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Study: Multiracial churches growing, but racial unity may be elusive

Image via Transformation Church Facebook page

(RNS) — Derwin Gray and his wife, Vicki, founded Transformation Church in Lancaster County, S.C., 10 years ago, with the goal of gathering a congregation that reflected the racial demographics of the public schools in the area just across the border from Charlotte, N.C.

They more than succeeded. The nondenominational church led by a Black pastor is about 58% white; the rest are Black, Latino and Asian. (The county is 71% white and 21% Black.)

With thousands of people watching its online-only weekend services, the congregation is thriving.

A new study suggests churches like Transformation are becoming more common.

The paper, based on the fourth wave of the National Congregations Study, finds that the number of multiracial congregations in the United States has increased substantially over the past 20 years, a welcome change to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous complaint that 11 o’clock Sunday is the most segregated hour in America.

The way Gray, a football-player-turned-pastor, sees it: “We have a fundamental belief that the work of Jesus Christ not only forgives people of sins but creates a family of different color skins. This is the family promised to Abraham.”

According to the study, which will be published next month in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of multiracial congregations across the U.S. grew to 16% in 2019, up from 6% in 1998. Multiracial congregations were defined as those in which no one racial or ethnic group constituted more than 80 percent of the congregation’s participants.

The study also found Black pastors, like Gray, are increasingly leading these multiracial churches.

The expansion can be found across the Christian spectrum, but particularly among mainline Protestant churches such as Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well as evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Catholic churches saw the smallest growth in multiracial congregations.

The latest wave of the study consisted of a nationally representative sample of 1,262 respondents consisting of clergy or congregational leaders.  

The authors of the study, however, issued an important caveat: Diversity is a one-way street. Blacks are joining predominantly white congregations. Few whites join predominantly Black churches.

“The percentage of Black congregations bringing in white worshippers is less than 1%,” said Kevin Dougherty, a sociologist at Baylor University and one of the study’s co-authors. One reason may be that Black churches are typically smaller and poorer, with fewer programming options.

But in spite of the good news, scholars caution that many multiracial congregations fail. 

“These spaces can actually create a good deal of pain for people of color,” said Korie Little Edwards, a sociologist at Ohio State University who wrote “The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches.”

“In many ways (people of color) are expected to assimilate to the dominant white culture. They end up having to hide or let go of their own cultural preferences and minimizing their ethnic and racial identity.”

White congregations began initiatives to diversify churches in the 1990s as part of an earlier racial reckoning, said Gerardo Marti, a sociologist at Davidson College. But Marti said many of the initiatives were superficial, like Black people featured in church literature or website photos, Black gospel or Latin hymns added to the worship mix, or the hiring of nonwhite worship leaders.

“After attempting to do this for quite a while, most churches have given up on the project,” Marti said. “That energy has dissipated. It’s too hard.”

Churches that were conceived as multiracial congregations may be better off, according to Gray.

“To truly do a multiethnic church it has to start off as a church plant,” he said.

Even then, the format requires patience and intentionality.

“It’s not a church-growth strategy,” said Ryan Brooks, the Black pastor of Vertical, a 7-year-old multicultural church in Hillsborough, N.C. “It’s a gospel strategy. If you want something to grow very big and very fast, make it extremely comfortable.”

In this election season, that has been particularly difficult.

Racial tensions, which have escalated in recent years, have stymied diversity initiatives. Many evangelicals have pushed back against the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The project of creating a multiracial church has become more suspect among some conservative white churches,” said Marti, author of “American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency.”

But those churches that started with an intention to be multiracial say the work is ongoing and worth it.

“I don’t believe diversity is the goal,” said Brooks. “The goal is unity in Scripture. When unity is the goal, diversity is the byproduct.”

From Religion News Service via The Associated Press. May not be republished.