Looking for diversity in real pews?

colors pews 01Loyal GetReligion readers will recall that, back in September, I sang the praises of a wonderful New York Times feature story by reporter Warren St. John that began like this:

When the Rev. Phil Kitchin steps into the pulpit of the Clarkston International Bible Church on Sunday mornings, he stands eye to eye with the changing face of America. In the pews before him, alongside white-haired Southern women in their Sunday best, sit immigrants from the Philippines and Togo, refugees from war-scarred Liberia, Ethiopia and Sudan, even a convert from Afghanistan.

“Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations,” Mr. Kitchin likes to say. “So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”

This story covered all kinds of issues, both inspiring and sobering. It offered a fine look at one of a major news story that rarely makes it into mainstream newspapers. If you are looking for racial diversity in pews, you really need to look in conservative churches — both evangelical and Catholic, but especially in those that are called either Pentecostal and/or “Bible believing.”

This may shatter the news templates of some reporters, but it’s true.

So I was happy to open up the Washington Post the other day and spot a story that, I think it is safe to say, may have been inspired by that earlier piece in the hallowed pages of the Times. The leaders of great newspapers have been known to keep an eye on each other, from time to time.

This A-1 piece, by reporter Karin Brulliard, ran under the headline: “Springfield Church Welcomes Many Nations Under God.” It is set in suburban Springfield, Va., and near the top readers were told:

On a recent Sunday morning at the Word of Life Assembly of God Church, pink-cheeked Virginia native David Gorman skipped in a conga line in Swahili Sunday school while a Kenyan preacher played an accordion and a Singaporean woman led jubilant hymns. Filipinos analyzed Bible passages in a classroom.

Later, as the Sierra Leonean choir prepared to perform in the sanctuary, D. Wendel Cover, the folksy white pastor, listed the nations of the world and asked worshipers to stand when they heard their homelands. He seemed a bit dismayed to find just 80 represented.

“Our country’s becoming more international,” Cover, 73, said in an interview. He has led the formerly majority-white Pentecostal church for three decades. “The next generation is going to be American. If the church doesn’t realize that, they’re going to lose a whole generation.”

The Springfield church, congregants often say, is a glimpse of heaven — a “multitude” of nations and tongues, as the Book of Revelation puts it.

This story wasn’t quite as hard-hitting as the Times report, but it focused on the same basic realities in American life and church demographics.

The bottom line: America’s liberal and progressive flocks may pride themselves on their work on behalf of racial reconciliation, but if you are looking for diversity in actual church pews on a typical Sunday morning, you are much more likely to find it in an Assemblies of God congregation than in the typical church in the “seven sisters” of the mainline world.

rainbow crossThere are exceptions on both sides, of course. The United Church of Christ, for example, does have some very diverse congregations. There are plenty of all-white evangelical megachurches, too. I am simply saying that — as a rule — there is more racial diversity in the actual pews on the conservative side of the spectrum — especially among charismatics and Pentecostals — than on the liberal side. This has been true for several decades, but you rarely see this reflected in the news.

So, once again, I was not surprised to pick up the Baltimore Sun the other day and see yet another report on diversity and racial reconciliation. At first, I thought this was another story following the example set by the Times and Post reports.

I was wrong. This story by Rona Kobell was inspiring, but in many ways it was the mirror image of the earlier reports. It described life in churches that are, sadly, still divided by race. Can you spot the key difference?

The distance between the two Methodist churches in this Eastern Shore village is little more than a mile. Yet for decades, it seemed as if a great gulf separated them.

One church was black. The other was white. Though the two communities in the watermen’s town got along fine, come Sunday, people went their own way. White families flocked to Nanticoke Road for prayers at the picturesque Nanticoke United Methodist Church. Black families followed the narrow roads east to the equally pretty Asbury United Methodist Church on Hickman Lane.

Then, about 10 years ago, after the two congregations held a Bible school together, a few parishioners decided that they should get together more often, maybe once a month for worship and a meal.

Like I said, this story has moments that are inspiring. But it is also rather sad. These two churches are one mile from each other, even though they are part of the same flock. What is the source of the divide? Read on, since the story covers some interesting terrain.

