Congregations Struggle to Get -- and Keep -- Racially Diverse Members

Sept. 27, 2010

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One of the Rev. Martin Luther King's famous statements was that 11 a.m. Sunday morning was "the most segregated hour of Christian America."

More than half a century later -- despite myriad task forces, initiatives and informal efforts by church leaders and congregations to increase racial diversity in the pews -- nine in 10 congregations have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of their membership, said Dr. Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University.

Equally significant is that congregations that manage to attract worshippers of other races have difficulty keeping them, according to research by Dougherty and Dr. Christopher P. Scheitle, senior research assistant at The Pennsylvania State University. They co-authored the article "Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations" published in the academic journal Sociological Inquiry in August.

"Socially, we've become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses. But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm," Dougherty said.

"It's not just an issue of attraction, of getting them into the door, but of retention," he said. "Can we keep them? Our research indicates that we've not been able to."

In learning whether, and why, minority members leave congregations faster than majority members, Dougherty and Scheitle studied data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey of 2001, a survey of more than 100,000 worshippers in more than 400 congregations representing more than 50 faith groups.

One theory is that the more groups an organization tries to serve, the less effective it is at serving any specific group. Specialist organizations tend to do better than generalist organizations. And congregations are no different.

A Korean church that tries to add other ethnic groups is still likely to serve its traditional majority better, whether it comes to the type of food served at a potluck, the type of ministries it offers or the use of the Korean language, Dougherty said.

The decision is not necessarily conscious or malicious, but simply a matter of habit and the greater visibility of the majority, according to the article.

"People choose churches where they feel comfortable," Dougherty said. "Maybe they get challenged there, but they're going for the comfort."

But diversity comes with a cost, usually to both minorities and majorities, he said.

In trying to fit in, minority members may feel they are abandoning part of their identity. A 2003 study of a Filipino congregation showed that non-Filipino members tended to have fewer friends within the congregation and felt like outsiders. Such feelings may lead to lower attendance and eventually leaving.

"It doesn't matter whether you're a white member of a Latino church or a black attending a white church or what the specific groups are," Dougherty said. "If you're the under-represented group, do you call it 'my church'? That feeling of 'us' is the key."

Power is another issue. Minority members may feel that they are tokens. Scheitle and Dougherty found that until minority members represent 40 percent of a congregation, they are at a higher risk of leaving.

"That's when we expect retention, when minority members say, 'There's enough of me that I see we have some say,'" Dougherty said. Conversely, once the minority is more than 40 percent, some majority members start to leave.

"Animosity can grow," Dougherty said. "There may be a feeling of 'They're taking our church away from us' or 'They're not doing things our way.' Churches want diversity -- but usually the people who want it most are the ones it costs the least. They aren't the ones sacrificing culture, heritage and customs."

Usually the first members of a minority group to join a congregation are a special type of person, Dougherty said. "Those people are called 'boundary spanners.' They're willing to tolerate risk. They're the pioneers. They pave the way for others from their ethnic group to follow."

Some characteristics of congregations that have been successful in becoming diverse:

• Racially diverse leaders.

• Racially inclusive worship. Diverse congregations "tend to be more expressive, with more clapping, more raising of the hands, more verbal affirmation," Dougherty said. "If you look at congregations of blacks and whites, you'll see more 'Amens' and clapping, but not as much as in a black church. The services likely will last longer, but not last as long as at a black church. Out of diversity comes something that is different for both."

• Opportunities for member interaction. Dougherty sees small groups as helpful for diversity. "Small groups are a powerful way to forge relationships," he said. In previous research, he found that small groups are a common feature of racially mixed congregations.

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Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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