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How Important is Racial Diversity in a Church?

How Important is Racial Diversity in a Church?

by Mike Duran · 11 comments

I recently spoke to a pastor friend who moved from Southern California to Oregon. One of the things he lamented was the lack of racial diversity in his area. His current church is made up of approximately 90 to 95% whites. That demographic sampling is consistent with

  1. the church’s style of ministry, and
  2. the location of the church

My question: Is this a bad thing?

Many seem to think it is.

In SoCal, you kind of get used to racial diversity. My city’s current demographics are roughly 40% white, 40% Hispanic, and 10% black. I work in a shop comprised of 3 whites, 6 Hispanics, and 1 black. The church I attend is tilted more toward the “white” spectrum, probably along the lines of 60-70% white, 30-35% Hispanic, and 5-10% Other.

Would my pastor like to see more diversity? I’m pretty sure he would. Apparently, this is true of most pastors.

Some recent research conducted by Lifeway noted that Racial Diversity at Church is More Dream Than Reality. Here’s the accompanying graph:

diversity-661x1024

Many theories are floated as to why Christians congregations are NOT very multiethnic. In the article, one minister suggested that “if pastors want a diverse congregation, they need to change their sermons.” Some suggest it’s simply an inherent fear, that “many don’t want to be around people who are different.” Either way, the consensus is that pastors are more aware of the need for diversity in their churches, and looking for increased ways to expand that diversity.

Which leads to stories like the one that follows.

A large church was hiring for a worship leader. I knew someone who was on staff at that church. The church fairly accurately represented the demographics of its location: 50% white, 35-40% Hispanic, 10% black. Something around that. However, this staff member confided in me that the pastor was preferably seeking to hire a black worship leader. The reason was diversity. He was trying to expand the church’s appeal to blacks by hiring a black worship leader.

This strikes me as weird.

But how else can you change the ethnic diversity of a church without putting minorities in prominent leadership positions? How else can you change the multiethnic appeal of a church without hiring quotas?

My wife and I have attended several Pentecostal churches in our lifetime. I have a great fondness for Pentecostals. However, we are always in the racial minority. This doesn’t bother me. This doesn’t bother me in the least. I have no need to suggest that the local Pentecostal church hires a white worship leader to attract people like me. And if they did, I would be suspicious.

I believe there is a time for hiring quotas. The NFL’s Rooney Rule is a good thing… for the NFL. However, diversity should be intrinsic to a church. By that I mean, Galations 3:28. No one is inferior or second-class in God’s Family. There is, or should be, spiritual equality across the board — demographically speaking.

But just like any extended family, the Family of God will have its unique demographic niches, edges, quirks, and communities. This isn’t a bad thing. Even the heavenly throng mentioned in the Book of Revelation is cataloged by its differences:

“…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9)

Christians, no matter of what “nation, tribe, people and language,” share the same Spirit. The same Father. The same Lord. And eventually, the same house. This doesn’t, however, negate the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic peculiarities which demarcate them on earth.

My theory is this: It’s totally possible to be free of racial bias and cultural insensitivities and still prefer to worship a certain way, within a certain tradition, with similar, likeminded people. Can this preference lead to racial and multiethnic blindspots? Absolutely. And where that exists, it should be dealt with. Can it lead to a lack of diversity in your church body? Yep.  But there’s a big difference between a church that is actively antagonistic or subconsciously intolerant of other races or demographic groups, and one that simply attracts spiritually and culturally similar, like-minded believers.

Your thoughts?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

CKoepp January 18, 2014 at 9:25 AM

Churches — either the leadership or the congregation — that are concerned first with balancing the numbers are focusing on the wrong thing.

If the church sees a “mission field” in a particular area or group, then ministering to that area or group would be a noble goal, but to start making decisions based on “How do we get more [insert ethnic group here] to attend?” is misdirected.

Whatever detracts from God is an idol.

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Lois Hudson January 18, 2014 at 1:48 PM

Seeking to fill a leadership position with a specific ethnicity is contrived. Another analogy might be “somebody” deciding that every church should be made up of every denominational background–liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, et al. There are preferences of styles of worship, music, teaching style, et al. I see that there is nothing wrong with that as long as the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed. Just as there are different spiritual gifts, even local churches have different roles to fill. No one person has every spiritual gift. No one church can fulfill every ministry the body of Christ is called to fulfill. The point might be that each church meshes with other churches to spread the gospel in the way best suited without jealousy or proselytizing, but seeking first the kingdom of God in their sphere of influence.

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Carole McDonnell January 18, 2014 at 9:40 AM

I kinda knew what your stance would be…even before reading the article. Having read it, I will only ask: Why do you think folks of the same ethnic group are all like-minded? Is like-mindedness static?

Culture is what makes differences in church and yes…if folks share a certain culture, then they will share a particular worship style? But this is the USA where race doesn’t imply culture..and culture doesn’t imply race?

I was raised in the episcopal tradition…in Jamaica. So I can worship in any episcopal church..whether the episcopal church is white or chinese or black. My hubby was raised in Roman Catholic faith. The Catholic churches in our town are primarily white, but there is one that is very multicultura with East Indians from Goa and other diverse people. Same worship but different cultures all incuded. The charismatic/pentecostal churches I attend are either all Hispanic (because of the language issues), or they are white, Hispanic, and Black. It is possible that the reason you were the racial minority in pentecostal churches is because the white pentecostal churches in your neck of the woods weren’t open to non-whites.

It’s been said that the most racially-segregated time of the week in the US is Sunday morning. True, i think. And considering how different the politics of white churches, black churches, hispanic churches, there definitely is some truth that racism is in churches.

