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February 1, 2010

Michael O. Emerson: Cracks in the Christian color wall

A recent “Time” magazine article traced the racial transformations of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the five largest congregations in the United States. Remarkably, in a span of just ten years, Willow Creek has gone from being 98% white to what I define as a multiracial church (no one racial group more than 80% of the congregation).

Willow’s story is highly unusual. For at least 150 years, American Christian congregations have “managed” racial diversity in one clear way: by parsing it out into racially homogenous congregations. As of 2007, more than 9 out of 10 Christian churches were at least 80% one racial group. Congregations are approximately 10 times less racially diverse than are the neighborhoods in which they reside.

But change may be brewing. Using his 1998 and 2007 National Congregations Studies, Mark Chaves found that fewer congregations were all one race in 2007 compared to 1998.

I have found another pattern, one that “Time” quoted me as saying “blew me away.” Large Protestant churches (more than 1000 regular attendees) are more than twice as likely to be multiracial now compared to a decade ago.

The rapid growth of multiracial large Protestant churches is a stunning change. At first I thought it must be a statistical error. But no matter where I checked, I found support for the story. How can we account for these changes?

Ten years ago, what arguments were out there for churches to become multiracial? What aids were there to help congregations manage amidst their new diversity? The answer to both questions is “very little.” When I asked clergy and other leaders of multiracial congregations about their experiences back in 2000, they consistently remarked that they felt isolated, ill-equipped for such a task, on a lone voyage through a complicated forest in which they simply did not know the best path.

Ten years ago their resources were indeed slim. There were no websites on the topic. I could find about 10 books (loosely defined) on multiracial congregations or worship, but these were scattered over time (nearly 50 years), religious space (mainline, Catholic, etc.), written at very general levels, and not well publicized.

This has changed dramatically. Since 1998, an explosion of materials, networks, and organizations has risen claiming the need for, rightness of, and necessity of multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural churches. Today there are hundreds of books, articles, blogs, workbooks, denominational offices, conferences, undergraduate and seminary courses, workshops, and websites, networks, and formal organizations that did not exist a decade ago.

Why is it large Protestant churches that we find the growth of multiracial congregations? Large Protestant congregations typically rely on innovation and accessing the latest market trends. It seems to be part of their DNA. Insofar as the multiracial church movement has occurred only in the past decade, large congregations are the fastest to learn of it, the first to be able to access it and to adopt its teachings and techniques. Large congregations have greater funding, larger staffs, a greater variety of programs, more developed recruitment strategies, and more of other resources than do smaller congregations.

For better or worse, large congregations are the bellwether of change to come. Smaller congregations look to them for the cutting edge trends, guidance and support. Willow Creek has this influence on at least the 10,000 plus congregations that belong to the Willow Creek Association.

The implication? The Christian color wall, solidly in place at least since the Civil War, is cracking. And those cracks may eventually grow to the point that the wall crumbles. Time will tell.

Michael O. Emerson is the Cline Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the co-author of “Divided by Faith” and “United by Faith.”

2 Comments

Implication

Michael I'm struck by the implication here of the importance of institutions. No matter how good an impulse a single congregation has, that is likely to fail without an ecology of institutions like the ones you name: conferences, publishers, websites etc. We call them 'vibrant institutions,' bearers of the gospel (I think here in terms of Mary). I'm struck by the implication that for those to come into being it's generally large congregations like Willow that birth them. I guess Bono thought the same when he figured to get American evangelicals energized over poverty in Africa he needed Hybels' help.

response to comment 1

Yes, absolutely, social change happens through inertia--it is extremely difficult for the pioneers, but if they are able to survice and continue, they can help build up an infrastructure of help--ultimately a social movement and all that entails--to make it more conceivable and doable for others. What also always matters is timing--social movements happen not only do to the efforts of people, but to the conditions being right--the soil becomes fertile.

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