U.S. churchgoers still sit in segregated pews, and most are OK with that

Is Sunday the Most Segregated Day In the US? - Selma - RNS Photo

Actor David Oyelowo portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie Selma

On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15), just as the civil rights drama “Selma” was nominated for best picture in the Oscar race, one fact of American life was little changed.

Sunday morning remains, as King once observed, the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, new research shows that most Americans are OK with that.

Two in three (66 percent) Americans have never regularly attended a place of worship where they were an ethnic minority, according to new polling analysis released by LifeWay Research.

“People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based research firm.

“Maybe their sense is that church is the space where they don’t have to worry about issues like this,” he said. But that could be a problem, because, Stetzer said, “If you don’t like diversity, you’re really not going to like heaven.”

LifeWay did three surveys last September examining how people do — or don’t — experience diversity at church and their views toward diversity.

One survey focused on 994 people who said they go to church at least on holidays if not more often:

  • 67 percent say their church has done enough to become more ethnically diverse.
  • 40 percent want to see more diversity.
  • 71 percent of evangelicals say their church is diverse enough.
  • Race and ethnicity reveal sharp differences. Only 37 percent of whites want their church to be more diverse, compared to 47 percent of Hispanic Americans and 51 percent of African-Americans.

Among 1,000 American adults, 82 percent say diversity is good for the country — but not necessarily in their church pews.

  • Of the 34 percent of Americans who say they have worshipped regularly where they were a minority, one in five of them said their minority status hindered their involvement.
  • 22 percent have never experienced being a minority at church, but they think it would make them uncomfortable.
  • There’s not much urgency about diversity. Half of those surveyed think the churches are “too segregated,” but 44 percent disagree.

The survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors found 43 percent say they speak about racial reconciliation once a year or less.

Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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MethodistPieCullyGeorge Nixon ShulerRichard Hicks Recent comment authors
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We get in trouble conflating two issues. Sure, racism is a problem. But black folks and white folks often come from very different worship traditions. The term “segregated” in this context is a red herring that, in my opinion, only serves to alienate.

George Nixon Shuler

That’s a very valid point, MP. This is hardly an occasion to express white resentment that the white man is automatically the big boss man, not that anything else is, either.

George Nixon Shuler

oops I meant no longer automatically the big boss man

Richard Hicks

I’m neon white. I’m sixty years old. I’ve never been invited to a house of worship by a person of color in all those years. The one except was in Mumbai, India where our private tour guide, Amish, took us by his home Jain temple. Those on the outside of any group NEVER bear the burden of hospitality. This white boy is a victim of sloth and/or racism. Thank you.

George Nixon Shuler

Not to be flip, but, maybe it’s you. I’m not the most outgoing guy in the world but nevertheless I’ve had an ample share of invitations to this or that religious meeting, including, while as a young veteran attending community college from a priest and a nun in civilian clothes at the Catholic Student Center, to join them for Mass. I protested, “Well, I’m not Catholic,” but they said “That doesn’t matter.” I’ve told this to some of those Ultra Bill Donahue-Sam Brownback thinkalike Catholics, the kind who wish it was 1492, who cannot believe it is true (well, it… Read more »


It is so disheartening to read items that cast many white folks in the role of racist bigots. The very far left in mainline Christianity like nothing better than to “make sure” all other individuals are viewed as oppressive and mean and bad. It seems that the far left in churches march to the very same drum that the very liberal left in politics do. What a sad commentary………………….

George Nixon Shuler

That’s interesting. My experience has been where discussion of theology and ideology are involved precisely the opposite. Of course, as the saying goes, “YMMV [Your Mileage May Vary]. Ann Richards’ staff used to joke about having a contest to travel a circuituotous route through Deep East Texas in a vehicle with a bumper sticker saying “I’m the queer Ann sent here to take your guns away” and the one who gets back to Austin wins. Of course, this was ironic; despite the voting patterns and receptiveness to extremist rhetoric found in exurban sections of Red America, people are often kind… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler

This is nothing new. Compared to other religious bodies the UMC is a close second to the Roman Catholics when it comes to diversity. Funny how the right-wing caucus within the UMC never mentions that – too busy saying “gay, gay, gay!” The writer’s final comments regarding differences between the churched and the population at large is of interest as well – but that’s also nothing new. Harvey Cox predicted it fifty years ago in “The Secular City.”

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