Are Racially Diverse Churches Integrated?

Practitioners of racially diverse churches and the scholars who study them know that becoming multiracial is a rare accomplishment. According to statistics from 2000, only about 5.5% of Protestant churches are “multiracial” when defined as a congregation where at least 20% of the congregants is composed of a different race1.  To what degree, however, are racially diverse churches truly integrated? That is, are interracial relationships—which provide opportunities for intercultural understanding, reduce prejudice and conflict, and increase positive racial attitudes—actually being formed? Or, do congregants tend to remain in their own ethnic and racial relational silos?

Racial diversity only describes the possibility of cross-race relational ties; cross-race relationships are a marker of a racially integrated community.  The existence of such community speaks to the potential for racially diverse churches to make a positive impact on race relations and to demonstrate what it means to be a reconciling and reconciled people. Interracial ties are also indicative of the sustainability of the racial diversity in congregations because they counteract the tendency for minority members to leave2.

However, research shows us that interracial friendship, and especially close interracial friendship, is uncommon. We tend to befriend those who we perceive as similar to us, and race is the most powerful marker of similarity in our society.  Close friendships are characterized by racial similarity more than similarity in any other demographic category, including gender, age, religion, and socioeconomic status (education, occupation, and social class)3. Even in racially diverse environments, where you would expect to find more interracial relationships, racial similarity in friendship is above and beyond what would be predicted based on the racial composition4. I found the same to be true in racially diverse churches as well.

Through analyses of a nationally representative sample of Protestant churchgoers (Panel Study of American Race and Ethnicity), I found that the rate of close interracial friendship is below what one would expect given the racial make-up of the congregation. Accounting for the propensity to make close church friends as well as other factors such as church participation and socioeconomic status, I also found that the larger the proportion of one’s own racial group in the congregation, the less likely one is to have close interracial friends. Paradoxically, greater racial diversity in the congregation does not correspond to a greater likelihood of interracial friendship, which is a well-established finding in research on schools.  I believe both findings can be attributed to the same social fact: when there are more same- race people to choose from, it will reduce the likelihood of forming close relationships with different race others.

So what are some factors that increase the likelihood of close interracial friendship? The results of my study showed interracial friendship to be more likely for those who develop many close friends in their congregations.  Independent of that, whites are the least likely to have close interracial friends. Also, those who felt their racial identity was not important and those who felt their religious identity was very important were more likely to have close interracial friendships.

These findings demonstrate the double (and not mutually exclusive) challenge of racially diverse congregations—to integrate demographically and to integrate relationally. It is tempting to think that racial diversity accomplishes the task of Christ-like community. These results, however, point to the importance of the primary work of congregations, no matter what the racial makeup—to foster a heart-level outworking of spiritual family and to foster a faith that realizes the possibilities when our core identity is in Christ.

  1. Emerson, Michael O. 2006. People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Popielarz, Pamela A. and J. Miller McPherson. 1995. “On the Edge or in between: Niche Position, Niche Overlap, and the Duration of Voluntary Association Memberships.” The American Journal of Sociology 101:698-720.
  3. McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27:415-44.
  4. Marsden, Peter V. 1987. “Core Discussion Networks of Americans.” American Sociological Review 52:122-31.
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  • bob rasmussen

    This article makes an important point. Not only do we in ministry need intentionality in welcoming all people into our Sunday morning experience, but we must be equally intentional about encouraging individuals and families in our congregation to reach out to those who are different ethnically and economically. The key reason for doing this is that we need each other, even though we are not aware that we do. My life has been enriched, as a white person, by the friendships I am building with African-Americans in the church I attend, with my wife. But in my busy schedule, I must work a lot harder at it to really maximize the possibilities. Thanks for a good reminder.

  • Willie O. Peterson

    What an intellectually challenging article regarding interracial relationship within the diverse church. Two thoughts came to mind as I read the article.

    First, what is the unstated assumption behind the essay? It seems implied that “Significant interracial relationships are a key measurement of diverse church authenticity or success”. A second thought is, “By what biblical authority is this expectation imposed upon a diverse congregation?” I will confess to being perhaps a bit too nervous concerning social science criteria establishing precedent for the diverse congregation. I argue first for biblical authority, without denying the contribution of social science. But if we examine the biblical text where is it even, indirectly raised “To what degree, however, are racially diverse churches truly integrated?”

    The Bible seems decisively concerned with the opposite end of the continuum. It is clearly in opposition to those who refuse to welcome others, or to those who object to the inclusion of others. The diverse church, according to John chapter seventeen, is first a theological statement before it is a social movement- while it is that too. The prayer of Jesus links the lost world’s observation of the unity of believers, with the authentication of the incarnation. Thank you.

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