Diversity Arises in More Churches

Yonat Shimron, News & Observer (Raleigh), December 18, 2008

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A new study of U.S. religious congregations by a Duke University sociologist shows significant changes in the racial composition of churches within just nine years.

Mark Chaves’ National Congregations Study finds that predominantly white churches are welcoming more Hispanics, Asians and blacks. The study, conducted last year among 1,506 congregations, raises challenges to the adage that 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week.

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In Chaves’ study, the number of people in predominantly white congregations with some Hispanics grew to 56 percent from 49 percent in 1998. Likewise, the number of people in predominantly white congregations with some Asians grew to 44 percent from 38 percent in 1998.

While many of these changes are due to an influx of immigrants, the study found that black and white integration is growing, too.

The percentage of people attending predominantly white churches with some blacks grew to 61 percent from 53 percent nine years ago.

The results of the study, published in Sociology of Religion, were culled from 45-minute interviews in English and Spanish held among church leaders between May 2006 and March 2007. The study illustrates a wide variety of trends in U.S. religious congregations. It concludes that services are growing more informal, clergy are growing older on average and churches are increasingly adopting technological innovations such as Web sites, e-mail and blogs.

But the conclusions regarding integration may be the most startling. Chaves said the study suggests that larger churches are more likely to have diverse ethnic and racial memberships. Those larger churches would include megachurches, defined as Protestant congregations with a Sunday attendance of 2,000 people or more, and Roman Catholic churches, many of which have seen a surge of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

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Social issues shift, too

Scholars who study the intersection of religion and politics said the growing diversity may mean that congregations may not be able to mobilize as easily on hot-button social issues.

“Congregations are easier to politicize the more homogeneous they are,” said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and professor of political science at the University of Akron.

That doesn’t mean congregations will drop all political activity, but it may be more varied, Green said. For example, issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage may have to share time with issues such immigration reform or foreign policy.

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[Editor’s Note: “Continuity and Change in American Congregations: Introducing the Second Wave of the National Congregations Study,” by Mark Chaves and Shawna L. Anderson can be downloaded as a PDF file here.]

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