“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you, are welcome here.” We include these words as part of our greeting before worship each Sunday, as do many United Church of Christ congregations. We’ve welcomed people of all races and ethnicities for as long as anyone can remember. In our racially diverse community just outside Philadelphia, we have been welcoming more members who are African-American, Hispanic, Native American or bi-racial. We are following a national trend. According to The United Church of Christ Statistical Profile for Fall 2015 increasing numbers of our congregations are multiracial.
But the United Church of Christ has a long way to go. It’s been twenty-three years since General Synod 19 passed a “Pronouncement Calling the United Church of Christ to be a Multiracial and Multicultural Church”. Yet, the statistical profile shows that 87% of our congregations are white/Euro-American, 4.7% of our congregations are African-American, 3.8% are Asian or Pacific Islanders, 3.5% are bi-racial or multi-racial and just .5% are Native American and .4% are Hispanic or Latino. The UCC is significantly less racially and culturally diverse than our nation as a whole. In part, this reflects our aging membership. Of people aged 85 and older, 85% are white, while nearly half of those under 5 are members of a racial or ethnic minority[i]. We have long said that including people of all races, is the right thing to do. As our nation becomes a majority minority society, it is also the only thing to do!
“Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers”, a recent study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion[ii], demonstrates that there may be other factors at work keeping Mainline churches from being racially inclusive besides our average age. Six researchers from the University of Connecticut noted that while all Mainline denominations have made statements in support of racial equality and inclusion, they are not very diverse in their membership. They point out that 90% of all mainline Protestants are white and 86% of all congregations draw at least 80% of their members from a single racial group. They wondered whether this was the result of churches being less welcoming to people of different races.
They designed an experiment to determine if churches treated potential new members differently on the basis of their perceived race. They sent identical emails to churches, identifying the writer as new to the community and asking for information about the church. The emails differed only in the names that were signed. They used different names that would be perceived as “white,” “black”, “Hispanic” or “Asian.” They sent them to randomly chosen Mainline Protestant,[iii] Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches around the country. Then, they measured how many emails received responses, how long the response took, how many words long was the response and content of the message. Content measures included “selling the church” and “warmth of the message.”
While there was some variation by denomination among the Mainline Protestant denominations, they concluded that “Mainline Protestant churches showed the greatest variation by race in both the quantity and quality of their responses.” They showed the most frequent and welcoming responses to white names, followed by black and Hispanic names, and lastly to Asian names. Hispanic names, for example, were three times as likely than whites to receive terse responses from Mainline churches. Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed significantly less variation in their response than did the Mainline Protestants.
United Church of Christ congregations were not included in the study. I’d like to think we’d be different, but our demographics suggest we would not. How would we do? How would your congregation do? Not just in responses to emails, but to the many ways we express our welcome (or fail to.) We say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Let’s pay close attention to how we live that.
[ii] Wright, Wallace, Wisnesky, Donnelly, Missari and Zozula “Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion May 2015 Vol. 54 No. 2 pp. 185-204.
[iii] Mainline churches were by the American Baptists, Episcopalians, ELCA, United Methodists, and PCUSA.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.