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Racial/ethnic diversity and denomination decline

Over the last few months I focused most of my work on partisan politics -- delighted that so many recent events have been congruent with my intuitions and arguments in Right-Wing Critics. But I am starting to turn my attention back to questions of religion and demography, and will probably be thinking about these issues much over the summer. I am particularly interested in the decline of the major Christian denominations in the United States. As I've indicated before, I find the argument that low-birthrates are a key catalyst for many of this decline. But this is not the only possible explanation (the most likely scenario, in my view, is that there are several explanations that are partially right). One common argument is that many churches are declining because they are insufficiently diverse. This idea deserves consideration.

Although there are some religious denominations that deliberately embrace their ethnic or racial heritage, such as certain orthodox denominations and historically black denominations, all major Christian denominations are officially racially inclusive. That said, in an overwhelming majority of congregations in America, at least four-fifths of all members are from a single racial group.[i] In fact, the lack of greater diversity within many denominations has been a persistent source of consternation for many church leaders – both mainline and Evangelical. Is there a difference between mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants when it comes to racial integration?

Another question worth asking is whether or not diversity is an important predictor of a denomination’s overall health. Many denominations are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white. For many church leaders, this is a viewed as a problem in and of itself. A failure to attract new members from diverse backgrounds may be taken as prime facie evidence that an individual church or entire denomination continues to exhibit signs of intolerance, or at least does not actively seek to provide a welcoming atmosphere. My own attitude toward ethnically homogenous churches is generally less negative; in my view, the fact that people from different cultural backgrounds have different preferences when it comes to worship is not necessarily evidence that these different groups harbor any ill-will toward others. That said, a church that almost exclusively services a population that is rapidly shrinking as a percentage of the population, and that is also going to shrink in terms of absolute numbers, may also expect to shrink as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers. However, before we embrace greater diversity as a panacea for shrinking churches, it is worth first examining whether there is any relationship between diversity and denominational growth and decline.

To consider this question, we can look again the 2014 Pew data. This survey helpfully also provides the racial makeup of each of the largest denominations. For now, it makes sense to look at the most simplistic measure of diversity: the percentage of a denomination that identifies as something other than non-Hispanic white.

We do see some compelling evidence that those denominations that are less white tend to be shrinking at a slower rate, or even growing. The correlation coefficient for percent non-white and percentage change between 2007 and 2014 was a moderate 0.58. Further, as was the case with family size, the relationship appears to be linear. We can see this relationship in the figure below.

Evangelical Protestants are tremendously different from one another when it comes to other major social characteristics, but we cannot say that mainline churches are homogenously white whereas Evangelical churces are diverse. It is true that the largest and best known mainline Protestants are overwhelmingly white; the vast majority of ELCA and UMC members are white. The American Baptists (classified as mainline), however, are one of the more diverse groups we see – though still whiter than the overall U.S. population. We also see that many Evangelical denominations look very much like their mainline counterparts when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity. The LCMS is almost as white as the ELCA. The Southern Baptists are still only 15 percent non-white.

More to the point of the figure above, one could argue that greater diversity is a boon to a denomination. That said, it is not a magic bullet. After Adventists, who are more than three-fifths non-white, Catholics are the least white (in terms of percentages) of all the largest U.S. denominational groups. Yet the decline for Catholics has been no less pronounced than it is for many Protestant groups that remain overwhelmingly white. There are also cases where a denomination remains extraordinarily white, yet continue to grow. For example, independent Baptists remain 88 percent white, yet this category grew by almost six percent over this seven year period. Non-denominational Evangelicals are, by a strong margin, the fastest growing of the religious groups considered here, yet this group is also almost three-quarters white – considerably whiter than the U.S. as a whole.

If we accept the idea that greater diversity leads to thriving congregations and denominations, a difficult follow-up question must be asked: how is this achieved. Unfortunately for those Protestant denominations that are very white and shrinking, we do not have an obvious model to use and replicate if they wish to grow their ranks via non-white converts. Catholicism in the United States became less white, for the most part, because of millions of non-white immigrants who were Catholic before they arrived. The Catholic Church in the U.S. is furthermore shrinking despite the immigrants who buttress its numbers.

