Mission Lab


Racial diversity among churches elusive but improving, leaders say

February 17th, 2014 / By: David Roach | Baptist Press / comments


Southern Baptist churches across Texas increasingly strive to reach people from a variety of ethnicities, better representing the folks who live in surrounding neighborhoods. Photo by Rick Linthicum

More than eight in 10 non-Catholic pastors (85 percent) say every church should strive for racial diversity, but about an equal number (86 percent) say their churches are predominantly one racial or ethnic group, according to a recent survey by LifeWay Research.

“Everybody wants diversity,” Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, told Baptist Press. “But many don’t want to be around people who are different.”

In response to the study, Texas pastors and leaders the TEXAN contacted agreed that churches need to be more diverse but also cautioned that the survey doesn’t tell the whole story.

There is “something wrong” with a church in a diverse community that fails to reach a cross-section of the people, said Eric Shin, pastor of New Life Fellowship in Houston. Still, language differences and a desire to make racial minorities feel more comfortable are both justifiable reasons for having a church of predominantly one race, he said.

“I don’t necessarily think [having a racially homogenous church] is sin because we have the example and precedent in Scripture where Peter is sent to Jewish people and Paul is sent to Hellenistic people to reach out to them,” Shin said. “As long as a church is very mindful about [minorities] and their duty to accept them and help them assimilate into the church life, I think it’s OK” to have a congregation that is largely one race.

Shin’s congregation is comprised of 55 “house churches” that meet every Friday then come together for corporate worship on Sundays. The fellowship is 55 percent Korean and 45 percent other ethnicities, with various Asian nationalities, whites and blacks all represented.

Having immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s as a teenager, Shin said he knows the difficulty of minority people seeking a worship experience that reflects their native culture.

“We have to be open” to people of all races, he said. “But whether we like to admit it or not, I as an Asian American living in the United States—when I walk into a church that’s predominantly white people, I feel very isolated.” Churches geared toward specific ethnic groups play an important role in ministering to God’s diverse people, Shin said.

In a separate study, LifeWay Research found that about half (51 percent) of Americans say they would be most comfortable in a church where multiple ethnicities were well represented. Three-quarters say churches should reflect the diversity of their communities.

Underestimating Diversity
The study of pastors found that 91 percent say “churches should reflect the racial diversity in their community,” and 79 percent believe their congregations look similar to the people in their neighborhoods.

But Mark DeYmaz, pastor of Mosaic Church, a multiethnic church in central Arkansas, said pastors tend to underestimate their communities’ diversity.

“Pastors would do well to look into the diversity of nearby public schools and gauge this against the diversity of their church to really understand their context,” he told BP. “They might, too, spend one hour sitting at the front of the nearby Walmart or other local grocery to see if in fact their church reflects the community.”

Barry Calhoun, SBTC director of mobilization and fellowships, agreed that pastors are not always aware of the diversity in their communities. He suggested two ways churches can reach people of other races.

First, they can either begin a service in the heart language of an ethnic group or have simultaneous translation in the main worship service. In a translated service, music can be blended, with songs in both languages, he said.

Where there is no language barrier between the various racial groups in a community—as in neighborhoods with whites and African Americans—a church that wants to reach a diverse array of people should reflect the community’s diversity on its staff, Calhoun said.

“When you have an open position for a youth minister or a singles minister or whatever, you’ve got to be willing to staff according to the particular ethnic makeup of the community and not always have all your staffing of the same ethnicity,” he said. “Otherwise I think you’re just paying lip service to the idea that you’re open.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 17 percent of Americans identify as Hispanic. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, followed by Asian Americans (5 percent) and Native Americans or Native Alaskans (1 percent). Another 2.4 percent of the population identifies with more than one racial group.

Non-Hispanic whites make up 63 percent of the population. That number drops to about 49 percent for children under 5 years old, according to a recent report from the Associated Press.

At least one study suggests churches may be making strides toward reflecting America’s diversity.

The 2010 Faith Communities Today survey of 11,000 congregations found that about 13 percent of non-Catholic churches were multiethnic. In those churches no one ethnic group made up more than 80 percent of the congregation.

But Calhoun and Shin agreed that a measure of homogeneity is acceptable in churches, especially when the neighborhood around a church is predominantly one race.