I think this question is important depending on where one lives. You obviously come from an area where races don’t worship together or don’t meet frequently in churches. It sounds like a place where folks see the other person’s race — or notice their own “minority” status when they are in a church. Obviously, one shouldn’t force pastors to hire someone based on race. But the idea that like-mindedness is racial is a bit odd.

It’s unclear if the guy wanted to hire a black worship leader because of the supposed “black” worship style or because of the person’s “blackness.” There are surely black worship leaders whose singing and worship style are pretty white. If a church in a multicultural area is waaaaaaaaay white, then that church should definitely question why it has remained so white. It should question what it is about the church that makes non-whites don’t come….or that makes non-whites come then leave.

Also, although you didn’t talk about the wealth demographics diversity: if your church is midde-class, do you try to get rich people or poor people into your church? Does the congregation rejoice when a very rich or a very poor family joins them? How do they treat the very poor? And do the poor remain in the church?

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Mike Duran January 18, 2014 at 4:51 PM

“Why do you think folks of the same ethnic group are all like-minded?”

I don’t. Many are, but not “all.” Families and communities share certain values and ethos. Of course, it’s not across the board. But many do.

“…considering how different the politics of white churches, black churches, hispanic churches, there definitely is some truth that racism is in churches.”

Absolutely.

“You obviously come from an area where races don’t worship together or don’t meet frequently in churches. ”

That’s not accurate at all. The churches I’ve attended for the last, oh, 30 years have all represented a pretty even slice of the communities they were located in.

“…if your church is midde-class, do you try to get rich people or poor people into your church?”

Not sure what you’re getting at. If you’re trying to equate racial diversity with income diversity, I guess that’s a good comparison. I wouldn’t be happy about targeting any one race or any one income level.

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Jill January 18, 2014 at 10:32 AM

Tribalism seems to be a subconscious default for humans that shows up in churches whether we like it or not, and whether we admit to it or not. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but the only way to combat it is to make people aware of it. Most people don’t want to be aware of it. They don’t want to believe they are like “that”. If a church manages to become ethnically diverse, they are just as likely to become tribal in other ways (by denomination or class or what-have-you).

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Greg - Tiribulus January 18, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Churches should worry about faithfully proclaiming the saving Gospel and letting the Holy Spirit be God. Their congregations would look just like they should.

Incidentally I was born pale blond n blue (now gray n blue LOL) and am a fairly prominent lay-leadership/technology officer of an almost all black communion in the Detroit ghetto. They treated us like family the every first time we went there.

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Lelia Rose Foreman January 18, 2014 at 11:58 AM

Is it only white churches that need to become diverse?
Since some of our kids are black, we did visit a number of black churches. My husband has even taught in some black church seminars. We were comfortable but ended up joining mostly white churches as we moved around in the Air Force. I will not say how all black churches are because I have not visited all of them, but of the ones we did visit, it felt sort of like vacation instead of home. We prefer to have less emotion and a lot more content in the sermons. And the hours long award ceremonies drove us to boredom. I understand the reasons for the awards for every little thing done in the church. When no one in the outer society or work respects you, it’s good to have the church be grateful for your work. And yet, I never once have wanted recognition for what I have done in a church (nor have I ever gotten any), so there’s a cultural gap for you. We did visit some only white churches with hyperemotional pastors that we also did not go back to. People do sort themselves by preferences. As one of your prior commenters said: The Church is diverse, though local manifestations may not be. The suggestion that rich churches choose a poor church to support and walk alongside is a great one. I would like to belong to a church that did that.

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D.M. Dutcher January 18, 2014 at 5:48 PM

Depends, I guess. It’s too complex just to have one cause. Factors like denominational teachings and history, social class, location, and other things combine to determine the racial make-up of a church. It’s not something you can just change by adding a new preacher.

I think mostly you’d have to be careful about racial concerns more than composition. It’s really easy for small communities to get into feedback loop behavior, be it focusing on weird trends (family integrated church) or on ethnic/cultural/class issues.

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Ricardo Williams January 18, 2014 at 9:50 PM

At Trinity Church we promote diversity. Our choir is also pretty diverse. We have small groups also that are diverse.
I just published my book “Dear God, An Impatient Conversation with a Patient God” and my church of 5000.00 has thrown their support behind me.

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Jessica E. Thomas January 19, 2014 at 1:08 PM

I think it’s more important in areas that are culturally diverse. Which Indiana farm country is not, so it’s an unrealistic expectation.

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Samuel Choy January 22, 2014 at 12:47 PM

My experience with racial diversity is, for lack of a better word, diverse. I am biracial (mom is white, dad is Chinese). My wife is black. My kids are, well, they’re racial mutts.

In middle school, I had a very interesting introduction to political diversity. I was bullied by a trio of boys, one white, one black, one Hispanic.

So where does that leave me with my thoughts about diversity in the church? I think it depends. If God is leading the church leadership to be more diverse, if He is leading a pastor to hire a black worship leader, then I say they better obey God. I once met a pastor in the deep south who lost several prominent members of his church because he felt led to reach out to black people. And he was glad to be rid of those people.

On the other hand, if the church leadership is seeking diversity for its own sake, I think they should stop and seek the Lord’s direction.

From what I’ve observed, however, most churches are neighborhood churches; therefore, the racial makeup, culture, and finances will most likely reflect that of the community they serve. Larger, mega-churches, where people are willing to drive a bit to attend will probably reflect the racial makeup of the city. I don’t think that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. It’s simply a fact of life.

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