Mainline: Lacking Racial Diversity

WhiteRace related topics have been featured in the news more in recent months than any time I can recall.  Mainline Protestants generally tend to have healthy perspectives on race.  Such philosophical and even theological understandings do not necessarily translate into action (for example: read my summary and reflection of Bradley Wright’s recent research showing that Mainline Protestant congregations had the highest rate of discrimination to prospective visitors) nor do they lead to racially diverse communities of faith.

Earlier this week the Pew Research Center published data about the most and least racially diverse religious groups in the United States.  The Mainline/Oldline/Sideline/Liberal/Progressive denominations did not fare well.  While 66% of the American population is white the percentages in these traditions are much higher, including:

So What?

I have served congregations affiliated with three of the five traditions listed above.  While these traditions are 85%+ white, the congregations I have served had even higher percentages of members who were white than did their respective denominations.  In each case the communities claimed to welcome all people yet rarely talked about the reasons why people who were not of the majority race visited and joined in numbers far less than their respective percentage of the general population in the geographic areas surrounding their sacred spaces.

If you are part of a Mainline tradition and these stats do not trouble you, then I invite you to ask yourself why they do not trouble you. If for some reason you still have not found an answer, ask others in your community of faith for their wisdom.

  • Why do you think these Mainline denominations are among our country’s least racially diverse religious traditions?
  • How does the percentage of white people within your local congregation compare to the percentage of white people within your denomination?
  • What are a few practical actions people can take to start healthy and potentially productive conversations about these topics within their own communities of faith?

Note: On August 9 the United Church of Christ is inviting all of its roughly 5,000 congregations to consider including Prayers for Racial Justice in worship.



  1. Kris Hurren says:

    I have invited 2 of my friends who are persons of color to visit our church. One declined because she likes to attend church where Creole is spoken. The other said she felt uncomfortable attending a church where the congregation sits in silence during the sermon. She likes to shout out when a comment moves her . She feels weird when she is the only one. I definitely see her point. I attended some bible studies at her church and nearly jumped out of my skin when people responded with shouts of agreement with the pastor.

  2. Kris, thanks for sharing those experiences. Interestingly the least diverse group in the survey was the National Baptist Convention, which is 99% black. Seventh-Day Adventists were the most racially diverse.

  3. Deanna Fisher says:

    I wonder how those statistics would look if you could measure integration by worship service at each denomination. Some denominations have churches that are almost exclusively black , white or hispanic. Some churches have different services in different languages – Spanish and Korean being two I have seen. I am guessing they don’t have the statistics to break out the “diversity” of worship services, which might tell a different story. (Though I understand the UCC might not move much in the rankings.)

  4. Great question, Deanna. For obvious reasons that data isn’t available at the macro level since few congregations are collecting it at the micro level in their own experiential context. In fact, as I pondered your remarks I was imagining the difficulty of even trying to do so for a single Sunday much less every Sunday of the year in most churches. While membership may not be the ideal measure for diversity, it is a helpful starting point and is something easily tracked over time on both the micro and macro levels.

  5. Michael says:

    I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out. Look at the historical roots from where these denominations came from. Germany, England and Scotland. Historically 100% “white.” As such, they cater to the traditions of the ethnic roots from where they come, in one fashion or another. As one poster stated, they tend to value a quiet experience over other ethnic traditions. It is neither right nor wrong, just is a simple fact. The African Methodist Episcopal Church likewise has low diversity…just non-“white.” They too are open and welcome people of all ethnicities, but the services cater to the ethnic roots and traditions of that population. Again, not right or wrong, just is what it is. It’s like this soul food place I liked in this town I used to live in…everyone was welcome, but those people from an ethnic background that appreciated soul food tended to be the primary customers. Those from different ethnic backgrounds were free to try it, but it wasn’t for everyone. Nothing wrong with the restaurant, just the way it was. Oh, and in that case the ethnic background could best be described as “Southern USA,” not black or white as some might think. The predominate culture in the area was probably best described as “Asian/Pacific,” so a number of folks found great solace there.

    Bottom line, in my humble opinion, we have many different traditions and denominations to ensure anyone can find a place in Christ’s church. A toe does not look like a nose, nor does it function in the same way, but they both have a place in the body. Trying to make them look and function the same would do harm to that part, and the body as a whole. Having a nose in my boot would probably be uncomfortable on a wide range of levels. Nor does a nose have the same percentage of bone as the toe, for example, although the life giving blood for both is the same, and circulates freely between them. So seeing statistics that show different percentages of ethnicities in different churches does not trouble me in the least, as long as every individual is free to find their place in the Body of Christ. We’re all one Body, and we should celebrate our differences.

    That being said, I’ve attended and even worked for many Methodist and Presbyterian churches. I can only think of two in nearly 40 years that would match those statistics, but my memory could be wrong.

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