U.S. churchgoers still sit in segregated pews, and most are OK with that

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David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

WASHINGTON (RNS) On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15), just as the civil rights drama “Selma” was nominated for best picture in the Oscar race, one fact of American life was little changed.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Sunday morning remains, as King once observed, the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, new research shows that most Americans are OK with that.

Two in three (66 percent) Americans have never regularly attended a place of worship where they were an ethnic minority, according to new polling analysis released by LifeWay Research.

“People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based research firm. 

“Maybe their sense is that church is the space where they don’t have to worry about issues like this,” he said. But that could be a problem, because, Stetzer said, “If you don’t like diversity, you’re really not going to like heaven.” 

LifeWay did three surveys last September examining how people do — or don’t — experience diversity at church and their views toward diversity.

One survey focused on 994 people who said they go to church at least on holidays if not more often:

  • 67 percent say their church has done enough to become more ethnically diverse.
  • 40 percent want to see more diversity.
  • 71 percent of evangelicals say their church is diverse enough.
  • Race and ethnicity reveal sharp differences. Only 37 percent of whites want their church to be more diverse, compared to 47 percent of Hispanic Americans and 51 percent of African-Americans.

Among 1,000 American adults, 82 percent say diversity is good for the country — but not necessarily in their church pews.

  • Of the 34 percent of Americans who say they have worshipped regularly where they were a minority, one in five of them said their minority status hindered their involvement.
  • 22 percent have never experienced being a minority at church, but they think it would make them uncomfortable.
  • There’s not much urgency about diversity. Half of those surveyed think the churches are “too segregated,” but 44 percent disagree.

The survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors found 43 percent say they speak about racial reconciliation once a year or less.


  • One day you may actually quote someone who is not in the business of making a condescending twit out of themselves. The only circumstance in which this man’s observation could be a valid inference would be in comparing congregations with a similar liturgy, hymnody, or order of service in comparable neighborhoods. Blacks are commonly Baptist, African Methodist, or Holiness and attend services which manifest a particular sort of sensibility. Not everyone there with that, among them the majority of American Christians who are neither Baptist, Methodist, or pentacostalist. Relatively few blacks are familiar with and avail themselves of the Byzantine-rite. I do not attend Byzantine-rite services for that reason nor will I cease because such are insufficiently ‘integrated’.

  • Evan

    WHY do they think there are SO many denominations of supposedly the same belief in Jesus?? Diversity is one thing most people DO NOT want in their church because as Art says each group of people have a uniquely distinct liturgy of worship. Only if they want to change their form of worship would they go to another church. Each culture has it’s own religious doctrine. There are some things I like about several of the different denominations but I don’t think I will ever find a church that practices all of them at the same time!!

  • When a person states that another won’t like Heaven based on X reason he loses credibility with me.
    After all, does he truly think we’ll enter God’s presence just as we presently are?
    Such a statement demonstrates an ignorance of what happens in the resurrection.

  • Oscar

    I’m a New Zealand citizen (little country halfway between the Equator and the South Pole, in the Pacific Ocean).
    When I was young my parents joined a U.S. based large missionary organisation and we ended up in Papua New Guinea. Obviously most of our missionary colleagues were from the U.S. and we went to the mission boarding school. Suddenly I was aware of racism at it’s ugliest. While many missionaries were genuinely concerned for the welfare of those they went to evangelize, far to many did not. We had cases of native being beaten and they were a source of cheap labour for lazy missionaries. A racist gospel was taught in the boarding school and I was the only child to raise an objection to it.
    For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why white American Missionaries would go to a country where the population was entirely well pigmented to bring them a warped gospel. Eventually I figured it out, it was to do with power, ego and a rather nice lifestyle paid for the good folks back home.
    As for the only black American missionary, I have fond memories of getting to know her well, as she stayed with us on the mission base, for some reason she preferred the company of New Zealanders than her countrymen.

    Come on America, this is the year 2015, the race issue should not be an issue in your churches, it isn’t in much of the rest of the world. Even an ageing Agnostic, knows that Christ message was not of rampant rascism.

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  • Larry

    Diversity is not something respected among many Christian sects. Most denigrate fellow Christians as “not being genuine”, “scripturally correct”, “apostate” or “heretical” when sects differ.

    And yet many self-professed Christians labor under the delusion that their interpretation of scripture and religious dogma is the only one for the entire faith.

    How many people throw around phrases like:
    “They aren’t real Christians”?
    “The Bible passages can only be read as ….”
    “All Christians must accept ___ ideas”

  • John W

    Segregation? I don’t think that word means what you think it does.

  • Anne

    Just because someone is different from you, culturally or racially, it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy the same worship experience you do. The problem is more often that churches do not welcome people who differ from the dominant demographics of the congregation.

  • “71 percent of evangelicals say their church is diverse enough.”

    Church is just an economic social club. That is all it ever was.
    It welcomes another race if they come from the same class.
    God must like it, because he only reinforces it.

    “They are swine” – Jesus

    Want to find diversity? Go to the emergency rooms.
    If prayers cured anything, the ambulances would pull up to churches instead of Hospitals.

    Go to places where humanity is trying to solve serious problems without the help of a god – and that is where you find diversity – not at social clubs.

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  • Eric Charles Smith

    Churches are not mere social clubs. As a sociological phenomenon, Durkheim called religion the most socially integrating institution ever known to mankind.

  • Larry

    Millennia of sectarian conflicts undermine such statements. Prior to the existence of the secular state, it was certainly guaranteed where religions were varied in a location that conflict arose. Even American History is full of sectarian conflict (albeit much much milder than virtually everywhere else). The Flushing Remonstrance, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania colonial charters did not exist in a vacuum.

  • Jenny

    If we were to focus on social equality as our purpose, we’d be just another social organization. We are a social organization, but we are more than that and social equality is important, but not our purpose. We need to tend to these things, but along the way of fulfilling the Great Commission.

  • Church leaders that can embrace diversity are rare. Diversity seems to be discomfiting.

    Church leaders unwittingly teach “separate but equal.” This may be because leaders view themselves as central figures with their worldview predominating, forgetting that Christians follow Christ.

    “Best practices” dictate closing churches and finding a new homogenous community that can easily embrace the leader as opposed to the leader embracing the community. Failing that—and the chances of failure are pretty good—the next best choice is no community at all. Close the doors.

    In my experience, congregations are more accepting of diversity than leadership. When our congregation started to grow in diversity, it was the leaders that couldn’t cope. They even suggested (strongly) that our Black members (who had grown to outnumber White members) would be happier somewhere else. When both Black and White members resisted this suggestion, the denomination locked us all out.

  • JimQ

    Such actions are sin, which is common to us all, regardless of their color. Please consider that your interaction with one group does not define all from the US– it does not.

  • JimQ

    Sounds like a rarity because I have never come across such.