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January 27, 2009

Mark Chaves: Congregations are more ethnically diverse

Congregations have become more ethnically and racially diverse even since 1998, according to the National Congregations Study. In 1998, 20 percent of attendees were in congregations that were completely white and nonhispanic; in 2006-07, 14 percent were.

Let me be clear about what this means. We do not see significant increases since 1998 in the proportion of predominantly Latino or Asian or African American congregations in the United States. Nor do we see any significant increase in what we might call deeply diverse congregations, meaning congregations that have, say, equal numbers of blacks and whites, or a relatively equal mix of black, whites, and Asians, or a sizeable proportion of Latinos in a predominantly nonLatino, white congregation.

What we do see is a significant increase in the presence of some minorities in predominantly white congregations. Fewer congregations, in other words, are 100 percent white and nonHispanic.

Catholic churches are substantially more likely than Protestant churches to have some minority presence even when they are predominantly white, but the jump in minority presence has occurred in Protestant as well as in Catholic churches. Interestingly, there is no corresponding trend within predominantly black churches. Those churches are no more likely to have some whites, Latinos, Asians, or immigrants today than they did in 1998.

I do not want to overstate the significance of this trend. It definitely is too soon to discard the old saw that 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. The vast majority of American congregations remain overwhelmingly white or black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever--but there also has been noticeable progress. Our congregations, like our society, are still far from a place in which color and nationality are invisible, but there has been some change in a positive direction. Somewhat like black-white intermarriage, which is increasing even though it remains rare, increasing minority presence in predominantly white congregations represents some progress, however small, in a society in which ethnicity and, especially, race, still divide us.

It also is worth asking whether even a few African Americans or Hispanics or recent immigrants in a congregation might affect that congregation’s life in important ways. John Green, a Professor at the University of Akron and one of the nation’s leading experts on religion and politics, has said that congregations are easier to politicize when they are more homogeneous. Is a clergyperson with even one black family in the pews likely to talk in quite the same way about race and about social welfare issues as he would if that family was not there? Is the congregation with even one Latino family likely to approach immigration reform in quite the same way? How this increasing pluralism might be changing congregations is a subject worthy of additional research and reflection.

Mark Chaves is professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study.

5 Comments

The questions to finish here

The questions to finish here are good, though I wonder if a congregation would see that one distinct family if it were not to prepare for that family. That is to say, if I'm a non-English speaking Latino patriarch with a wife and two kids, and there is no access for me in a service (see: interpretation or modification of presentation), I may not stay to see how the congregation approaches immigration reform.

while the change is ver small

while the change is ver small I am encouraged...

Churches are reflecting the

Churches are reflecting the changes we see in society. What still remains is the great divide in the discrepency between rich and poor which appears to be widening. People want to be in church with people like them particularly people with similar values. Outreach is important but what are we doing for others.

It is heartening to hear that

It is heartening to hear that we are actually moving in the right direction of more inclusivity in our churches. It continues to be a sad commentary on the church in America that we are so divided. Perhaps this is another lesson that we can learn from our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere.

Diversity is hard to achieve

I really appreciate the insights offered here. Basically, what we are seeing here is just how difficult it is to achieve diversity in American society. Yet, it is encouraging to see progress. I serve as Hispanic pastor in a mostly white congregation. Even at that point, the congregation remains quite undiversified. Yet, even small steps can begin to break down barriers.

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