Most Churches Are Not Ready to Be Ethnically Diverse: What You Can Do to Prepare Your Church

December 9, 2020

Is it real? Is the United States really becoming more diverse? I’ve had well-meaning people ask me these questions. They don’t see ethnic diversity in their circles. First, it’s possible to live in an area of the country that is largely homogenous. Second, and more likely, it’s easy to miss the growth of ethnic diversity. If you happen to be in a place that is largely homogenous, then it’s unlikely to remain so in the future because the demographic landscape in the United States is reaching a tipping point. We will soon become minority white.

The graph below reveals a striking trend. My grandparents came of age when the United States was 87% white. My future grandchildren will grow up in a nation that is minority white. Sometime around 2040, the United States will become minority white, but preschools are already minority white. In short, diversity is spreading out and getting younger. Ethnic diversity was once limited to large urban centers (New York, San Francisco, and Miami). Now people of ethnic backgrounds are moving everywhere. Additionally, the birth rates of immigrants are driving much of this change, which is why this shift is now evident in preschools.

In 1960, one in one thousand marriages was between a white person and a black person. Interracial marriage was still illegal in sixteen states. Today, one marriage in six is between ethnicities. By the time my young children get married, one in three marriages will be between ethnicities. This issue of diversity is not only a demographic reality, it’s a gospel reality. What humanity segregates, God brings back together. Racial segregation is a vile lie from the pit of hell.

More importantly, our churches should reflect this demographic change. Indeed, the church should lead with this demographic change. Public schools will become ethnically diverse simply because of who moves into the neighborhood. Why shouldn’t our churches also make this same shift? The tribes and nations are moving in together. The church should move out to them. Ethnically diverse neighborhoods are not Nineveh. They are a taste of Heaven.

While specific churches are leading the way with this issue, a movement of tens of thousands of churches does not exist. Perhaps we’re at the beginning stages of such a movement. I certainly hope so. For this movement to pick up steam, however, a few things will likely need to occur. Below are four ways more churches might transition to become multiethnic.

  • A diverse staff. In most cases, churches will not become more diverse until the staff is more diverse. This diversity is especially important with the visible staff positions, like senior pastors and worship pastors.
  • Heterogeneous mergers. Church mergers are becoming more prevalent. These mergers come in many shapes and sizes. However, we need to see more mergers between two (or three) congregations with different ethnicities. Most church mergers are homogenous—two churches with a similar make up of people.  Stories of heterogeneous mergers are far too rare.
  • Geographic focus. The last twenty-five years have brought about a renewed focus in church planting, as well as the proliferation of multisite churches. Planting sites and churches in diverse areas of the country is a huge need. These sites and new churches can start as multiethnic.
  • Preschool and children’s ministry. Even if a church might resist a merger, or even resist the idea of becoming multiethnic, the children of the church will never know the difference. If a church has a diverse preschool and children’s ministry, then within a generation, it’s more likely to be a multiethnic church.

These four paths of diversity are more general in nature. But there is a personal level. What can you do as an individual leader to help your church move towards cultural and racial diversity? Every church leader can do something. In fact, if pastors started doing these four items, then many strides could be made towards cultural and racial diversity in our churches.

  • Individual relationships. You should intentionally develop a relationship with another church leader in your community who is not of your ethnic background. When you build bridges to other leaders in this way, you also tear down walls in congregations.
  • Organizational relationships. You should get involved in an organization or event that is not for your ethnicity. Traveling to a different international context broadens your worldview. In the same way, getting involved with people of different ethnicities broadens your understanding of cultural issues in your own backyard.
  • Read more diversely. You should read books, blogs, and publications that have a different ethnic audience than your own. Diving into the ideas of others strengthens your appreciation for their struggles and victories.
  • Listen to people of color. Perhaps the easiest way to grow as a multiethnic leader is to listen to ethnic leaders. Simply pay attention to their social media feeds. Go to a meeting with them and observe. Attend their church and worship as they do. I bet you learn something.

The move towards racial and cultural diversity in our churches probably doesn’t feel like a pressing need. The tyranny of the urgent seems to get our attention on a daily basis. Growing ethnically comes more as a gnawing reminder that there is more to do. But this growth is important. In fact, the health of the church in twenty years depends upon our steps in this direction today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 Comments

  • Steve Cash says on

    I’m in. Just got to get the rest to buy in. That’s the hard part. We have not transformed as our community has.

  • Thank you so much for this article. We are seeing this trend within our family and our church and we celebrate! We continually say we want our church to look like heaven. The most segregated time in America is on Sunday mornings and, unfortunately, that is by choice.

  • Pastor Bruce Farnsley says on

    Pearl Baptist Church, SBC in New Albany, Indiana has one senior pastor and one associate pastor. Both are white. As of January 2021 we are adding another associate pastor which is black. We will be the first church in our association with segregated pastors.

