The Difficulties of Racially-Integrated Churches

The Difficulties of Racially-Integrated Churches January 24, 2013

I have been reading the sociological literature on race and religion, especially multiracial churches. A common observation is that Christian churches are relatively segregated by race and ethnicity. Different scholars have different estimates of the segregation, and it depends on how it’s measured. Among the statistics I’ve read: an estimated 90% of American Congregations draw at least 90% of their members from a single racial group and only about 8% of churches fit the description of multiracial.

In reading studies of integrated churches, I am struck by how very, very difficult it is to have multiple racial and ethnic groups in one church.

There are distinct advantages to demographic homogeneity (fancy work for saying that people are similar to one another). In fact, some churches explicitly tailor their outreach to specific “types” of people, and this approach often associates with specific racial or ethnic groups. Emerson and Smith (2000) likened it to retail stores aiming for a specific market—clothes for teens, kitchen supplies for the wealthy, electronic gizmos for middle-aged men. People often want to be in a church with others like them—they felt more readily understood, so this approach is effective.

When churches do seek racial integration, it can bear substantial costs. Among the possible costs that scholars have identified:

  • Churches feel like they are losing their identity
  • Churches have less feeling of group solidarity
  • Worship services are reworked
  • Decision making processes are changed
  • New staff are hired
  • Services and materials are offered in multiple languages
  • Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is frequently misinterpreted
  • Conflict arises in church about the smallest of issues. (One study told of a race-related row about where to place a statue)
  • Food service at fellowship events are changed
  • Length and style of sermons are changed
  • And on and on and on

One pastor exclaimed that multiracial ministry is simply exhausting, and this seems to be true in terms of time, energy, and material resources.

While some church growth specialists have argued in favor of a homogenous ministry outreach, most Christians (myself included) seem to be in favor of racially integrated community life. My point here is not to advocate racial integration as much as to be aware of the significant difficulties of accomplishing it.

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  • George

    It is true that they can be difficult. One of my books (“One Body, One Spirit”) outlines how chuches can become more racially diverse and it is quite a challenge. However they are also becoming more plentiful. The data you cite is starting to get old. Those who study this tend to believe that the percentage of churches that are racially diverse is higher than 8 percent. I beleive they are going to have to grow due to the changing nature of race in the United States. You may want to read Emerson’s People of the Dream and his idea of the “sixth American”. He describes them as people with multiracial lifestyles and integated social networks. I have seen signs that such individuals are becoming commonplace and they need racially intergrated religious institutions. Such individuals make the transition to multiracial churches a bit easier and I believe we will see more multiracial churches in the near future.

    • Hello George,
      I recently read your book and I think that you and some others have some good ideas about moving forward. Glad that you’re writing about it!

  • Mark Bradley

    Good intro to this topic. My church is in the midst of transitioning to a multicultural church. I serve as the Chair of our Leadership Team. I’d be interested your perspective on churches that strive to accept and welcome all folks from different socioeconomic and cultural back backgrounds. This is much more difficult (and confusing) than racial integration. We don’t really have a lot of answers yet, and it’s been challenging so far. But we’re trusting God and moving ahead, striving to deal with the obstacles as the arise. And there are many.

    • George Yancey

      The reserach indicates that racially diverse churches tend to be economically diverse. Unfortuanately there is very little work on economic diversity. But I would advise church leaders who want more racial diversity to prepare themselves for economic diversity as well.

  • Hello Mark,
    Yes, combing people who are different, in general, is difficult. Unfortunately, differences tend to aggregate… so people who are different on one dimension are often different in others, e.g., race, culture, class.

    Hope you make tons of progress!

  • Derek Chinn

    Our church merged two single race congregations together to create a multiracial church and it was definitely a challenge. However, the difficulties are worth it. With the shift in demographics, it should increase but for some reason it sure seems slow. I am thinking that class is a significant factor. Dr. Yancey raises a good point. and I imagine (and hope!) more ink will be spilled on this topic. Dr. Emerson’s work indicates that the change is slow (a presentation he made at the Multiethnic Church Conference, 2010) because in the span of 10 years (from the writing of Divided by Faith), the percentage of multiracial churches still is at about 7%, in the U.S (based on his presentation) — certainly not far from Dr. Yancey’s 8% figure. Looking forward to what you sociologists will be cranking out! 😉

  • Ruth Hartunian-Alumbaugh

    I think there are challenges in merging, too. After serving with an international ministry for over 20 years, attending various church denominational gatherings for years at a time, and interacting with internationals, I would make a case that there needs to be some kind of conversation or even “training” when it comes to the social mores of various cultures. There is too much of a risk for misunderstanding when cultures come together. Hey, there is too much misunderstanding when we are with our “own kind.” But training with people who understand and know peoples of various culture could be an invaluable resource. And I agree with Derek; the difficulties encountered along the way are worth it. But I don’t think that will happen everywhere there is a church!

  • Emil tTurner

    I work with Southern Baptist churches in Arkansas. I have observed that while multi-ethnic churches are rare, almost all SBC churches in AR have some minority members. The idea of these churches being closed to minority populations seems to have almost disappeared in the past few years. I visit more of these churches than most anyone in our state, and I rarely see one that does not have minority members. But I doubt that any church perfectly reflects the demographic makeup of the community in which is found. In fact, I am not even sure that such a thing would be a good goal for a church.

  • It would seem that this is one of the contributing reasons why there are still almost a dozen (depending on how you count) Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions operating pretty much independently of each other in the United States. Even among the Orthodox, it is difficult to get Arabs, Russians, and Greeks all worshiping side-by-side. There are other reasons, of course, but the difficulty in integrating different ethnicities certainly doesn’t help.

  • This is a great topic that needs to be talked about further. The future of the church, whether historically or eschatologically, is a diverse community of every tongue, tribe or nation. Are we working toward it or not?

    I appreciate George Yancey’s comments about diversity at the economic level. Diversity is more than racial or ethnic, and we must grapple with that as well within our churches.

    Another topic that is important to this is the difference between multi-ethnic churches (churches with many ethnicities but one dominant culture) and multi-cultural churches (churches with many ethnicities and a more integrated ‘third’ culture of their own). It is easier to be multi-ethnic (although that is joyfully hard!) but takes serious effort to become multi-cultural.

    Efrem Smith’s new book, The Post-Black and Post-White Church, is worth a read on this from a practical level.