5 Ways to Make Your Racially Segregated Church More Diverse

Why Worship Music, Location and Language Make a Difference

Front of church building.
US churches remain racially segregated. Emmett Tullos/Flickr.com

One of Martin Luther King's most famous quotes concerns racial segregation and the American church. "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning…," King remarked in 1963.

Sadly, more than 50 years later, the church remains overwhelmingly racially divided. Only between 5 to 7.5 percent of churches in the U.S. are considered to be racially diverse, a designation meaning that at least 20 percent of a church's members don't belong to the predominant racial group there.

"Ninety percent of African-American Christians worship in all-black churches. Ninety percent of white American Christians worship in all-white churches," noted Chris Rice, coauthor of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. "…Years since the incredible victories of the civil rights movement, we continue to live in the trajectory of racial fragmentation. The biggest problem is that we don't see that as a problem."

The racial reconciliation movement of the 1990s, which sought to heal racial divides in the church, inspired religious institutions in America to make diversity a priority. The popularity of so-called megachurches, houses of worship with membership in the thousands, have also contributed to diversifying U.S. churches.

According to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University, the proportion of American churches with 20 percent or more minority participation has languished at about 7.5 percent for nearly a decade, Time magazine reports.

Megachurches, on the other hand, have quadrupled its minority membership--from 6 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2007.

So, how were these churches able to become more diverse, in spite of the church's long history of racial divides? Church leaders and members, alike, can help to ensure that members of all backgrounds attend their house of worship.

Everything from where a church serves to what kind of music it features during worship can influence its racial makeup.

Music Can Draw in a Diverse Group of Followers

What kind of worship music is featured regularly at your church? Traditional hymns? Gospel? Christian rock? If diversity is your goal, consider talking to your church leaders about mixing up the type of music played during worship. People of different racial groups will likely feel more comfortable attending an interracial church if the worship music they're accustomed to is featured on occasion. To sate the needs of his culturally diverse membership of blacks, whites and Latinos, the Rev. Rodney Woo of Wilcrest Baptist Church in Houston offers both gospel and traditional music during worship, he explained to CNN.

Serving in Diverse Locations Can Attract Diverse Worshippers

All churches engage in service activities of some sort. Where does your church volunteer and which groups does it serve? Often, the people served by a church share different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds from the church members themselves. Consider diversifying your church by inviting the recipients of church outreach to a worship service.

Try to launch service projects in a variety of communities, including those where different languages are spoken.

Some churches have launched worship services in the neighborhoods where they do outreach, making it easier for those they serve to participate in church. Moreover, staffers at some churches have even chosen to live in disadvantaged communities, so they can reach out to the needy and include them in church activities consistently.

Launch a Foreign Language Ministry

One way to combat racial segregation in church is to launch foreign language ministries. If church staffers or active members speak one or more foreign languages fluently, consider using their skills to launch a foreign language or bilingual worship service. A major reason Christians from immigrant backgrounds attend racially homogenous churches is because they aren't fluent enough in English to understand the sermons delivered at a church not specifically designed for people from their ethnic group.

Accordingly, many churches seeking to become interracial are launching ministries in different languages to reach out to immigrants.

Diversify Your Staff

If someone who'd never visited your church were to check out its Web site or read a church brochure, who would they see? Are the senior pastor and associate pastors all from the same racial background? What about the Sunday school teacher or the head of the women's ministry?

If the church leadership isn't diverse, why would you expect worshippers from diverse backgrounds to attend services there? No one wants to feel like an outsider, least of all in a place as intimate as church can be. Moreover, when racial minorities attend church and see a fellow minority among its leaders, it suggests that the church has made a serious investment in cultural diversity.

Understand the History of Segregation in the Church

Churches today aren't segregated simply because racial groups prefer to worship with their "own kind," but because of Jim Crow's legacy. When racial segregation was government sanctioned in the early 20th century, white Christians and Christians of color followed suit by worshipping separately as well. In fact, the reason the African Methodist Episcopal denomination came about was because black Christians were excluded from worshipping in white religious institutions.

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that schools must desegregate, however, churches began to reevaluate segregated worship. According to a June 20, 1955, article in Time, the Presbyterian Church was divided over the segregation issue, while Methodists and Catholics sometimes or frequently welcomed integration in church. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, assumed a pro-segregation stance.

As for Episcopalians, Time reported in 1955, "The Protestant Episcopal Church has a relatively liberal attitude toward integration. The North Georgia Convention recently declared that 'segregation on the basis of race alone is inconsistent with the principles of the Christian religion.' In Atlanta, while services are segregated, white and Negro children are confirmed together, and whites and Negroes are granted equal votes in diocesan conferences."

When trying to create a multiracial church, it's important to acknowledge the past, as some Christians of color may not be enthusiastic about joining churches that once excluded them from membership.

Wrapping Up

Diversifying a church isn't easy. As religious institutions engage in racial reconciliation, racial tensions inevitably surface. Some racial groups may feel that they're not being represented enough by a church, while other racial groups may feel that they are being attacked for having too much power. Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins address these issues in More Than Equals, as does Christian film "The Second Chance." 

Take advantage of literature, film and other available media as you set out to tackle the challenges of the interracial church.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Ways to Make Your Racially Segregated Church More Diverse." ThoughtCo, Jun. 30, 2016, thoughtco.com/diversify-your-racially-segregated-church-2834542. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, June 30). 5 Ways to Make Your Racially Segregated Church More Diverse. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/diversify-your-racially-segregated-church-2834542 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Ways to Make Your Racially Segregated Church More Diverse." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/diversify-your-racially-segregated-church-2834542 (accessed September 26, 2017).