  • John Draper says on

    In population centers with the greatest ethnic diversity, I believe we must be invested in multi-ethnic church planting, especially for the sake of the witness we need to have of healing and trust in relationships. Within SBC life, even among church planting couples, I believe we’ve seen more intercultural and interracial marriage that naturally connects with others who lament the still-present tendency of churches to have one dominant culture. And as you point out, an intercultural church planting team with a shared leadership model that learns from one another is one of the most important steps in churches creating an atmosphere where people of various backgrounds might “try” a church or fellowship and say, “I fit in here.”

  • Hi Thom,

    Great article. When I listen to you or read your Blogs and look at the totality of the situation that the church, its leaders, and congregations face – the church is facing one of the largest challenges it has encountered in the modern/post-modern age, and my concern is that we simply are not ready for it.

    You stated that most Post-Quarantine churches need some type of revitalization due to exacerbation and acceleration of all problem sets due to COVID-19, the ethnic and cultural diversity (or lack thereof) in many churches is another straw on the camel’s back. We can add it to increased governmental interference, possible future taxation of churches, the high and increasing closure rate of churches and resignation of pastors, etc.

    It is interesting though that when your solutions like getting back to basics in church, focusing on the Great Commission, looking at staff, policy, and organizational changes, I have found that most pastors, staff, boards, and congregants are quite dismissive of those suggestions. They seem to feel that they can handle the problems (internal and external) of 2024 (acceleration) with philosophies and systems designed in the 1960’s.

    If COVID has not woken us up – I wonder what will.

    Thanks for all your insights!

  • David D Smith says on

    Sam,

    Theologically and practically, Nazarenes have been so mission driven that diversity has not bothered us, OUTSIDE the US. However, it has not been like that regularly inside the US.

    The church I pastor is majority white, but in the nearly 17 years I have pastored here, we have had as much as 8 ethnicities be part of or join the church. African American, Native American, Indonesian, Mexican, Haitian, Polish, El Salvadorian, Guatemalan and Canadian. Some of these would be considered white, but they are culturally different than the majority here in East Tennessee.

    Because of immigration, jobs, and family issues all but the Native American, and Guatemalan have moved on. We are experiencing growth in special needs families right now, which is another category altogether. We are bringing in a special needs ministry practitioner in January to consult and give us direction. We have had a 5 year partnership with the Cienfuegos Cuba First Church of the Nazarene, where we help plant churches there and they come spend time with us here and I share the pulpit with them.

    I don’t know how to keep them beyond building relationships and loving them right where they are. Sometimes that is not enough because of ethnic pressure against those integrating from their families, and the unstable family life drives them to move.

    How do we go further, and be more effective?

  • More churches are being more cautious about becoming more relative ethnically. Not because they reject other races or color but because of the leftist ideology sneaking into churches with ideas that promote BLACK LIVES MATTER and WOKE ideas which are contrary to scripture. The Southern Baptists are going through this infiltration, i.e. First Baptist Church, Naples, FL.
    Such a tragedy to have such things going on in the Lord’s churches. Candlesticks will be removed!

  • Tom Lamkin says on

    I agree with your hope and recommendations. As a retired director of missions, I see more possibility of a multi-ethnic congregation worshiping in the same style than trying to pull people together with different worship style preferences. Those worship wars continue in my region. It is not the color of the skin that separates the people as several of the churches have as many as four different ethnic groups represented. It is the method of worship. That example of preschoolers growing up to accept diversity in color as natural may not translate into worship style acceptance. Homogeneity in our churches can still be a reality, but it will be based on worship style and not on skin color. A diversity of churches will continue to be needed, and their worship style can impact the predominant ethnic group that attends.

  • Sam,
    Your blog on ethnic diversity and the local church could not be more timely. I believe this is God’s opportunity for us to join Him in the advancement of His kingdom, if we have the courage to embrace it as essential to our mission. I serve a church in the process of revitalization, and am most encouraged by your remarks.

