Creating Identity in Racially Diverse Congregations

By Kevin D. Dougherty & Kimberly R. Huyser

Racially diverse congregations do not develop automatically, even in the most culturally mixed and integrated communities (see Ammerman 1997). Overcoming ingrained customs of segregation requires an intentional effort on the part of any congregation in a racialized society. Integrating different ethnic groups requires a shift in core values and worldview (DeYoung et al. 2003). It requires cultivating a shared, collective identity that transcends participants’ personal ethnic identities (e.g., Garces-Foley 2007; Marti 2005).

The values, vision, structure, and practices connoting organizational identity are those features that are central, distinctive, and enduring to the organization. We see being intentional, experiential, and relational as central, distinctive features indicative of organizational identity for racially mixed congregations.  In our research we explored programming, leadership, worship, informal interactions, and small groups as proximate indicators of these features.

Racial Reconciliation Program

Are congregations emphasizing racial reconciliation programs more diverse than congregations that don’t?

Our findings showed that the sponsorship of a race relations program within a congregation is not a direct link to cultural intermixing, especially since we have no indication of how much popular support there is for such a program. After all, a top-down approach to racial inclusion may not take hold as a shared value among congregants.

Ethnically Diverse Staff

Do congregations led by clergy of a different ethnicity from the dominant group display greater membership diversity than congregations that don’t?

Our findings revealed that when the race of the pastor, or priest differs from the dominant racial group in a congregation, the racial representation of participants is likely to be more evenly mixed.  Recognizing and willingly submitting to the authority of someone culturally different is a powerful step toward integration for congregants. Yancey and Emerson (2003) found the role of leaders in promoting diversity to be the most prevalent route toward becoming a multiracial congregation. Yet a crucial clarification is in order here. Leaders of a different race or ethnicity have to be more than tokens to effectively move a congregation toward greater racial inclusiveness. They must possess the authority to lead. After all, putting persons of different cultural background together can increase racial hostility, especially when there is an inequality in power (Allport 1958).  The benefit to congregational diversity associated with clergy of a different race is greater within some traditions than others (e.g., evangelical Protestant congregations benefit more than do mainline Protestants). This may speak to the selection process of clergy in different religious traditions; mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopal Church place clergy into pulpits while Southern Baptist and other evangelical congregations call their own. The effect of denominational polity on congregational leadership, and undoubtedly in numerous other ways, is formative for congregational identity.

Charismatic Worship

Do congregations that emphasize experiential, charismatic worship have more racially diverse memberships than congregations that don’t?

Congregational worship has the power to include or exclude cultural groups. The very fact that congregations have “worship wars” highlights the importance of corporate song, prayer, and other elements of liturgy in defining religious identity at the individual level as well as at the organizational level. We argue that experiential worship is a basis for cultural inclusion. Our findings are supportive. Higher rates of racial diversity exist in congregations where religious services include electric guitars, drums, and bodily response from participants (i.e., applause, jumping, saying “Amen,” and/or speaking in tongues).  Worship as a formative part of congregational identity has the power to unite across cultural groups. Charismatic worship, in particular, seems to provide common ground for diverse constituents. Of particular importance is the finding that the relationship of charismatic worship to diversity is not merely a product of religious tradition. To test for this, we separated Pentecostal denominations from evangelical Protestant (e.g., Melton 1999). The Pentecostal tradition variable was not significant either with or without charismatic worship included in the model, nor did its presence render nonsignificant the coefficient for charismatic worship. Congregations emphasizing charismatic worship tend to be more racially diverse, regardless of religious tradition.

Small Groups

Is the accommodation of diversity through small groups in congregations a means for promoting intimacy and belonging?

Our findings show that small groups do correspond to higher rates of racial diversity in congregations.  The amount of time spent socializing before and after religious services does not demonstrate the same relevance to diversity. For example, non-Christian religious communities spend three times longer in informal interaction (103 minutes on average) than reported by Christian congregations (33 minutes on average). However, neither social time nor small groups verifies whether participants actually develop meaningful relationships. Small groups may provide opportunity without producing any greater level of actual connection. In fact, diversified programming may create internal segregation, whereby programs serve particular cultural groups without establishing connection between groups. A mixed-race church in Southern California exemplifies this. Small group composition in this evangelical congregation broke along ethnic lines, so that the largest group (Filipinos) was kept separate from members of statistically underrepresented groups (white, black, and Latino; Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005).


About the authors:


Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
Baylor University

Kimberly R. Huyser
Postdoctoral Fellow & Assistant Professor
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy
Department of Sociology
University of New Mexico

This article is an adapted and shortened version of Dougherty, K. D., & Huyser, K. R. (2008). “Racially Diverse Congregations: Organizational Identity and the Accommodation of Differences.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(1), 23–43, used by permission John Wiley & Sons Ltd., publishers.
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One Comment

  • Joel

    I recently joined a racially diverse church in the city a live at. My experience, to be honest, was of caution. I supposed to do some research before I became a member and I did. here at this site, help me a great deal with my new brothers and sisters in Christ intermingle. I’am a christian who attended a hispanic ministry for twenty five years. But now I have to pray in english, speak english at all times, I bought a bible in english, etc. It is been kinda of chalenge to me but; It worths the effort. Believe me it does.

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