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Study: Changes in racial composition lead to decline in church attendance


(RNS) The more mixed the Sunday morning pews are, the fewer people are likely to be in them.

That's the primary finding of a new study from Baylor University published in the current Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Researchers studied the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where racial diversity doubled from 1993 to 2012, and found that, at the same time, churches with the greatest diversity growth also had the steepest declines in attendance.

Kevin Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor and lead author on the study, said the findings should not be taken as a stab at racial diversity in churches.

Rather, he said, it shows congregations that are not originally started -- "planted," in church parlance -- as diverse will have a tough time becoming so after their planting.

"That change in the fundamental character of a congregation is an extremely daunting task," Dougherty said. "Congregations intentionally planted as diverse from the beginning have the greatest potential to sustain that change while those that are trying to change their diversity will have a bumpy road ahead."

The study also found:

  • Rises in racial diversity were associated with declines in weekly attendance, especially in the 1990s.
  • Older congregations were more likely to see a decline in attendance.
  • Congregations in predominantly white communities were more likely to grow.

The study was conducted among more than 11,000 ELCA congregations and used data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The ELCA is one of the least racially diverse denominations in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, with white people making up 96 percent of its membership. Only the National Baptist Convention, with 99 percent black membership, is less diverse.

Gerardo Martí, an associate professor of sociology at Davidson College, and Brandon Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology at Providence College, were co-authors of the study.



  1. The flaw in the PEW diversity ratings is that the focus is not on the diversity in the local congregations, Some of the denominations that are cited as being very diverse have extremely segregated congregations.

  2. Of course it would have NOTHING to do with the ELCA’s embracing a liberal theological worldview and abandonment of fundamental biblical authority.

  3. Mightn’t this be not cause and effect, but two effects from the same cause? Better education leads to liberal and independent thinking, which allows young adults to marry outside their parents’ narrower boundaries, and also permits the questioning of authority and “revealed knowledge” — folklore — that allows them to outgrow religion?

  4. Probably not because fundamentalists see similar declines in subsequent generations and dramatic declines in converts. Their growth is almost entirely demographic in nature, not due to acceptance of given beliefs of a sect.

    Shorter version, fundies grow because they ate making more babies, not because people have such fondness for the sects

  5. So … you’re white, you go to a white church, a bunch of blacks start showing up, you get sick of it and switch to a different church. That sounds normal to me. When a white person is free to choose without pressure from government or their job, they usually want to get away from blacks.

  6. Why do you assume “diversity” is the goal of our society? Why do you not impose this rule on non-White societies ? Japan, India, China, Saudi Arabia, the list is endless. Why are you focused ONLY on destroying White nations by importing vast hoards of non-Whites to replace the White population? Let’s first import a vast hoard of non-Japanese into Japan as an unnecessary social experiment and see how they like it. Then they can start sticking bones in their noses and elongating their lower lips with wooden palates and start engaging in voodoo and cannibalism and having sex with monkeys and apes and rodents for the next 50 years or so. Then we will monitor this unnecessary social experiment and disrupt the lives of millions of people without their permission only because Left wing, Communist, Socialist, nut jobs and crackpots say it must be done.

  7. This is not surprising. When people are hungering and thirsting after righteousness, it doesn’t cut it to say “Let ’em eat diversity.”

  8. After reading Ward Kendall’s dystopian novel Hold Back This Day (amazon) it’s clear to me that trying to force the races into close proximity is deliberately intended to wipe out whites via miscegenation. Whenever given the choice, even white church folk don’t want to rub shoulders with blacks by having them sit in the pews next to them.

  9. Whites have a right NOT to associate with and socialize with negroes!

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