Development of Multiracial Congregations

Factors that influence sustainability

While uniracial congregations are the norm in the USA for many reasons, some congregations are founded as multiracial while others are able to become multiracial. The authors studied 200 multiracial congregations in the USA. For the study, multiracial congregations were those that had fewer than 80% of any one race or ethnicity. They discovered two factors that were most important to understanding the development of these congregations: their reason for becoming multiracial and the source of the minority population.

Reasons for becoming multi-racial:

  • Mission: being multiracial is key to their very purpose and identity OR the particular population their ministry is targeting happens to be multiracial.
  • Resource Calculation: restricted resources of former congregation lead them to explore adaptations which lead to a multiracial membership.
  • External requirement: denominational leaders mandate that the church become multiracial. Here the primary impetus for change comes from outside the congregation even though it may be consistent with an internal since of mission.

Where diverse ethnicities come from:

  • Local neighborhood: this happens most often when the demographics of the congregation’s neighborhood changes or when the neighborhood is multiracial when the congregation is founded.
  • Evangelistic draw: these congregations have a culture and purpose that translates across racial lines. They often intentionally recruit diverse people to their purpose from across the region.
  • Merger: sometimes two congregations with different ethnic demographics merge.

Particular combinations of these two things lead to seven main types of multi-racial congregations. The article tells the stories of some of these congregations. These stories include some successes and failures. In the end they draw some hypothesis:

  1. Congregations that become multiracial because of their sense of mission will more often be able to sustain their multiracial composition, especially compared to those who are compelled to become multiracial. The key here is the internal locus of control. Some congregations that initially became multi-racial because of financial concerns, eventually embraced it as part of their mission. Those upon whom it was forced, typically did not shift their sense of mission and did not experience transformation or cohesiveness.
  2. Congregations that draw people from across a larger region will be able to sustain their multiracial makeup for longer. Racial composition of local neighborhoods changes, so the broader the reach the better for maintaining multiracial communities.
  3. Congregations that feel forced to become multiracial, either because of a denominational mandate or merger brought on by financial distress, are less likely to maintain their multiracial make up for long

Source Material

Emerson, Michael O., and Karen Chai Kim. "Multiracial Congregations: An Analysis of Their Development and a Typology." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42, no. 2 (2003): 217-27.

Additional Information

For more information, check out this book: Churches, Cultures and Leadership: A practical theology of congregations and ethnicities by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez

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