turns out — we can.

I’ve written about the symptoms of dying churches before.

Dying churches typically fear the same thing: change.

This takes on additional layers of complication for ethnocentric churches already steeped in substrata of culture-flaunting practices and phyletism (or conflating the future and success of one ethnic or linguistic group with the future and success of the Church as a whole). If their own culture is inherently better anyway — and already has been for all this time — why mess with the status quo?

So the contexts of that homeless, tattooed single mother-of-two who just started attending could make things uncomfortable.

And the contexts of that broken Haitian family from down the street could make things rocky.

And the contexts of that gay Christian attending mid-week prayer meetings could make things challenging.

All of those contexts feel somewhat gross if all you’ve ever considered valuable is your own culture.

In ethnocentric churches, true change means tearing down the sacred cows that have served as reminders of how things have always been and moving towards how things should be.Click To Tweet

It’s incredibly unnerving.

Imbuing authenticity, though, means acting with consistency regarding the values you stand for.

Or, at least, the values you say you stand for.

mockup of tree in field going through change

Embrace and Learn

In general, change is important. Especially for churches.

Churches often get stuck where they are because they assume they can continue to grow without much effort — that their legacy or their preaching style is enough, first, to draw neighbors and, then, more importantly, to make them stick.

But like Liquid Church’s Pastor Tim Lucas says, churches should proudly shout from the rooftops: “Our message never changes but our methods must.”

You’ve got to change. Or die.

The problem with Wink-Wink Christianity — or rather, the problem with pretenses — is that churches begin to believe their own hype. They begin to think they’re making inroads in their communities while they’re really just boarding up their church windows so nobody sees what they’re scared of.

They pretend to change but are actually dying from all the pretending.

It’s easy to blame churches and organizations that behave wildly out of touch with reality. To some degree, we all resist what we fear. We all have ugly fears we don’t want people to know about.

There’s an overweight, bullied kid in a lot of gym-rat adults who can’t stand being overweight ever again.

There’s a passive, stepped-all-over kid in a lot of overbearing bosses who can’t stand to be overlooked ever again.

We’re all afraid of something. And it makes us behave in certain ways. And it seeps through into what we value.

But churches can’t afford to pretend — especially when they’re basing their behavior on irrational fears.

They must, instead, embrace. And learn.

Pastor Joon Choi, Lead Pastor of San Francisco Bay Christian Fellowship, says it’s hard baking in time to get to know the community they’re planted in. But he makes it — what he calls — his “personal priority” to visit at least one new event or function happening every week in his church’s community.

“I have seldom regretted visiting the local key events or functions which I deemed vital or important. This has led to an increased awareness of the needs within the various social, community, economic constituencies.”
Pastor Joon Choi

Thankfully, for all the pretending that happens at ethnocentric churches, I have friends who are trying to lead their churches toward positive change. And it took them a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get there — but they had to be honest with themselves, first, that change was scary… and necessary.

In some of these churches, they’ve had to lighten the dress code from traditional ethnic garb to more contemporary wear. They’ve had to train personable greeters and invest in marketing — from handouts to new member gift baskets to scheduled follow-up conversations.

And they’ve learned a lot — from grappling with how the church responds to mental health to how to be sensitive to topics they weren’t necessarily sensitive to before.

They realized — unlike a lot of leaders who are still grappling with their circumstances: you’re either authentic or you’re not.

small plants growing in garden

Could They Stay?

A recent Gallup poll found that 71% of millennials who understand both an organization’s purpose and vision say they plan to stick around with that organization.

This applies to workplaces, to charities… and even to churches.

And it’s not just millennials. In general, people crave to be a part of something authentic.

But it’s gotta be actually authentic.

As a kid, if you had asked me to bring a friend to my ethnocentric church, I would have laughed in your face.

Hell no. Are you kidding me? They weren’t good enough to visit. And they certainly weren’t Malayalee enough to belong.

I still know people in ethnocentric churches who would laugh if you asked them the same question today. Their churches, unfortunately, don’t feel enough like a “home” for people who don’t look like they do or have the same contexts as they have.

The question you have to ask yourself is: Do you want to be a part of a church that doesn’t feel like a place of hope for anybody who needs it?

More importantly: Could they stay?

A lot of ethnocentric churches grapple in this tension between focusing on phyletism on one hand and embracing the complexities of the local community on the other.

The challenge is in figuring out whether the solution is just dropping the “India” from the church name to solve a need. Or setting up a cool summer block party. Or doing a one-off event where you partner with a community organization. Or looking super dope on the ‘gram.

The uncomfortable solutions look more like teaching the Spanish-speaking kids from the majority-Spanish-speaking community some songs in their native tongue to show them God loves them.

And finding ways to have long-lasting partnerships in the community that go beyond one-off events.

And building roadmaps for inclusion that eventually add members of the community to teaching, board, and leadership posts in the church.

“The churches that connect with their community will be the churches willing enough to try a variety of things, and who also have the courage to kill them as soon as they stop producing results.”
Pastor Carey Nieuwhof

Nobody’s saying any of this is easy. I have heart palpitations every time I see a drop of salsa hit the rug. But I’m consistent with my anal-retentive cleaning neuroses because I genuinely value having the discipline it takes to maintain a clean home.

It’s important for churches and organizations to care about the consistency and relevance of their values and behavior, and it’s up to leaders to figure out how to navigate the necessary tensions.

Are you willing to go think across generations, across genders, and across cultures to round out your church — especially in its teaching, board, and leadership posts? It goes a long way. And it’s harder said than done.

Some will figure it out, and their churches will succeed for it.

Others won’t, and their churches will die.

How badly do you want to love your community?

Or is it all just pretend? ■