Adventists are by far the most racially diverse group considered here. It is also one of the fastest growing denominational categories, and much of that growth comes from immigrants or the children of immigrants. That said, unlike Catholics, the new immigrant Adventists did not come from countries that were overwhelmingly Adventist – no such country exists. This means that Adventists are doing a good job of drawing in people from other religious backgrounds. But it is not entirely clear whether the Adventist model can be easily borrowed by Lutherans, Episcopalians, and other denominations that have not had as much success.

There is another point to keep in mind when emphasizing the importance of achieving some “correct” amount of racial diversity for each major denomination. Although there are unchurched people of all races and ethnicities that could be persuaded to join any particular congregation, there are also many denominations and individual churches that have historically served specific minority groups. In order for all other denominations to have a percentage of black members that is identical to the overall U.S. population, huge numbers of these congregations would need to be persuaded to leave their church to join another. We could similarly argue that a massive increase of Hispanics in Protestant churches will largely come at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church. This point was made well by Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition:

If we’re doing this exercise for only one denomination, we may not have any problems achieving our intended racial mix. We could easily find enough members and not make any other denominations less diverse. But what happens when we try to make all Christian denominations more diverse by increasing their percentage of black members? Eventually we’d need to lure away members from the groups that have the most black members to “spare”: the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the National Baptist Convention.

As you might imagine, increasing diversity by “sheep stealing” from predominantly black denominations is a solution that many black Americans—even those who don’t attend those denominations—would find offensive. Yet therein lies the problem for increasing diversity in the other denominations. There is simply not a large enough number of black Americans to have both census quota diversity and large, predominantly black denominations.

This is not to say that increasing diversity within denominations should not be a goal. It also does not imply that local churches should use this as an excuse for not trying to increase outreach to minorities. Local churches have the ability to increase diversity in ways that may not be achievable at the denominational level.

But what such rudimentary analysis can show is that we need a more sophisticated way of determining just what diversity in denominations would look like. We can’t assume, for instance, that just because 12 percent of the population is black that 12 percent of our denominations should be comprised of black members. We also can’t automatically take pride in the fact that our denomination may be more diverse than another denomination, since the comparisons may obscure relevant factors. [ii]

As an aside, if religious groups are going to be criticized for not possessing racial and ethnic characteristics that mirror those of the nation at large, it is worth noting that the irreligious are also demographically different from the nation overall. According to Pew, in 2014, 78 percent of atheists and 79 percent of agnostics were non-Hispanic white. The memberships of many large denominations tend to be much more white than the nation overall, but so are the ranks of those who completely reject organized religion.

Although I have misgivings with the argument that non-diverse churches per se are a problem, as well as the argument that greater diversity can solve the problems faced by declining denominations, there is evidence that some denominations do a better job at embracing people from diverse backgrounds than others. Wright et al. performed a study to determine whether race and ethnicity was a factor in how welcoming different denominations were, on average, to potential newcomers.[iii] In this study, the researchers sent e-mails to thousands of different churches from multiple denominations, informing the church that they were moving to the area and were seeking information about their congregation. They systematically varied the name attached to the e-mail to be stereotypically white, black, Hispanic, and Asian, in order to see if different names were more or less likely to receive a response. They found that, overall, Christian churches were more likely to respond to a white-sounding name. But there was a great deal of variation. The subsequent statistical analysis yielded interesting results. Of all the denomination types, mainline Protestants were the most likely to exhibit discriminatory behavior when it came to responding to inquiries. Evangelical Protestants were less likely to show a discriminatory pattern. This is interesting because, when it comes to official positions, mainline Protestants are more likely to actively oppose racial discrimination. Yet when it comes to actual outreach to minorities, they appear less welcoming than evangelical Protestants, who have been historically less vocal on questions of racial injustice.

[i] National Congregations Study, “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century,” 2007, accessed January 6, 2016,

[ii] Joe Carter, “Why Increasing Racial Diversity in Denominations is a Math Problem,” The Gospel Coalition, August 7, 2015, accessed December 26, 2015,

[iii] Bradley R.E. Wright, Christopher M. Donnelly, Michael Wallace, Stacy Missari, Annie Scola Wisnesky, Christine Zozula, “Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 54(2015), 185-204

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