Does Theological Cluelessness = Church Segregation?

I want to make a connection between two different articles I read this afternoon and I’m curious whether you see the same correlations. The first was a synopsis on CNN of a new sociological study explaining why American churches remain so segregated.  A subscription is needed to access the entire article but the abstract provides a nice synopsis.

It has long been noted that religious congregations tend to be racially homogenous. Previous case studies assert that members of a numerical minority group face individual and organizational pressures that lead them to leave congregations faster than majority members. This can create a constant pull toward homogeneity despite congregational efforts to diversify. Building on theory in organizational ecology, we test this assertion using national, multi level data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. The analysis shows that members of a numerical minority do have shorter durations of membership than majority members and that the gap between the two increases with the size of the majority.

This analysis is hardly breaking news- people in the majority of a congregation stick around longer than those in the minority- but, as the CNN article points out, it is a reminder of the increasing gap between a person’s experience in church and the rest of his or her life.  Not surprisingly the article’s authors point to entrenched sociological reasons to explain the difficulties of sustaining racial diversity (defined as no one racial group accounting for more than 80% of the congregation).  While sociological reasons are certainly one way to understand this phenomenon I’m not convinced it is the only way we should look at church segregation.

The recently released “U. S. Religious Knowledge Survey” by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has raised plenty of discussion.  Especially interesting is the survey’s findings that atheists, Jews and Mormons all answered more questions correctly about “the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions” than did Protestants and Catholics.  There have been plenty of questions and theories about why Christians placed poorly in the survey.  Some interpret the data as further evidence of Christianity’s decline on the American religious landscape.

Martin Marty’s article about this survey was the second article I read this afternoon and I think it connects with the first.  Professor Marty takes a historical look at the research and finds that little has changed over the past fifty years.

I recently had occasion to revisit a book from that era by (my then Ph.D. co-advisor) Daniel J. Boorstin, later Librarian of Congress. His The Genius of American Politics came out when we were trying to make sense of the religious scene in the Eisenhower years, Herberg’s prime. At chapter length he noticed that “Perhaps never before in history has a people talked so much and said so little about its basic beliefs.” He gave many illustrations of practices in the then-as-now Overclothed Public Square. The U.S. Supreme Court rulings against school prayer and devotional Bible reading had not yet come down, but, never mind, when religious propagation and worship was still allowed and sometimes practiced in public schools and other such institutions, “we” were illiterate. There was no golden age, no time of “good old days.”

In other words, Professor Marty would expect to find the same level of religious and Biblical illiteracy among the nation’s Christians then as we find now.  This messes with the accepted narrative of America’s pluralistic decline into a morass of religious tolerance and ignorance, but I think it’s an important perspective to keep in mind while trying to make sense of the continued segregation of the American church.

In addition to historical and sociological reasons for the blatant lack of diversity (race, ethnicity, class) in most churches, could it also be that most American Christians have been taught a very shallow version of their faith?  The Pew research paints a picture of a group of folks accustomed to being in the religious majority whose membership is based more on convenience than on theological conviction.  If this is the case, then might many of those same people have no reason to believe that anything is the matter with church segregation?

There are many reasons that sustained congregational diversity is very hard work.  But these two articles make me wonder if at least one important starting point is to simply begin teaching and preaching about the boundary-breaking reconciliation that is meant to be normal, not exceptional, for every Christian.

What has been your experience with this?  Why don’t more churches pursue diverse community as a witness to and result of the Gospel?

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David Swanson
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville] on Chicago's South Side. He blogs often and has authored countless articles for prominent Christian publications.

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