Still, I could not help but think that someone at the Sun needs to visit some Pentecostal and evangelical churches, in the booming and increasingly diverse suburbs and inner-ring communities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. They may be surprised at what they find. If you doubt that, go back and read those stories in the Times and the Post again.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Grupetti

    Here’s some data:


    Ironically, the poorest record on diversity–only 2 to 3 percent mixed on average–belongs to historic Protestant churches, which were among the first to trumpet the ideal of integrated congregations.

    Catholic churches “are almost three times more likely to be multiracial than are Protestant congregations” because the large parish boundaries normally embrace several neighborhoods, he said. Yet the Congregations Project found less socialization and interaction between ethnic and racial groups in Catholic parishes, which often have separate masses for different language groups.

    The more integrated churches among Protestants usually were the more theologically conservative, non-denominational congregations. Overall, the study found that only 7 percent of Protestant congregations nationally could be called “mixed.”

  • Jerry

    I thank Grupetti for that link to some real statistics. I’m sure that there is a link some are making conservative means more inclusive but I don’t see enough evidence to draw that conclusion. For example:

    Congregants in mixed churches typically were those who already socialized with people of different backgrounds at work, school or in recreational activities. “By becoming part of the [racially mixed] church, their social networks became even more diverse and extensive,” Emerson said.

    So the obvious followup question is how do conservative versus liberal congregations match up in jobs and housing locations? Perhaps liberal congregations are made up more from the well-to-do who live and work in defacto segregated environments? Does anyone have statistics to offer on this possibility?

    My question is from a basis of “does the media get math”, specifically statistics. There’s a principle “correlation is not causality”. Maybe there is a causal relationship, but what I’ve read so far is not statistical proof. Does anyone have evidence to refute my statement?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I am sure that class divisions have MUCH to do with this.

    I also tried not to say that conservative churches were more inclusive. I said that you will find more inclusive churches on the conservative, especially Pentecostal, side of the aisle.

    There was a study in United Methodist circles back in the mid-1980s, but I cannot find any remnants online.

    As a rule, ethic Protestants tend to be conservative. Thus, there is more potential for racially inclusive churches there because the numbers are high. The world is not jammed with ethnic Unitarians….

  • Jeff

    Still, I could not help but think that someone at the Sun needs to visit some Pentecostal and evangelical churches, in the booming and increasingly diverse suburbs and inner-ring communities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

    While they’re at it, they should visit some of the Catholic churches in the inner-ring DC suburbs in Maryland. The most racially diverse Catholic churches that I’ve ever seen are in this area, with most congregations having sizable black, white, and hispanic populations.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Yet another Jeff (Hi, Jeff) –

    The story on Masons in the WaPo doesn’t touch this issue, either, but boy-oh-boy-oh-boy is it there:


    So is this religion coverage, or . . . ?

    And Merry Christmas, y’all (i know, i’m early to wish Terry that; we’ll repeat when liturgically apropos).

  • Harris

    To follow up on Tmatt [3]:

    It may be that we are simply seeing the congregations at a relatively early stage of their institutional life — that over time these communities will form separate communions. IIRC, early Methodism also showed some of the same patterns.

    A second test would be to examine the conservative congregations within the seven sisters to see if they are more diverse. This would have the advantage of eliminating some of the extraneous variables, oranges and oranges as it were.

    The emphasis on social justice can also be seen as a stand-in for class, inasmuch as the actions of social justice arise out of resources (education, financial, political etc.).

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  • http://www.baltimoresun.com/bayblog Rona Kobell


    Thanks very much for posting my story about the Nanticoke church. I wanted to let you know I am not The Sun’s religion writer; I cover the Chesapeake Bay, and heard about the joint service while having dinner in a chicken-house-turned crab-shack in a nearby town. We were listening to a band playing some Yankee-Doodle tunes; turns out the banjo player was also the choir director for the church. We were looking for a family of African-American oystermen that worked out of those parts; the man said the family wasn’t oystering anymore, but might we be interested in knowing about their joint worship service? It was then that we made plans to return…as it happens, I had not read the Post or the Times’ stories, but they sound interesting.

    I will pass along these insightful comments to The Sun’s new religion writer, as it’s unlikely I’ll be covering another worship service soon, although I did cover Christmas Mass this week. Anyway, thanks again for the mention, and if your readers are interested in the bay,check out our blog..


    Rona Kobell