“You can only pursue [diversity] to a point,” Calhoun said. “I don’t think you have to give up all that you are necessarily in order to reach others. Particularly in our context there is always another church around the next corner to some degree. But I think you have to be intentional to the degree that you’re willing to staff accordingly.”

A Multiethnic Gospel
Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, said churches must reflect the diversity of their communities because the gospel is inherently multiethnic.

“The passage that convinced me of this is in Ephesians, specifically Ephesians, chapter 3,” Sanchez said.

After Paul explained in Ephesians 3:6 that God brought Jews and Gentiles together in one church body, he said in verse 7, “Of this gospel I was made a minister”—an inherently race-uniting gospel, Sanchez said. The purpose of a multiethnic church, Sanchez said, is to show the “manifold wisdom of God” to cosmic powers, as verse 10 says.

“God’s wisdom is displayed to the cosmic powers when this gospel saves people from multiple ethnicities, gathers them together in one body and they function as family,” Sanchez said. “The miracle is not the diversity. The miracle is the diverse ethnicities living together in harmony. I think that is how God is greatly displayed.”

Churches that aim to reach only one group when they have an opportunity to be diverse misunderstand an important aspect of the gospel, he said.

“You can get cowboys together,” Sanchez said. “You can rope animals, you can do all the things that cowboys like to do, and you have gathered them around their affinity, what they like. But is God more glorified by getting a group of cowboys together to rope cows and read the Bible, or is God more glorified when you have cowboys and Indians together living as brothers and sisters in Christ?”

High Pointe—like the neighborhood around it—includes Hispanics, Anglos, Asians, African Americans and Africans, Sanchez said. At times the cultural differences are difficult to manage, but the rewards are worth the strain, he said, adding that one key to the church’s diversity has been hiring pastoral staff members from various ethnic groups.

At the same time he cautioned churches in all-white neighborhoods against feeling guilty about their lack of diversity when they lack opportunities to be multiethnic, as was the case at his former church in Madison, Ind.

Diverse Ministry Relationships
Mike Smith, president of Jacksonville College, said that in such cases, the other churches with which that church fellowships are a better indication of its openness to diversity than the race of its members. The congregation cannot control who chooses to worship with it, he said, and people gravitate toward others like themselves. But a church can control its relationships with other churches and ministries.

“A church can demonstrate openness to people of all races through its ministry, outreach, welcome and fellowship efforts,” he said. “But by and large a person decides what kind of church he wants to go to. A church can’t force diverse people to attend. A better indicator of racial inclusiveness is to look within the association. Is it diverse? Does it have Hispanic, African American and other ethnic churches? Do those pastors come and fellowship one with the other?”

A former director of missions and SBTC director of minister-church relations, Smith has helped mediate more than 3,000 cases of church conflict. He said race was not the basis of the trouble in any of those instances—though “cross-cultural” conflicts have arisen from different ethnic groups’ differing views of church life and polity.

The SBTC is an excellent model of cooperation between churches of different races, Smith said.

According to ACP data from 2013, 63 percent of the SBTC’s 2400-plus churches were predominantly Anglo. Eight percent were predominantly black and 7 percent predominantly Hispanic, with 16 percent of churches not reporting their racial composition. A small percentage of congregations reported their ethnicity as Asian Indian, Brazilian, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Napoli, Thai or Vietnamese.

At least 70 people from ethnic minority groups have served in leadership roles since the SBTC’s founding. Rudy Hernandez, a Hispanic, was the first non-Anglo to serve as president, and Terry Turner, an African American who just completed his second term as president, was the most recent non-Anglo to hold the post.

The convention’s “Look Like Heaven” effort—envisioned by Turner and adopted by the convention last fall—encourages SBTC churches to foster cross-cultural relationships and engage in joint missions  over a five-year period.

Also, the month of July is being set aside as a time for churches to emphasize ways such cross-cultural cooperation and work is being done. Pastors are being encouraged to swap pulpits with pastors of other ethnic groups, and churches are encouraged to join with churches not like them to do missions and fellowship together.

“Hard facts” reveal that “the SBTC has sought to demonstrate in every way possible that different ethnic groups are welcome in the convention,” Smith said.

For more information on Look Like Heaven, call Calhoun toll free at 877-953-7282 (SBTC) or email him at bcalhoun@sbtexas.com.

—Baptist Press contributed to this report.