  • I appreciate your article and think that in an ideal world racial diversity might be a goal to thrive toward. On a practical level, it will never be achieved. There are several reasons why racial diversity will be very slow to happen or may never really take hold in America.
    1. Blacks and Whites do not share the same reality when it comes to the history and growing prevalence of racism in America all hastened by the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Whites believe that we live in a race neutral society when the reality is that White Christians have done more to set race relations back 100 years than at any point in history. White Christians support and believe that confederate monuments should remain in place. This may not be true for all White Christians, but it is true for the majority.
    2. Blacks and Whites do not share the same understanding of racial justice and racial injustice in America. White Christians do not believe there is a justice mandate in the Bible. Everything is spiritual for White Christians and not literal when it comes to doing justice (see Micah 6:8). When you down play Black liberation theology as a distortion of the truth, you deny my right for a contextual reading of Scripture and you demonstrate that you have no real understanding of the ministry of Jesus who lived in a world dominated by Roman oppression.
    3. White Christians do not believe that Black pastors know enough about the Bible to teach them anything. Hence, they will never come and sit under me because I do not know enough to give them spiritual direction. They would rather listen to someone who will not even address the real issues facing America, only what keeps them in the pulpit.
    4. Black Christians understand that in White churches you can only participate in the choirs and not the teaching and leading ministries, like deacons and trustees. You will just be a tithing and attending member, nothing more.
    5. Black Christians see diversity and the idea of merger as destruction of the history, tradition, and richness of Black church religious traditions. White Christians do not value anything that relates to Black religion in America.
    6. Whites do not believe that Blacks are religiously conservative. We are more conservative and or just as conservative in our views as White evangelicals. We do not believe in same sex marriage, abortion, or defunding the police.
    7. White Christians do not really believe that integration is the will of God. All you have to do is look at hiring, education, and all of the practices of “Bible believing” Christians. They say one thing, but practice something else entirely.
    8. Whites will never attend Black churches because of where we are located. The push is always to get us to come and join them. White people do not and have not ever made it a practice to attend one of our services, unless they are running for political office.
    I know these are some very difficult things to hear, but the reality is that going back to 17th and 18th centuries in America, White Christians made it clear that they could and would never accept Black Christians as nothing more than slaves. The White Church in America has been and continues to be the most persistent preserver of racial segregation in this country. I am a Black pastor who has served the same congregation for 37 1/2 years. I preach to people who face racial injustice and discrimination every day. Who will champion the cause of Black people if we all gather in churches where the belief is that racial animus does not exist. These are my reasons for saying and strongly believing that Sunday morning will always be the most segregated hour in America.

    • Pastor Guns, thank you for sharing. Your perspective is one that needs to be heard and respected.

    • vladislav says on

      Pastor Guns, I think I agree with you for the most part. As an immigrant I have visited different churches in the US out of curiosity, Black, Hispanic, immigrant… Black church we visited was amazing, the best quality music here, the whole 3 hours service and nobody in a hurry, never seen in any other church. Blacks the only race in the US who still majority goes to church every week (55%).

      I am a Slav (from which the word “slave” came from) from Eastern Europe. Millions of my people were captured and sold into slavery by Ottomans. Do I like the people who did it? Dislike very much. They still do not recognize that it was wrong and looks never will.

      Slavery in the US was wrong, cruel. The least we should recognize that. Not impatiently expect Blacks to get over and move on. Or worse I have heard from a Christian: “They should be happy, it’s better than in Africa”. What would I feel? We should pray not to be racist. We might think we are not but still be. If I adopt a black child do I think he/she would be discriminated? Would it be ok for my child to marry into a black family? Could I attend a black church, trust it’s leadership? Do we have black friends? We are segregated. Seeing funerals amazes me, either all Black or all White staying at the grave, that person didn’t have friends of the other race. We live in bubbles.

      Africans are discriminated in many parts of the world. China, India, Europe, Latin America. I think the US is steps better of the rest of the world. They do not even face it. We could do better. I see integrated churches in our area but mostly charismatic. Even liberal mainline denominations are white and shrinking and can not become diverse. Integrated churches change in style, the choice might be change or slowly disappear. Whites are minority in the world not just the US. The US starts reflecting the world.

      What incourages me is that during slavery, discrimination there were white Christians, a minority, who went against it. No matter what we can remain Christians. Also that African Americans despite of what white Christians did to their ancestors still many follow Christ. They might be better Christians than we are. Music, style, culture are different but how do I know which style Christ prefers? Or rather He looks at hearts. I should not care about monuments or elections, our time is ticking and there will be an end to all. I have seen streets renamed, history rewritten, monuments toppled, flags changed before. Colors of flags change, hatred is the same. Not worth it. Message of Christ lives through it and at the end the only thing which will be left.

  • Moses Shillow says on

    Thanks for sharing the realities of being more effective in reaching and making disciples as Jesus intended. I long for the day more of our congregations reflect a view of heaven on earth. I am thankful for the opportunities to minister to all ethnic groups, whether it is performing a wedding, officiating a funeral, etc.

    This article is on point. Thanks.

  • Michael Morris says on

    Sam, I agree in principle. In fact we do several of these things in an effort to move in that direction. However, your article was written from the assumption that your readers are white and also that the white church members are the only ones that need to move. Trust me. In our cooperative efforts, both sides can be resistant.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Michael – You bring up an excellent point about my perspective. But I did not intend to imply that white church members are the only ones who need to move. I simply want to do my part, and I will make the assumption other people of color have the same desire.

1 2