There are currently between 300,000 and 350,000 congregations in the U.S., according to Michael Emerson, a sociology professor and co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, Texas. Ninety-two percent are homogeneous, meaning at least 80 percent of the congregation is comprised of a single racial group.
Pastors Ken Whitten and Jeffery Singletary have a similar practice.
Whitten, who is white, is the pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., and Singletary, who is black, led the 50-member Mission of Life church in Tampa.
Whitten said he approached Singletary with the idea of starting a multiethnic church.
“If we’re going to change our culture, they’ve got to see it,” Whitten recalled telling him at the time.
From that conversation was born Singletary’s Exciting Central Baptist, which currently has about 760 members. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy attends, and late NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was a member.
For one of Selmon’s recent funeral services, Whitten allowed the service to be held at his nearly 10,000-member church and Singletary preached the eulogy, an example of how the two pastors also switch pulpits and merge their congregations.
Singletary says such a practice “aligns with the heart of the Lord.”
“When we look at scripture, God’s heart is on the nation; people of every tongue, of every tribe of every kindred,” he said. “We serve a Baskin-Robbins kind of a God; a God of 32 flavors or more.”
As was the case when there was a secular push for integration decades ago, multiethnic congregations have had resistance. Opponents often prefer a certain type of worship style or remain opposed to any type of change in regards to race.
Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said more congregations are “entertaining the question of becoming multiracial and multiethnic” because they’re starting to pattern the diversity of the neighborhoods around them.
But he acknowledged “predominantly white churches are often very, very reluctant to actively pursue a multiracial composition out of pure fear and ignorance,” and black churches “fear losing autonomy and tradition.”
As the nation prepares to dedicate a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington next month, his daughter, Elder Bernice A. King, hopes churches will embrace the universal beliefs of her father and understand that “God is global.”
“We’re going to have to create what we want to see in society within the church,” she said. “I think it begins in the church.”