Changing Trends in the Church: Racial/Ethnic Diversity

This week, we are exploring a major trend identified in the latest wave of the National Congregations Study (NCS). According to its website, the NCS serves as “an ongoing national survey effort to gather information about the basic characteristics of America’s congregations. The first wave of the NCS took place in 1998, Wave II was fielded in 2006–07, and Wave III was completed in 2012. The study was repeated in order to track both continuity and change among American congregations.”

This particular survey tracks some of the same trends that the Faith Communities Today (FACT) Survey also measures, but the methodology is quite different. (Note: UCC congregations are invited to participate in the FACT 2015 Survey now through March 31. Additional information can be found here or here.) Preliminary results of the NCS (Wave III) were published in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; and I’ll be sharing one of those major findings and providing a bit of context for, and comparison with, UCC congregations in light of these identified trends.

A major finding of this report is that congregations have become more racially / ethnically diverse over time. Since the first wave of the survey in 1998, the population of congregations itself increased in diversity. For example, only 1.4 percent of churchgoers attended predominantly Hispanic churches in 1998; in 2012, the percentage increased to 7.7 of surveyed churchgoers.

While this is good news, the more striking finding is this: Congregations, specifically predominantly white congregations, have become more internally diverse since 1998. The percentage of total congregations that are 100% white has decreased steadily–from 19.7% in 1998 to 11.0% in 2012. Mark Chaves, director of the NCS, states, “In 2012, clear majorities of churchgoers in predominantly white congregations were in congregations with at least some blacks (69.0%) or Hispanics (61.7%), and almost half (48.0%) were in congregations with at least some Asians. These are all notable increases since 1998” (2014).

In addition, the percentage of churches in which there was no single ethnic / racial majority increased over time–from 15.3% of total congregations in 1998 to 19.7% of total congregations in 2012. While these increases are significant, Chaves is quick to assert that “86% of American congregations (containing 80% of religious service attendees) remain overwhelmingly white or black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever” (2014). Regardless, it’s a positive sign that congregations in the U.S. are becoming more diverse over time, particularly in light of the impacts of immigration and increased interracial relationships.

These trends are mirrored among UCC congregations. As reported in the 2014 UCC Statistical Profile, a significant majority (87.2%) of congregations self-identified as primarily White / Euro-American; however, since 2002, the number of White / Euro-American congregations declined by 3.8%. While African American and Hispanic / Latino(a) congregations decreased slightly in that same time period (by acumulative total of less than 1.0%), the number of Bi-Racial/Multi-Racial and Other congregations experienced the greatest increase by 2.5%, followed by Asian / Pacific Islander congregations by 1.7% and Native American congregations by 0.3%. In reality, the UCC is becoming more racially / ethnically diverse due to the increase of congregations in which a majority of participants identify with one particular racial / ethnic group, as well as a significant increase in the percentage of congregations that do not possess a majority race / ethnicity. These increases are quite similar to what is reported by the NCS–I believe this is good news to be celebrated!

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