Hues in the Pews

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, February 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

Hues in the Pews


Dart, John, The Christian Century


WHEN RODNEY WOO became pastor of Wilcrest Baptist Church in Houston in 1992, the all-white congregation averaged 200 worshipers. Faced with a declining membership, and situated in a neigborhood that was changing its racial composition, the congregation set out to invite people of color to church.

That is a survival strategy that frequently fails. But Woo now looks out at nearly 400 people of various hues in the pews. A third are Hispanics, some are African-Americans, and some are immigrants from more than a dozen countries.

"We have people coming in from long distances to be part of this experiment," said Woo, who holds a doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Visitors who have alternated between Wilcrest Baptist and their regular church tell him, "I can't believe my church is so white when I go back home."

Woo, 38, has a family profile that probably enhances his multiracial outreach in an urban setting. His father is half-Chinese, he grew up in an African-American neighborhood, and his wife is Hispanic.

But the racial or ethnic makeup of the pastor and spouse is but one factor among many contributing to a successful "mixed" church, according to a pioneering nationwide study by a team led by Michael Emerson, a sociologist at Rice University. Emerson coedited The Sociology of Religion and coauthored Divided by Faith, both books published last year.

The Congregations Project, based at Rice, is believed to be the first large study focused on racial and ethnic diversity within Christian houses of worship. Emerson and colleagues say the data show that mixed churches are a rare breed in America--counting for only 8 percent. The researchers regard a "mixed" congregation as one with at least 20 percent of its members providing racial or ethnic diversity.

Ironically, the poorest record on diversity--only 2 to 3 percent mixed on average--belongs to historic Protestant churches, which were among the first to trumpet the ideal of integrated congregations. Many mainline clergy were stirred by the civil rights movement of the 1960s to render obsolete the observation, usually attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., that "11 A.M. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week in America."

For many church leaders, an integrated sanctuary remains a goal, however elusive. "When we had interviews with pastors, we often heard them say, `The church ought to lead the way on this,'" Emerson said.

Emerson's project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, began with a telephone survey of 2,500 Americans about their congregations. Nearly 500 of those churches, selected at random, were sent mail surveys. Researchers then visited 30 churches in four metropolitan areas--Houston, Los Angeles and unnamed cities in the Midwest and Northeast. "We considered 18 of the churches to be `multiracial' as we defined it," said Emerson.

Catholic churches "are almost three times more likely to be multiracial than are Protestant congregations" because the large parish boundaries normally embrace several neighborhoods, he said. Yet the Congregations Project found less socialization and interaction between ethnic and racial groups in Catholic parishes, which often have separate masses for different language groups.

The more integrated churches among Protestants usually were the more theologically conservative, non-denominational congregations. Overall, the study found that only 7 percent of Protestant congregations nationally could be called "mixed."

The Congregations Project, which completed its field work this year but has yet to publish its findings, found fewer integrated churches than have some other recent surveys, apparently because it made some on-site checks of the estimates given by churchgoers and church representatives.

For instance, the 1998 National Congregations Survey, which also defined a racially mixed church as having at least 20 percent of members from minority groups, asked thousands of churchgoers about the makeup of their congregations. …

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