Question: Why are so few congregations racially integrated?

Racial diversity in congregations is a popular topic among religious leaders and researchers of religion. Despite a desire for diversity, multiracial congregations are difficult to create and sustain. Less than one in ten U.S. congregations are classified as multiracial, meaning that no single racial group makes up 80 percent or more of the congregation. There is a strong tendency toward racial homogeneity in congregations. Race is an unconscious sorting mechanism guiding how individuals choose a place of worship. People seek a faith community where they feel comfortable. Being with others who look, think, and act like us contributes to a sense of comfort. Consequently, whether intentional or not, congregations develop an organizational culture often colored by race. The shared racial or ethnic heritage of participants shapes the values, beliefs, and practices that define a congregation’s organizational culture. From the type of music on Sunday morning to the type of food at Wednesday night potlucks, race is present in congregations.

The purpose of our research is to examine racial group differences in belonging and participation in congregations. Does congregational commitment vary by racial group size? We apply organizational ecology theory to explain the persistence of racial differences in racially diverse congregations. The results we present are part of an article titled, “Race, Belonging, and Participation in Religious Congregations,” published December 2013 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Organizational Ecology Theory

Organizational ecology theory helps explain the strong pressures for homogeneity in congregations. Organizational ecology theory draws attention to the way organizations obtain resources for survival. Akin to plants and animals, the assumption is that organizations exist in ecological niches. A niche is a resource base. Some organizations attempt to obtain resources from multiple niches simultaneously. They are called niche generalists. Typically, niche generalist organizations are not as successful as niche specialist organizations, which attempt to serve only one niche.

For congregations, the essential resource is participants. Congregations compete with other congregations in their area for participants. The competition is most intense among similar congregations. For example, a Baptist church competes with other Baptist churches more intensely than it does with the local Jewish synagogue. In addition to theology, race represents a niche in the religious ecology. The Southern Baptist Church in a town, populated by whites, does not compete directly for members with a National Baptist Church, populated by African Americans.

While attracting members is vital for the survival of any voluntary organization, maintaining these members and ensuring they contribute to the organization are equally critical. A common characteristic of strong congregations is that they have highly committed members. Because of the racial foundation of congregational culture, we expect members of a congregation’s largest to racial group to feel a stronger sense of belonging and to participate more than members of other races. Moreover, we expect commitment levels for majority race members to increase as the congregation becomes more racially homogenous.


We test our hypotheses with data from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. This survey collected organizational information from a nationally representative sample of congregations and individual information from worshippers in these congregations. The sample in our study included over 75,000 individuals in 389 congregations. We use a type of statistical analysis called multilevel modeling, which allows us to test the influence of organizational characteristics, such as a congregation’s racial composition, on individuals.

Our findings demonstrate that being in a congregation’s largest racial group is associated with higher levels of belonging and participation. For congregants in the racial majority, three-fourths (76%) report a strong sense of belonging to their congregation, two thirds (69%) indicate having close friends in the congregation, and half (51%) are involved in congregational small groups, prayer groups, or community service groups. By contrast, among congregants who are not part of the largest racial group in a congregation, 71% hold a strong sense of belonging, 58% have close friends in the congregation, and only 40% participate in some type of congregational small group.

Racial group differences in belonging and participation persist when we control for gender, age, education, income, marital status, and personal religiosity. Taking into consideration these other influences, the odds of having a strong sense of belonging to the congregation are 24 percent higher for members of the largest racial group; the odds of having a close friend in the congregation are 30 percent higher; and members of largest racial group are 15 percent more likely to be involved in congregational groups that meet for study, prayer, discussion, or service. Thus, we see an unfortunate self-reinforcing cycle operating in racially diverse congregations. Lower rates of belonging and participation feed one another to keep individuals not in the racial majority on the fringe of congregational life.

Furthermore, the more racially concentrated a congregation becomes, the greater the gap in belonging grows between members of the largest race and others. Even in a congregation with three racial groups where the largest group represents just 35 percent of congregants, those in this group will possess a stronger attachment to the congregation.


Our findings demonstrate the difficulty of achieving racial integration in congregations. Congregations do not inevitably integrate as they add members of other races. Racial integration involves shared identity, shared power, and high levels of cross-racial interaction. In a racially integrated congregation, congregational culture does not privilege one race over others. We find the majority of American congregations possess a racial in-group that defines the collective identity and results in higher levels of belonging and participation by dominant racial group members. Integration within congregations does not happen organically. Congregations seeking to achieve racial integration must be intentional and adaptable when facing the challenges that accompany diversity. Leaders play a pivotal role in this process. In a multiracial setting, leaders need to promote an organizational culture capable of accommodating diverse constituents and guide individuals to take one step at a time toward full integration.