Back to Top

Integration Fatigue

I visited a young and energetic African American church located in south suburban Chicago last year. The church was once a failing white Reformed church who decided to take a gamble to reach a growing middle class African American community. Most of the white former members had left for other churches. With a vibrant African American pastoral couple, the church has transformed into a mostly African American congregation eager to reach others. This kind of church is rare in my circle. Could this be the start of something new in my denomination? I want more churches like this. 

To be frank, he was not interested in integration.

I engaged a cadre of young African American pastors in a conversation about raising their profiles towards denominational matters. The south suburban Chicago pastor was quick to decline. He stated that his church’s responsibilities were clear: focus on growing and pastoring his African American church. He was not interested in getting into arenas that would frustrate and distract him from his mission. If he was going to stay in the denomination, he was convinced he had to stay in his sweet spot. He had experienced several false starts trying to work for an integrated church. To be frank, he was not interested in integration. His focus was on building a solid church for African Americans by African Americans.  

I sensed he had encountered a crippling idea afoot in American Christianity, called integration fatigue. It is the notion that people of color should join white churches to show the power of the gospel in our racialized American society. One of the favored models that has been lifted up as an antidote to American segregation are interracial churches.  

This good news appeared to indicate a rosy future against segregation.

Before the election, multiracial congregations were growing quite nicely according to a study published in 2018 Scientific Study of Religion. The study observed in 1998, only 6.4% of Christian congregations were multiracial. By 2012, the number doubled to 12 percent. That’s almost fourteen years of diverse growth. This good news appeared to indicate a rosy future against segregation. Interracial churches have been one of the bright spots towards racial reconciliation between African Americans and whites in US religious landscape. Joining these kinds of churches was supposed to be the answer in fractured racial divide in America.

The church cannot become one more place to fight for right to be black.

But scholars such as sociologist Korie Edwards argue that these churches have a dark side, African Americans were experiencing integration fatigue. In her 2008 book, she argued that most interracial churches catered to whites at the expense of African Americans’ needs. White majority interracial churches use their whiteness and resources to thwart any hard conversation on race. She commented, “interracial churches work to extent that they are comfortable places for whites to attend….That means for interracial churches to stay interracial, racial minorities must be willing to sacrifice their preferences, or they must already sufficiently acculturated into and accepted the dominant culture and white’s privileged status” (p.139) In other words, Edwards argues integration fatigue is real for black people whose needs are being pushed to the sidelines.  When they are catching hell from every other place in American life, the church cannot become one more place to fight for right to be black. Integration fatigue signals the costly price that must be paid in white Christian spaces by black people. My friend concluded the price was too high.  

Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear

The 2016 election only sped up the pace of the black exodus from the integration church project. Historian John Fea caught the ethos of the 81 percent of white evangelical voters who supported the current president. He stated, “white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for a national past that never existed in the first place…These are the ideas that best explains that 81 percent.” These ideas screamed integration fatigue after the election and black people took the next step. The results are clear in a March 2019 New York Times headline entitled “A Quiet Black Exodus” from multiracial evangelical spaces. 

Integration fatigue bug can only be cured by the inoculation of courage. 

A good friend of mine, an academic and pastor uttered a countercultural idea to me. She said black people have been integrating white spaces from business to universities to churches. She suggested that it was time for white Christian people to join majority black churches. I think she might be onto something. Rather than continuing to ride the comfortable train of white fragility joining a black church would take tremendous courage.  American interracial churches are not the model of the future if whites insist on keeping the status quo. Change happens when human beings are willing to break their own patterns of behavior with intentionality. I am encouraging my white brothers and sisters to seek a more courageous way. Integration fatigue bug can only be cured by the inoculation of courage. 

Author Austin Channing Brown has wise words for such an endeavor if white Christians choose to accept it. She said, “togetherness across racial lines doesn’t have to mean the uplifting of whiteness and harming of Blackness. And even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate.”


Photo by howling red on Unsplash


The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.