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Why greater diversity may (temporarily) thin out your pews

The American Lutheran Church's contingent among the Lutheran Human Relations Association of America's (LHRAA) marchers at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Pictured are (L-R): Rev. Robert S. Graetz, Jr., pastor of St. Philip's, Columbus, Ohio, formerly of Trinity Lutheran, Montgomery, Alabama; Rev. R(obert) Dale Lechleitner, associate director of The ALC's Board of American Missions; Rev. William A. Poovey, professor at Wartburg Seminary; Rev. Richard W. Solberg, professor at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D.; and June Solberg. Photo courtesy National Lutheran Council

Churches are increasingly concerned about racial and ethnic diversity. This concern may be the right move theologically but it may come at a cost. New research suggests that congregations that become more diverse are more likely to see a decline in church attendance.

Among religious leaders, advocating for racial reconciliation is no longer controversial. Over  the past two decades, Protestant denominations have moved to repair nearly two centuries of racial segregation. Both the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Church of Christ, and The Episcopal Church have chosen African-American leaders. The United Methodist Church moved into full communion with historically black Methodist churches, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And the National Association of Evangelicals has attempted to frame the definition of “evangelical” so that it is more inclusive.

But what happens when a congregation becomes more diverse? Does that help or hurt the growth of the local church?

Until recently, there have been more hunches than data to answer these questions.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Church Growth Movement pushed churches to change how they operated in order to increase attendance and the number of congregations. While leaders in the movement wanted to reach out to peoples from other cultures (literally around the globe), they did not see racial and ethnic diversity as successful. Churches grow when they were homogenous, they argued.

But is that true? Sociologists Kevin Dougherty (Baylor University), Brandon Martinez (Providence College), and Gerardo Marti (Davidson College) recently published their research on this question in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. They find that diversity may depress church attendance.

Dougherty and his colleagues examined how over 10,000 congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) changed from 1993 through 2012.

When ELCA formed in 1988, it recognized that was very, very white, and established goals and offices to improve diversity. In 1993, the ELCA adopted a statement on racism that called for its congregations and leaders to repent of the sin of racism. This document called on congregations to seek diversity while acknowledging that this was “neither quick nor easy.”

Dougherty and his colleagues find that since 1993, the diversity in the typical ELCA congregation has doubled but church attendance has declined by 22 percent.

At least some of this decline is due to changes in diversity. After taking into account many other factors, the researchers find that congregations that became more diverse had fewer people attend. Churches that became more homogenous were more likely to grow.

These results come with two interesting caveats (it’s an academic study; so, there had to be a few caveats).

First, congregations that were already diverse in 1993 did not decline. It’s not diversity per se but a change in diversity. White congregations that moved to become more diverse declined more than those that did not become more diverse.

Second, the decline due to racial and ethnic diversity was most acute in the 1990s. One reason may be that the racial climate has become more accepting of diversity. Another is that the homogenous churches are now declining faster as debates over sexuality have added to the declining numbers in ELCA congregations.

While this is research from just one denomination, it suggests that moves to increase diversity come at a cost. Congregations that grow in diversity may decline in attendance. But it also suggests that this loss may be temporary. The losses were greater in the decade after the ELCA pushed its congregations to become more diverse. Congregations that had already established a steady level of diversity did not decline.

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About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

12 Comments

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  • The US has long been a diverse nation, but by all means, don’t let the facts get in your way.

  • Wow you must have all read ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’
    At any rate I was being factious since Yugoslavia erupted in a war caused by forced Diversity, 140,000 people died.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yugoslav_Wars

    To be earnest about the subject,Harvard
    Prof, Robert Putnam,found after interviewing 30,000 people
    that Diversity causes us to withdraw into ourselves He wrote a book,
    Bowling Alone and there are articles on the downside of diversity.
    http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/05/the_downside_of_diversity/

    Jerry Z. Muller in Foreign Affairs in an article titled ‘Us and Them’ theorized that the relative peace in Europe(with the exception of the war in diverse Yugoslavia) for the last 70 years was caused by people withdrawing into their ethnic enclaves right after WW2.
    The Germans went back to Germany, the Czechs to Czechoslovakia and there was little diversity and hence little conflict. Now with Islamic populations of Europe reaching critical mass, conflict is beginning. Again.
    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2008-03-02/us-and-them

    Diversity might make you multi faceted with experiences and thus you think a
    little more in the good times. Ethiopian restaurants are entertaining. And it is all well and
    good when there was an overwhelming majority of one ethnicity. However
    when you get a critical mass of relatively equal sized ethnicities(as in Yugoslavia) rights are demanded, holidays are promulgated and resentment builds. With many equally sized ethnicities conflict usually occurs. The salient aspect is critical mass of the relative size of the populations.

