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Multiracial Congregations Project

This 1998 project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, studied multiracial congregations (congregations where no one racial group is more than 80% of the people). The central purpose of this research project was to take the pulse of American multiracial congregations and their peoples, learning the lessons they offer the larger church and nation for living together in diversity. The pressing reason justifying this research was, in the context of growing racial diversity in the United States and the American church, the absence of a systematic, national-level study of multiracial congregations and the people that comprise these congregations. The results of this research inform long-standing debates and questions on racial diversity, and emerging debates on how congregations can most effectively and faithfully engage the rising diversity of American life.

The project used a variety of methods to achieve its aims. After preliminary interviews with pastors, priests, and parishioners, we conducted a telephone survey of 2500 Americans. We asked them a variety of questions, including questions about their congregations. From this survey of Americans, we generated a random sample of congregations, and conducted a mail survey of those congregations. The team then conducted site visits to 16 multiracial congregations and 8 uniracial congregations.

For this in-depth phase, a team of four researchers spent two weeks in each of four different metropolitan areas. While there, they interviewed a cross-section of congregational members, and clergy. They attended services and masses, prayer groups, small group meetings, business meetings, and any other special events. They studied the history of the congregation, drove the neighborhoods, and took extensive field notes about how the church works and feels.

Some key questions they addressed, at the congregational level, included: What factors lead to the formation, survival, and break-up of such congregations? How long do these churches survive (and how does this compare to uniracial churches)? Do such churches exist in small numbers because demand for them is sparse, or because they are difficult culturally and relationally? Do they exist in small numbers because homogenous congregations better meet people's needs, or because of contextual factors such as the extent of community-wide segregation? And on the supply-side, do they exist in small numbers because they are ineffectively marketed, or because charismatic entrepreneurs are lacking, or because a critical mass of racial diversity in the area is lacking? What internal social structures enhance congregational life and unity?

At the individual level, we asked: What factors lead people to attend, stay, or leave such churches? Do such people differ in any measurable ways from those in uniracial churches? What changes (attitudes, actions, self-esteem, understanding, networks) result, if any, by being part of an interracial church? What problems do they identify? What benefits do they identify? Do certain racial groups gain or lose more than other groups? Within these broad questions are many rich and important specific questions of theoretical and practical significance.

This study of multiracial congregations resulted in a number of publications. Early in the process the preliminary, tentative observations below were offered.

Summary of Current Research:

Multiracial congregations are rare, and any estimates we get from surveys are overestimates. Reflective of the different organizational structures, Catholics churches are about three times more likely to be multiracial than are Protestant churches. Though Catholic churches are more likely to be multiracial, such churches tend to have less impact on the attitudes, religious understandings, and social networks of their parishioners than is the case for those in mixed Protestant churches.

For congregations to be multiracial, a racially diverse neighborhood is usually necessary, but often not sufficient. A tension seems to exist between in the minds of both the leadership and the members as to why they are racially mixed. For some, the diversity is simply due to the neighborhood, for others, the diversity required other forces, such as God and intentionality. Reflecting this tension, when we asked clergy why their congregation is multiracial, the reasons listed as most important most often were "a movement of God," and "the neighborhood became/is diverse." These responses varied substantially by tradition. For Catholics clergy, the most important reason was neighborhood diversity, for Protestants, a movement of God. Again, reflecting this tension, the reasons listed as the second most important most often were "it just happened," and "the existing clergy developed a vision for becoming diverse." Catholic and Protestant clergy did not differ on these responses.

This tension points to what we have found in our site visits. There are two main types of multiracial congregations--accidental (different people groups just seemed to show up) and intentional (preparations and changes were made to become racially mixed). Not surprisingly, the congregational model that seems to have the largest effect on parishioners' attitudes, religious understandings, and social networks is the intentional model.

Regardless of the model, the most common type of mixed-race congregation follows this path: A formerly white church in a white neighborhood became a mixed congregation when the neighborhood experienced racial change. The white members are older than the non-white members, and stay in the church because they grew up in the church. The challenge then, especially for the accidentally mixed congregations, is to maintain the diversity after the older members are gone. We have encountered other unique paths that do not follow this model. For example, some congregations create diversity through extensive bussing ministries.

People who attend multiracial congregations have substantially different social networks compared to those who do not. They are much more likely to have best friends who are of a different race than their own, much more likely to have mixed friendship circles, much more likely to have more racial diversity in the people they encounter at work, in their neighborhoods, and in their schools. Based on our site visits, the causal direction is reciprocal. Except for older white members of churches experiencing racial change, parishioners typically have some experience and comfort with mixed-race situations before they enter a mixed-race church. Being part of such a church furthers their experience and comfort with mixed-race situations, further diversifies their social networks, and can alter attitudes and religious understandings.

Other articles on the same subject:

"Hues in the Pews", 2001 by John Dart, news editor for The Christian Century

Multiracial congregations in America: Looking for “a more realistic picture of what the world looks like” By Elfriede Wedam, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago 

"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.




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