Having a racially diverse congregation offers a path toward church growth, according to comprehensive study of The United Methodist Church. The national study found that racially diverse congregations are more likely to have better attendance and membership growth, especially if they’re located in predominantly white neighborhoods.
That’s one of the key findings of a the study published recently by a team of scholars led by Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The study was published in the journal Social Forces.
“This is a startling contrast to previous research that reported multiracial congregations are less stable,” Dougherty said.
“This is a startling contrast to previous research that reported multiracial congregations are less stable.”
“Overall, our understanding of racial diversity and congregational participation remains ambiguous,” said co-author Gerardo Martí, professor of sociology at Davidson College. “In this study, we consider: What does the history of demographic change in local churches and their neighborhoods tell us about the potential for congregational survival over time?”
The study compares U.S. Census data from 1990 through 2010 with the meticulous local-church records compiled annually by the UMC through its regional units known as annual conferences. The research team, which includes Todd Ferguson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, studied data from more than 30,000 United Methodist congregations.
The United Methodist Church offers “a wonderful case study to understand racial change in neighborhoods and congregations,” Dougherty said. “It’s one of the largest denominations in the United States with a geographic spread across the entire country, so changes that happen in neighborhoods directly affect United Methodist churches.”
Dougherty said his team was provided access to United Methodist data in cooperation with researcher Mark McCormick of the General Council on Finance and Administration in Nashville, Tenn. GCFA is the official repository of United Methodist statistics, compiled in an annual document called the “General Minutes.”
“To researchers those annual reports are priceless treasures to have,” Dougherty explained. “The United Methodist Church keeps accurate and consistent records on race and attendance, which it started collecting in the late 1980s.”
Overall, U.S. congregations haven’t kept pace with the changing racial composition of the country. Census data predict that a majority of the U.S. population will be “nonwhite” by 2035, yet the majority of Protestant congregations in America remain practically segregated.
While many American neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, congregations are not. Only one in four American adults attends a multiracial congregation, defined as one in which no single racial or ethnic group has more than 80% representation.
Added to that, a recent Gallup survey showed that for the first time in U.S. history, the percentage of Americans engaged in a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped to less than half of the population.
Dougherty, the Baylor scholar, lamented the Gallup results. “Congregations can be important spaces to address social problems related to race and ethnicity,” he said. “Fewer people in congregations means a reduced potential of these sacred spaces to address historic inequalities tied to race and ethnicity.”
The United Methodist Church offers a case study in the demographic challenges facing American Protestant congregations.
The United Methodist Church offers a case study in the demographic challenges facing American Protestant congregations. The UMC has experienced membership decline since it was formed in 1968 by the merger of The Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. U.S. membership currently totals around 6 million adherents. GCFA predicted in 2019 that U.S. membership would fall below the majority of the UMC’s worldwide 12-million membership by 2020.
Among other influences, geographic region and population size influence U.S. congregational attendance, the new study found. Contrary to assertions that church attendance is stronger in the UMC’s theologically conservative Southeastern and South Central regions, the study showed that United Methodist churches in the Midwest and West had higher attendance during the 20-year study period. Churches in more populated neighborhoods also had higher attendance.
Also, Methodist churches with a higher percentage of whites have had increasingly lower average attendance over time.
The Baylor-led study reported three hypotheses and findings:
- First, church growth experts have said that racial uniformity in congregations results in higher attendance. The study’s findings don’t support this hypothesis. The data showed instead that more racially diverse United Methodist congregations experience higher attendance.
- Second, experts have posited that racial uniformity in neighborhoods contributes to higher congregational attendance. The study supported this hypothesis. Methodist churches located in all-white neighborhoods had more people attending worship services than Methodist churches in racially mixed or predominantly non-white neighborhoods.
- Third, experts say that a congregation will have higher attendance when its racial composition matches that of its neighborhood. The Baylor study contradicted this hypothesis. Instead, worship attendance was highest for racially diverse United Methodist churches in all-white neighborhoods and in racially uniform neighborhoods.
Researchers speculate that nonwhite or racially diverse Methodist churches may attract more participants because they offer an attractive alternative to typical white Methodist churches found in white neighborhoods.
“The main takeaway from the study is the challenge to the idea that churches grow by targeting one group.”
“The main takeaway from the study is the challenge to the idea that churches grow by targeting one group, a practice known as the ‘homogenous unit principle,’” Dougherty said. “Our study shows that the ‘homogenous unit principle’ is not a successful strategy for The United Methodist Church. Attendance growth is more likely to occur in racially diverse Methodist churches.”
Dougherty said he hopes United Methodists and other Christian groups will make good use of the study.
“We encourage discussions among religious leaders about how to take our findings and apply them. Our findings have implications for the choices that churches make to attract new participants. In other words, we hope churches will ask themselves, ‘How can we in our neighborhood and church use these findings to do ministry better?’”
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.