Racial power vs. divine glory: Why desegregation remains an elusive goal for U.S. congregations

The president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in upstate New York has visited a different church about every other Sunday for the last three years.

The congregations the Rev. Marvin McMickle encounters are mostly either 99 percent white or 99 percent black.

Not only is it rare to notice meaningful integration at any level, McMickle says, “there doesn’t seem to be a motivation on either side to alter that reality.”

The election of a black president, television commercials featuring interracial couples and many voices in the media trumpeting the emergence of a post-racial society make it tempting to think of America as a nation that is transcending an historic racial divide.

But a developing body of research is revealing just how pervasive racial differences are in one of the nation’s most powerful voluntary institutions — the houses of worship where people gather for spiritual and moral guidance and fellowship.

And that holds true even for those churches that meet the multiracial benchmark of more than 20 percent of their memberships from a minority racial group, a figure variously estimated at from one in seven to fewer than one in 10 congregations.

Members of the minority race in a congregation were less likely than members of the majority race to remain in a congregation for similar periods of time until the racial balance was such that the largest racial group comprised only about 60 percent of participants, found one study conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Baylor University.

A separate study by Baylor University researchers found members of the minority racial group in a congregation were significantly less likely to feel a sense of belonging, to have close friends in the congregation and to participate in Sunday school classes, prayer group or community service projects.

“That racial barrier is still pretty tough to break,” said Brandon Martinez, the lead researcher in the Baylor study. “We’re still not in a post-racial society.”

Challenges ahead

In the best of circumstances, analysts note, it can be difficult to build and sustain a multiracial congregation.

People tend to join groups with others of similar backgrounds. And congregations attempting to build multiracial houses of worship can find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in a marketplace offering plentiful alternatives for worshipers to stay in their racial comfort zones.

Research also suggests white churchgoers find it particularly difficult to accept black leadership, or to integrate into a black church. Many black churchgoers find predominantly white congregations are unwilling to share power or take significant steps toward full integration.

Adding to these obstacles today is the growing unwillingness of many Americans to address the racial divide.

Nearly six in 10 white Americans, including 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 65 percent of white Catholics, said one of the most effective ways to improve race relations was to stop talking about race, the 2012 Portraits of American Life Study found. In the 2006 wave of the study, 45 percent of white respondents favored less talk about race.

The study on “Race, Belonging and Participation in Religious Congregations” by Martinez and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor revealed just how difficult it can be for members of minority groups to find a spiritual home in congregations.

The study analyzed data from more than 75,000 attenders and 389 congregations participating in the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. The results were published in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The odds of having a close friend in the congregation were 30 percent greater for those attenders in the largest racial group compared to people from other races. The odds of congregants feeling a strong sense of belonging were 24 percent higher for members of the largest racial group.
Members from the predominant racial group also were 15 percent more likely to participate in congregational activities other than worship, the study found.

The findings suggest that the general pattern for multiracial congregations is to attempt to assimilate members of other racial groups into a congregational way of life established by the dominant racial group, Martinez and Dougherty report.

Yet what they and other researchers are finding is that it takes more than a few cosmetic changes to the music program or liturgies to create a successful multiracial congregation. It takes an ongoing commitment to address issues of race to integrate minority groups into all aspects of church life.

“It’s not going to happen organically. Racial integration is not just about getting people in the doors,” Martinez said. “You have to be purposeful and willing to endure.”

Possibilities for change

What helps create a multiracial congregation?

One key is a willingness to move beyond diversity to integration, many researchers state.

That starts with recognizing racial differences and establishing structures such as small groups that allow people to get to know one another across racial groups, Martinez and Dougherty note in reviewing the research from their own and other studies.

Effective leaders of multiracial congregations also help “individuals with varied views regarding race to take one step at a time toward full integration,” Martinez and Dougherty wrote.

McMickle said members of minority groups in a multiracial community also need to be fully integrated into all aspects of church life, from the selection of deacons and trustees to decisions about mission spending and worship practices.

Achieving the theological goal of a faith that transcends race is possible, many believe.

Those searching for inspiration for a multiracial model of Christian life could go back to the early Christian church, said McMickle, author of “An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage.”

In the Book of Acts, for example, two African men, Simeon and Lucius, commission the apostles Paul and Barnabas on their historic missionary journey. On the day of Pentecost, believers from different races and nations “were all with one accord in one place,” the biblical account states.

Unfortunately, McMickle said, “We have been regressing ever since.”

(This article originally appeared as an Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.)