The Pew Research Center has released a fascinating chart this week on racial and ethnic diversity within American churches. Pew uses data from the 2014 Religious Landscape Study to reveal that levels of diversity vary widely within U.S. religious groups.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation,” but it appears some religious groups are experiencing more success than others in overcoming this historic separation.
Pew’s analysis includes five racial and ethnic groups: Hispanics, as well as non-Hispanic whites, blacks, Asians and an umbrella category of other races and mixed-race Americans.
Some of the results won’t come as a surprise: Protestant Mainline denominations continue to be very, very white, while the Roman Catholic Church and an assortment of Pentecostal churches (including the Assemblies of God and Church of God) are quite diverse. Seventh Day Adventists ranked the most diverse among the 29 groups examined, with adherents 37 percent white, 32 percent black, 15 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian and 8 percent mixed or other races.
With a national population that is 66 percent white and shrinking, churches generally understand that they need to minister to races and ethnicities other than their customary constituency if they are to grow. Unsurprisingly, groups that have struggled to broaden outside of their northern European ethnic roots, such as Lutherans (both ELCA and LCMS) have faced significant decline in recent years, despite stark differences in theology. In short, if your church is made up of an ethnic group that isn’t having children, you are in trouble.
Theology may have an impact on demographics, however: the Pew study reveals that the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has a smaller percentage of white adherents (80 percent) than the more liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (88 percent). Similarly, the traditionalist Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has a smaller percentage of whites (83 percent) than the Episcopal Church (90 percent) which it broke away from over doctrinal disagreements. An exception is the Southern Baptist Convention (85 percent white) which is less diverse than the oldline American Baptist Churches (73 percent white).
Denominations like the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church have prioritized placing ethnic minorities in high-visibility leadership positions, but at 89 and 94 percent white percentages, respectively, this has not significantly contributed to a more diverse membership. Episcopalians recently elected their first African American presiding bishop, but the denomination is 90 percent white.
An important caveat to these numbers: they reveal the ethnic composition of entire denominations, but not the diversity of individual congregations within the denomination. Some denominations remain effectively segregated while simultaneously successfully building church communities of different ethnicities.
Church conferences have for years addressed how to minister among different racial and ethnic groups, prescribing the planting of new churches in minority neighborhoods, changing music styles and offering services in the native languages of recent immigrants. Some of these strategies meet with success, others do not.
Anecdotally, a pastor doing ministry in the Episcopal Church once explained to me that there were abundant opportunities for ministry among recent migrants, but that most dioceses in his majority-white church were disinterested pursuing them. Churches, he explained, are willing to fund startup costs for new congregations for a few years, but won’t fund a project if there isn’t a long-term path to financial self-sufficiency. A church plant among an ethnic group could attract hundreds of attendees, but would be considered non-viable if such a congregation could only afford half of the pastor’s salary, and required diocesan support for the rest. If this mindset is widespread, we can understand how some of these denominations are self-selecting members based on preconceived notions of success.
Consider some Episcopal congregations in Northern Virginia, an immigrant-heavy region of the country where the Episcopal diocese has worked for over 20 years to build immigrant-focused congregations. La Iglesia de Santa Maria in Falls Church, Virginia is a successful example of a congregation launched for Spanish speakers. Launched in the mid-2000s, the church in 2013 reported over 300 members and an astounding attendance of over 700. But the congregation reports plate-and-pledge revenue of only $95,000 – a modest sum that does not cover the costs of operating the church.
In neighboring Arlington, English-speaking St. John’ s Episcopal Church has a small attendance of 45 and a membership of less than 70, but reports plate-and-pledge of nearly $150,000. Nearby La Iglesia de Cristo Rey has an attendance of almost double that at just under 80 persons and membership of about 150 – but plate-and-pledge is only $24,000 a year. La Iglesia de San Jose, also in Arlington, has an attendance of 90 and a membership of just under 200, but a plate-and-pledge of $40,000. In the same building, St. George’s Episcopal Church has about double the membership and attendance, but plate-and-pledge over half a million dollars.
Economic class probably plays a significant role in the ability or inability of these congregations to financially sustain themselves. Cultural familiarity with the practice of tithing can also have an impact. An Orthodox friend of mine once shared that his relatively small parish comprised of converts from Protestant Christianity was considered much healthier financially than larger ethnic or heritage congregations in the same diocese – former Protestants were already trained in tithing, whereas immigrants from countries with a history of state-supported churches were unprepared to give a large percentage of income.
Churches are limited by cultures that attract like to like, but they are also limited by a lack of willingness to invest in or financially support congregations that do not have their own financial resources, even if it means reaching outside of their traditional ethnic constituency. In the coming years as the share of the U.S. White population declines, it will be interesting to see which religious groups have successfully adapted – and which ones have not.