Multiracial Congregations in America:
Looking for “a more realistic picture of what
the world looks like”
University of Illinois at Chicago
Multiracial congregations in the U.S. are rare. In a recent national study, Michael Emerson and his colleagues found that mixed race congregations, those having no more than 80 percent of any one racial group in their membership, represent 8 percent of American congregations. One important explanation for this common feature of congregations, as with American voluntary associations generally, is that people are recruited to become members through social networks that are themselves homogeneous. Furthermore, when diverse people are recruited, their diversity acts to keep them on the periphery of the organization rather than among the core members. As a result, they are more easily recruited to join organizations in which they are not different from the majority of other members, making multiracial congregations frequently unstable in their composition. These principles have been confirmed by empirical research conducted by network theorists Pamela Popielarz and John McPherson (1995). In order to hold together racially diverse people in a single voluntary group and overcome the disadvantage of instability, such organizations need to overcome several powerful social forces that include the culture of organizational life, religious predispositions, and the push toward spatial segregation in our major urban centers.
Below is a brief description of four examples that show the variety of ways multiracial congregations resist the forces that would make them homogeneous. At the same time, we can see how some of these forces might be too powerful to overcome. These data were collected in Indianapolis by the Project on Religion and Urban Culture at The Polis Center—IUPUI between 1997 and the present and supported by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. All the congregations are located in the city of Indianapolis.
In a racially balanced neighborhood found on Indianapolis’ northwest side, Crooked Creek (American) Baptist Church has been diverse since the 1950s, (although they recently discovered that one of their fourteen founding members in the nineteenth century was African American). This occurred by an intentional effort of the former senior pastor who was white and under whose tutelage the current pastor, who is also white, leads. Their membership today is about 25 percent African American with the remaining predominately white and a small number of Hispanics and Burmese Asians.
Carl Dudley (1993) suggests that diverse churches, somewhat ironically, do not have to “preach on race” to achieve the pluralism they seek. In that spirit, Crooked Creek Baptist Church fleshes out its identity by emphasizing denominational links with Martin Luther King, Jr. and commitment to principles of social justice in neighborhood activities. As the pastor discovered, this is preferable to “push[ing] integration [because] then you do more harm than good.” The pastor went on to talk about the “delicate balancing act” that must be played. In sum, what one says and what one doesn’t say to get people on this multiracial path and stay there is part intentional and part intuitive, making it a difficult strategy to copy effectively.
But another strategy that would put dissimilar people to the center rather than leaving them on the edge of the organizational niche is found in St. Philip Neri Catholic Church’s parish pastoral council, which includes an African American president and at least one Hispanic representative. Combined with a new youth program and new music program, worship at St. Philip’s has become culturally inclusive in the variety of Anglo, African American, and Hispanic music sung and played and in the Hispanic rituals and symbols displayed. For both of these churches, the multiracial neighborhood in which they are located provides crucial support.
The “familiarity” or “comfort” hypothesis has long been used to explain why the 11:00 Sunday morning hour is segregated. This hypothesis assumes that people chose to worship with people who share an identity that needs to be reinforced and supported by sharing an important and intimate event. In the next case, a member argues that she is made more comfortable by worshipping with people who are different from her. “I want a church that offers a more realistic picture of what the world looks like….not 100 percent white middle class.”
Led by an energetic light-skinned African American pastor with a Yankee accent, Door of Hope Church of the Nazarene, located in a predominately poor black neighborhood on Indianapolis’ near west side, is casting a wide social service net that is supported by volunteer labor and financial contributions from outside the neighborhood. The pastor is eager to turn that dependency around. The predominately poor membership of about 80 people nonetheless includes some middle-class and white and biracial families who came to participate in the outreach ministry and stayed. The white member quoted above sought out Door of Hope twice (not finding it the first time) because she felt “ill at ease and unpeaceful” in her suburban Nazarene congregation. Talk about race seems to be more open here than in the other congregations I studied. Another white mother in a mixed marriage with biracial children wanted explicit assurance from the new pastor that the ministry “was [not] racist” before joining. In part, she wanted to know whether a white woman would be welcome in a predominately black church. Without a doubt, achieving diversity is both psychically and locationally hard work.
The pastor of New Paradigm Christian Church in a mixed race but predominately white north side neighborhood relates his pastoral ministry to the life changing circumstances of his interracial marriage and thinks that the church’s mixed race identity is “nothing special; we’re just being who we are.” Recently, however, the church is gaining more white members than black members, possibly related to the “pull” of the neighborhood staying predominately white. However, as an evangelical pastor, his “determining factor” as he put it, “is scripture, which requires us to pull ourselves outside of our comfort zones.” By implication, all groups, black and white, fall under this admonition. The pastor supports multiracial congregations because of their potential usefulness for correcting patterns of racialization. Structural patterns require intentional counter forces to reduce the interpretation found in white and black churches that “separate identity spaces” are both natural and inevitable. As we have seen above, they include managing (to some degree) the structural features of neighborhood diversity and stimulating committed leadership, both clergy and lay, that seeks out the personal, theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical resources to support intentional multiracial congregational life.
Dudley, Carl. Pluralism as an ism. Christian Century. October 27, 1993.
Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Popielarz, Pamela A.and J. Miller McPherson. 1995. On the Edge or In Between: Niche Position, Niche Overlap, and the Duration of Voluntary Association Membership. American Journal of Sociology, 101:3, 696-720.
Research and articles on the same subject:
Michael Emersons' research on multiracial congregations in our section on congregational research.
"Hues in the Pews", by John Dart, news editor for The Christian Century
"Several Nations Under God": Urban Space, Race, and Religion
A paper presented by Tyrone R. Simpson II, University of Virginia, at the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Annual Conference.