How Diverse Should We Be?

This year, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study about diversity within American communities of faith (click here for the full report). According to Pew, the preponderance of denominations in the United States are less diverse than the U.S. as a whole. My denomination (the United Church of Christ) ranked as far less diverse than the U.S., yet still more diverse than several denominations.

While Pew’s research was strictly descriptive, their work raises an inevitable question about God’s call for the UCC in the coming years. To put it plainly: How diverse should we be?

We in the UCC pride ourselves on valuing racial and ethnic diversity. After all, we’re the church that ran ads like this. More than a decade after that ad campaign began, we’re more diverse than we were, going from 91% White to 89% White. Still, our denomination does not reflect America’s modern diversity:

Race and Religion 2

As seen above, we in the UCC are currently 89% White, 8% African-American, 2% Asian-American, less than 1% Latino, and less than 1% everyone else (including Native American, bi-racial, and more). After decades — nay, centuries — of pushing for racial integration in American society, we still have not integrated our own denomination.

Have we failed? If so, what happened? Have our goals been wrong, our aspirations out of reach, our strategies off-base?

As I’ve read and prayed about this research, I’ve found myself wondering if we need to ask a second question. In addition to asking “How diverse should we be?”, we may need to ask ourselves, “How should we be diverse?” Many of our congregations have sought to either formally or informally become Multiracial and Multicultural (M&M) congregations, proclaiming that “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Still, this undertaking has been difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst. This is true not just for the UCC but across denominations. Consider this report, which highlights the gaps between aspiration and reality among Senior Pastors (like me) in the U.S.:

  • 85% of us think that congregations should strive for racial diversity.
  • 91% of us say that congregations should reflect the racial and ethnic mix of their communities.
  • 13% of us report more than one predominant racial or ethnic group in our pews.

The percentages for laity are much the same. Across denominations, Christians overwhelmingly want to build and nurture M&M congregations … and we regularly fail to do so.

All In for Youth - Hand Circle ImageI see this struggle every day. I serve a congregation that has sought since its founding in the 1950s to be racially integrated. Sixty years on, our congregation is still overwhelmingly monoracial. My predecessors agonized over this gap, and I do, too. Our congregation will keep working to live out our M&M call, but I can tell you first-hand just how tough this work is. We’re hardly alone in the struggle. The number of M&M churches in the UCC is growing (as seen on page 5 of the UCC Statistical Profile for 2014), but it’s still less than 4% of our congregations.

If developing and maintaining M&M congregations is so hard (and potentially troublesome, according to this recent study), then what if we established more congregations that were explicitly defined by their racial and ethnic heritage? The UCC and its predecessor bodies have long had such congregations: English-American, German-American, African-American, Hungarian-American, and so forth. Such churches now often welcome individuals from beyond their heritage, but our churches have usually had an implicit (and sometimes explicit) agreement to honor and celebrate their particular roots.

In order to become the racially diverse denomination we aspire to be, do we need to abandon the hope of having large numbers of M&M congregations? Do we need to reinvigorate our new church start process by building churches that are explicitly defined by ethnicity? To complement the English-American and German-American churches we founded as immigrants of old, do we need to spend significant resources to establish and nurture churches in growing immigrant communities today — Mexican-American, Chinese-American, and Indian-American? Don’t write these groups off by saying “they’re all Catholic” (or Buddhist, or Hindu). Remember: English and German Protestants were also once Catholic (and before that, Pagan).

No matter what path(s) we take, the UCC has to become more racially and ethnically diverse if we’re going to have a vital future. We may well be on the right side of moral history, but as of today, we are definitely on the wrong side of demographic history. If we are to have a future – and that is an “if” – then we have to welcome a wider diversity in our denomination than we do right now. The challenge is in how we get there – and whether or not we have the will to do so.

David LindseyRev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.