    Perhaps in the USA things will be different? But when economic growth stalls and everyone is scrabbling for a piece of the pie, then Diversity is a negative, exacerbates conflict, adds to the conflict and possible death toll. In the end, human rationality does not overcome animal tribal connections.
    Humans might have their moments of divinity but unfortunately the default position of humans is, historically, the growl, bark and grunt.
    But good luck, maybe it is different this time.

  • Diversity may play a role in the economic struggles that are causing conflict but the US devolving into an oligarchy plays a much larger part. The US remains a wealthy country, but the wealth is hoarded in the hands of only a few whose contributions to the general welfare are minimal.

    Those on the lower economic rungs are in conflict with one another and the newest comers, usually not white skinned, receive the lion’s share of the blame.

    Diversity, in and of itself, is not the culprit, though some political types find it expedient to blame them.

  • How about just simply preach Christ and Him crucified and that those who are adopted of God and baptized into Christ are now clothed in Christ so that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female for we are all one in Jesus Christ?
    Secondly, does this mean that a the Baptist church in Soweto will need to import whites from another city or the AME church in Compton should import whites from another part of LA?
    Thirdly, Does this not take into account such things as doctrine and worship/preaching style and things like the Regulative Vs. Normative principle of worship along with a hundred other factors?

  • “Those on the lower economic rungs are in conflict with one another and
    the newest comers, usually not white skinned, receive the lion’s share
    of the blame.”
    I completely disagree but my only authority is myself, having lived in Northeast Washington DC for 22 years when DC was ‘the Chocolate City” and 70% Black.
    However I do agree the 1% have abused their elitism, turning noblesse oblige into caveat emptor and the results?….visit Washington DC.
    It is now Panem of the Hunger Games. The changes in DC in the last 25 years have been wrought by Big Money coming in, buying up entire blocks, tearing down 2 and 3 story run down town homes and building 6 story condo complexes for millennials to crowd into.
    I also agree the 1% encourage ethnic conflict amongst the 99%.
    But i stand by my negativity on Diversity. It takes work to live in a diverse society and humans always default to the lowest common denominator.
    Thanks for the reply.

  • Mr. Liddell, I appreciate your reasoned response. My experience is based chiefly in Minneapolis. My year in Seattle was 20 years ago so much may have changed there and one year is not very long.

    “It takes work to live in a diverse society and humans always default to the lowest common denominator.”

    ThE first part is true, but not all humans always default to the lowest. If that were true there would be no interactions among people of various skin colors, cultures, religions, philosophies, etc.

    In fact, I believe the number of people willing to do the hard work diversity requires is much higher than you think. The landscape is pock marked with neighborhood and larger organizations, clubs, associations, and other types of NGOs that are doing the work daily. News reports of such groups don’t tend to sell as much advertising as stories about white supremacist terrorists, murders, riots, hateful speeches, and calls to “build a wall”, so they’re largely unsung and unknown.

  • Like I say, good luck! but checking out the racial demographics of Minnesota, shows you guys are still in the 1950s America as far as demographic proportions are concerned.
    Wait a few decades. Critical mass. But maybe it will all be good, and i am just a glass half full guy.

  • FYI, MN has the largest Somali population in the country. Lots of Latinas and other Africans too. But outstate and overall? Yes, very German and Scandinavian.

    Best to you too.

  • Such a telling shame that this eminently inclusive unofficial motto of the United States — suggested in 1776; included on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782; and first displayed on U.S coinage in 1795 — was officially replaced as our national motto in 1956 by the inherently exclusive declaration “In God We Trust”.

  • How about just simply respecting each others’ personal boundaries, including the private, proprietary, and equally rightful spiritual/existential beliefs that each of us holds dear?

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