Segregation vs. diversity in church

It was in 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous observation about Sunday mornings:

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We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God.

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A new study by two profs shows that things haven’t changed all that much: 9 in 10 congregations have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of membership.

Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, and Christopher P. Scheitle, senior research assistant at The Pennsylvania State University, published the findings in the academic journal Sociological Inquiry in August.

“Socially, we’ve become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses. But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm,” Dougherty says in a statement.

The study shows that churches have a particularly hard time keeping minority members they already have.

Congregations that are diverse share certain characteristics: diverse leadership; racially inclusive worship; and they provide opportunities for members to get togetheer.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a white member of a Latino church or a black attending a white church or what the specific groups are,” Dougherty says. “If you’re the under-represented group, do you call it ‘my church’? That feeling of ‘us’ is the key.”

Photo: Library of Congress

Pumping up those ELCA churches

The Rev. Jack Horner has got a tough job now. And he knows it.

He is the new Assistant to the Bishop for Evangelical Mission in the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

His job is to travel around the vast synod — we’re talking about 200 churches from NYC up to Sullivan and Ulster — and help congregations develop mission strategies and strengthen their congregational outreach.

In other words, stand up straight and get their spiritual act together.

I talked to Horner recently at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Mount Kisco, where he was the pastor for a decade. Until two weeks ago.

Only days after his final service as pastor, he returned in his new role. He jokingly introduced himself to his “old” congregants and handed out his new business cards.

Horner, a tall minister with a red goatee and a lot of energy, has to pump up congregations with stagnant or shrinking memberships in a synod that has been — ministers say — somewhat stagnant.

And shrinking.

But Horner told me that his new job is not about counting members.

“I’s not just about numbers,” he said. “It’s about thinking as missional churches and missional people, understanding themselves as people sent by God to do his work in the world. You can have a vibrant church with 75 people on Sunday, if there is great outreach and mission, loving God and love each other.”

He does believe, he told me, that great things can happen.

“When I read the Book of Acts, a lot of amazing things occur,” he said, laughing.

Horner is still living in Mount Kisco and his wife, Linda, remains outreach coordinator at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, a vibrant place where a sign facing those leaving the church reads: “You are now entering the Mission Field.”

“All churches have to be the Lutheran church of the resurrection,” Horner said. “I believe that to my core.”