So you wanna be a diverse church? Here's how.

We simply cannot and will not fully understand race in the United States without understanding race and religion.” – Edwards, Christerson, and Emerson (2013)

Sociologists Korie Edwards, Brad Christerson and Michael Emerson recently published an article in the Annual Review of Sociology that summarizes recent research on racial integration and religious organizations and helps us understand issues such as why segregated churches persist and what churches can do to become more diverse. Their findings provide an insightful, data-driven road map for those of us who are seeking to understand and pursue racial diversity in our congregations.compass

I thought it’d be helpful to write a summary of their article:

How diverse must a church be in order to be considered “multiracial”?

Most researchers go by the 80/20 rule. If less than 80% of the congregation hail from the same racial group, then a church is considered multiracial. This 80/20 benchmark is purposeful. One, the presence of 20% or more minorities is a tipping point of critical mass. At this point, the 20% are less likely to be perceived as token minorities and are more likely to have influence on the church culture and policies. Two, when at least 20% of the congregants are diverse, the probability of random cross-racial contact is 99%.

What percentage of U.S. churches are multiracial?

In 1998, 7.7% of all U.S. churches (of all religious traditions) were multiracial. By 2010, that number had increased to 13.7% of congregations.  However, there are dramatic differences in racial diversity between different religious traditions.  Non-Christian congregations are the most diverse (27%), followed by Catholic (15%) and Protestant (5%) congregations. Even though churches have increased in diversity, the increase has not kept pace with the increasing diversity in America. The researchers state that the average congregation is only 1/10 as racially diverse as the neighborhood in which it is situated.

Why do segregated churches persist?

  1. “Congregations are voluntary organizations in a pluralistic religious economy.” Since people “shop” for churches, they are more likely to end up at one that suits their cultural style.
  2. Some segregated churches persist because they are important safe havens for members of racial groups facing discrimination in the larger society.
  3. New congregants tend to be recruited via the friend networks of existing congregants. Since most churchgoers spend most of their time with people who are racially homogenous, they tend to recruit racially homogenous people to attend their churches.
  4. Minority group members in multiracial churches typically do not attend the church for as long as majority group members do. As a result, many churches have a hard time sustaining racial diversity over an extended period of time.
  5. Neighborhoods in America are still very much segregated by race. So churches that don’t recruit from outside their neighborhood are not likely to be diverse.

Which types of churches are most likely to be diverse?

Internal factors:

  1. Statistically, the most important predictor of racial diversity is religious tradition. Non-Christian congregations (27%) and Catholic churches (15%) are far more diverse than Protestant churches (5%).
  2. The second most important predictor – at least for Christian denominations – is the historical position on race relations. Christian denominations with a long history of fighting for racial justice are more likely to have diverse congregations today. The best example of this is the Catholic Church, which has a long history of racial justice as well as a centralized government that organizes and communicates a unified stance on issues of race.
  3. The third most important factor is whether congregations have leaders who intentionally and routinely promote diversity. These congregations utilize several strategies to promote diversity:
    1. Diversify pastoral and lay leadership and empower these leaders to lead in ways that are true to their cultural tradition. (This is the most important strategy.)
    2. Create a small group culture within the congregation (including some racially homogenous ones)
    3. Integrate diverse music genres in the worship service
    4. Create and carry out special programs that specifically address racial and ethnic issues
    5. Encourage different racial groups to share their unique experiences, cultural elements and perspectives with the whole church
    6. Diversify the “upfront” leadership – those who are on stage during the worship service or lead in other conspicuous ways
  4. Other important predictors of diversity are:

-- Congregations with a charismatic/Pentecostal worship style are more likely to be diverse -- presumably because it creates an inclusive and participatory environment

-- Size – larger congregations tend to be more diverse

-- Economic status – churches with higher income and well-educated congregants are more likely to be diverse

External factors:

  1. Congregations in urban areas are more likely to be diverse
  2. Congregations situated in diverse neighborhoods are more likely to be diverse
  3. Congregations that draw from a large geographic area are more likely to be diverse

You can read the article in its entirety here.