As racial justice in the U.S. becomes an increasingly polarized topic, the majority of practicing Christians (80%) believes the Church can improve race dynamics by welcoming people of all ethnicities into congregations. Are multiracial churches part of the answer to race problems?
Barna partnered with Dr. Michael O. Emerson and the Racial Justice and Unity Center, through research funded by the Lilly Endowment, to explore what U.S. adults (including practicing Christians) believe about racism and racial justice issues. This article looks at recent data from the new Beyond Diversity project, exploring why some of the Church’s efforts toward unity in recent decades seem to be insufficient in helping to understand or rectify the challenges experienced by worshippers of color, especially Black individuals, for whom issues of race in the U.S. are front and center.
29% of Black Practicing Christians Have Experienced Racial Prejudice in a Multiracial Church
Perhaps you’d assume that a congregation that succeeds in drawing attendees of multiple races would be truly welcoming. The challenges depicted in the following charts, however, are profound: Almost three in 10 Black practicing Christians in a multiracial church (29%) say they have experienced racial prejudice on some level.
Granted, racial prejudice may still exist in the monoracial environment; even predominantly Black churches, on average, have a small percentage of non-Black worshippers, and in some cases colorism (prejudice based on skin tone within the same ethnic or racial group) could also be occurring. Even so, just 11 percent of Black practicing Christians report facing prejudice in a monoracial Black church. There is potentially greater cost for the Black worshipper who moves into a more diverse congregation and begins to have more cross-racial interactions in that faith community.
More than one-quarter of Black practicing Christians feels pressured to give up part of their racial or ethnic identity in a multiracial church (27%) and finds it difficult to build relationships here (28%). Finally, one-third of Black practicing Christians (33%) feels it is hard to move into a leadership position at a multiracial church.
There could be other factors not accounted for here—church size, beliefs about gender roles or organizational structure—that obstruct a path to leadership, whether in multi- or monoracial churches. In looking across all the questions in this series, however, it is clear that Black Christians face barriers to acceptance or personal growth even when they are in a racially diverse environment.
The data on Black Christians are most stark here; for Asian and Hispanic Christians, experiences of prejudice in a church aren’t so related to the congregation’s racial or ethnic makeup. This may be because Asian and Hispanic Christians are more likely than Black Christians to attend a language-specific enclave within a multiracial church where they can freely express their cultural identity.
But this difference among Black and other non-white groups is also helpful in assessing multiracial churches: If they don’t work well for Black individuals, for whom injustices in the U.S. have been deeply felt and particularly injurious, how well do they really work?
Black Practicing Christians Feel Pressure to Assimilate in Multiracial Congregations
Multiracial churches are often previously predominantly white churches that have made an intentional effort to become more diverse. Some of these churches have mostly white leadership (According to attendees of multiracial churches, half have leadership teams that are at least half white. One in four teams is at least 75% white, with 12% being completely white).
As a result, the existing norms, traditions, preferences and structures of the church have not significantly changed—except people of color are invited to join. This invitation often comes with an expectation, explicit or implicit, that people of color also assimilate, or fit in, by embracing songs, styles, messages, structures and communities which may be very different from those in their own racial and ethnic culture or previous church tradition.
Our data and focus group interviews affirm the experiences of many people of color who “code switch” to fit in with multiracial faith communities—that is, they feel pressure to dress, speak and otherwise present in a certain way that belies their identity in order to be accepted or taken seriously in a white normative church. Interviewees’ accounts show that such compartmentalization of behavior on an ongoing basis can be demoralizing or exhausting for individuals in the racial minority; in trying to fit in this way, they cannot authentically belong.
Furthermore, our focus group participants attest, Christians of color often face barriers to sharing their opinions, whether as a congregant or leader. Even if a multiracial organization brings in leaders of color, these individuals are not usually given real authority or ability to make change.
Given the state of race relations in the U.S. paired with the data above, church leaders might wonder, “If diversity is not enough, what will it take to move beyond statistical diversity toward flourishing community?” This question, and many others, are explored further in Barna’s Beyond Diversity report—which urges that diversity is not the destination of the Church’s role in racial justice.
Further research and resources:
- Purchase the Beyond Diversity report.
- Register for the free Beyond Diversity webinar, taking place April 29 at 1P ET.
- Access more data about Race and the Church on Barna Access Plus.
- Read about or watch a ChurchPulse Weekly conversation with Derwin Gray, author, speaker and pastor of a multiethnic church.
About the Research
This multi-faceted research study involved multiple phases of data collection in 2019 and 2020.
Qualitative research: Focus group interviews were conducted with 200 individuals from 20 churches and five cities. Group types covered men and women and multiple races, with the goal of examining the extensive diversity of peoples. Additional leader interviews were conducted with 67 leaders and experts and 68 church staff members from three churches.
Quantitative research: This study of 2,889 U.S. adults was conducted online between July 19 and August 5, 2019, via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled practicing Christians and Black, Asian and Hispanic adults. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.9 points at a 95 percent confidence interval.
In 2020, Barna (in partnership with Dynata) repeated some questions in a survey of 1,525 U.S. adults conducted online between June 18 and July 6, 2020, via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Black, Asian and Hispanic adults. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.8 points at a 95 percent confidence interval.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Barna Research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021