By Bob Smietana
For a look at the future of the church in America, it’s time for pastors to go back to school. Not to seminary—but to their local public schools.
More than half the students (50.3 percent) nationwide are ethnic minorities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s up from 37 percent in 1997, according to Pew Research. This is just one sign of how the United States is becoming a multiethnic nation.
Consider this: In 1960, 85 percent of Americans were white, about 11 percent were black, with other minority groups making up the remaining 4 percent. Today, only 63 percent of Americans are white.
For American Christians, the changes have been even more dramatic—at least on a demographic level. Among older Americans (those over 65), 7 out of 10 are white Christians. By contrast, only about a quarter of younger (18 to 29-year-olds) Americans are white Christians. In addition, more than half of younger Christians are people of color, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
Yet few American congregations reflect these changes.
A 2013 LifeWay Research survey of 1,007 Protestant senior pastors found more than 8 in 10 (85 percent) believe every church should strive for racial diversity. But few pastors have diverse flocks. Most (86 percent) of their congregations are predominately one racial or ethnic group.
For many evangelical churches, diversity has long been considered a kind of luxury. Few churches see it as part of their mission.
Sanders, associate executive director of national ministries for the Evangelical Free Church of America, says many evangelicals support the idea of diversity. But few really work to make it happen in local churches.
“If you ask, would you like to have a multiethnic church, everyone says, ‘that would be wonderful,’” says Sanders. “When you ask, what are you doing to make that happen—that’s when you hear the crickets.”
Sanders pointed out that only about 13 percent of Protestant churches are considered multiethnic—where at least 20 percent of the congregation is a minority—according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey.
According to Sanders, that won’t cut it in a time of growing diversity. He says evangelicals will be hampered in their mission to share the gospel unless multiethnic churches become more common.
“I predict that if [multiethnic churches] don’t become the norm—we are not going to reach our country. Anyone who looks at demographics knows this,” he says.
Still, Sanders believes there are signs of hope, especially in the small but growing number of multiethnic churches.
Sanders, who planted a multiethnic church called River of Life Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, interviewed leaders of 31 church plants from eight denominations, for a recent research project.
The churches in the study—done in conjunction with LifeWay Research—were at least two years old. All had been intentionally planted as multiethnic churches, says Sanders.
They succeeded, he says, primarily because their approach to multiethnicity was based on missional theology. Racial reconciliation was a by-product.
“They believe it is the biblical thing to do,” he says. “Not the politically correct thing to do. Not the latest trend.”
Like most churches, leaders of those congregations wanted to reach their communities. Since their communities were diverse—these church plants had to be diverse as well.
“They had a bigger overarching goal: to reach their neighborhood for Jesus,” he says. “How many more multiethnic churches would we have today if we just activated our churches to reach their communities? I’d say we’d have significantly more multiethnic churches if we did that.”
One size doesn’t fit all
Robyn Afrik, a national speaker, consultant, and strategist on issues related to diversity, says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building a multiethnic church. A church plant, for example, will take a different approach to becoming diverse than an older congregation.
Diversity can’t just be another strategy or numbers game, says Afrik. Instead, “it’s a gospel thing.” Before churches can talk about diversity, they have to talk about theology and evangelism.
For many churches, she says, evangelism and reaching out to the community isn’t high on their agenda. If the congregation isn’t ready to reach out to its neighbors, it’s unlikely to become diverse.
One of the first challenges to becoming multiethnic is thinking through how to integrate new people into the church family. She says many churches say they welcome people from all races and cultures. But that can end up meaning minorities are always treated as guests rather than full-fledged members of the local family of faith.
Bringing in new people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds means the identity of the congregation will change. New people will have new priorities and often very different points of view. That can be hard for older church members to deal with, especially if they are from a dominant ethnic group.
Becoming multiethnic also means giving up on the idea of being “colorblind.” Sanders says many evangelical leaders try to act as if race doesn’t matter. Pastors often tell him, “Alvin I don’t see you as a black man—I just see you as a man.”
That may be well intentioned, he says, but it’s harmful to real diversity.
“They are not acknowledging the way God made me,” Sanders says. “He made me with black skin for a reason. For you not to see that is not helpful.”
Christena Cleveland, author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, says becoming a multiethnic congregation “changes everything.”
Cleveland, professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, says homogenous churches have the advantage of relying on unconscious short cuts—since church members share assumptions about how churches should operate.
Becoming multiethnic is a bit like traveling to a new country, where you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the cultural norms. It can cause a kind of “cognitive fatigue,” she says. “You don’t even know what assumptions you have. People can get really touchy very quickly.”
Cleveland says becoming a multiethnic church requires what she calls “humble dependence.”
That can be hard for many white Christians, she says, because they’re used to being in majority. Being the majority means having power. And many churches can get caught in between demographics, where older people of one race have all the power and control, and diverse young people are left out of the decision-making.
She says church members and pastors have to be humble enough to ask for help, especially in learning how to cope with new demographics. Despite the struggles involved in crossing ethnic, cultural, and racial lines, Cleveland says being part of a multiethnic church brings many blessings.
“It’s one of those things you have to experience before you can value it,” she says. “You’ve been missing something and you didn’t know it.”
Heart of the matter
He points to a section of the book of Revelation: “After this I looked,” says Revelation 7:9, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
“The reason we should have multiethnic churches is not because the demographics of America are changing—but because it is at the heart of the gospel,” he says.
The Rev. Efrem Smith, a former church planter and author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, agrees. Diversity has become a necessity for churches, says Smith. “That’s good news, It’s going to push us to a more authentic presentation of the gospel and a more authentic faith.”
For more on multiethnic and multicultural churches, visit FactsAndTrends.net/Multiethnic.
Bob Smietana (@BobSmietana) is senior writer and content editor of Facts & Trends.