Is My Church Multiracial?

As I get this blog up and running, it’s important to establish some consensus of terminology. In my reading I have generally found broad disagreement on whether multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, or something else are the most appropriate descriptors for churches with  members from a variety of racial or ethnic backgrounds.

At this point, I use multiracial and multiethnic interchangeable, although I recognise that some people may give the words distinct technical meanings. Multicultural seems to deserve its own definition as people of the same race or ethnicity can still have different cultures based upon characteristics such as social class or geography. I expect I’ll write more on this topic before too long.

Today, I specifically want to define the term “multiracial church”. Anytime I have a conversation with other ministers and mention that my church is multiracial, I invariably hear back something like, “Yeah, our church isn’t 50-50 or anything, but we do have a few [insert minority group here] that attend.” It’s as though 10 minority members in a church of 250 proves the church isn’t prejudiced and in fact is almost racially integrated.

The definition that I now use and I think is generally accepted is one I stumbled across in Yancey’s book One Body, One Spirit.

“I will define a multiracial church as a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80 percent of the attendees of at least one of the major worship services.”

Notice that this definition focuses on the size of the majority race within the church rather than whether a particular minority group reaches a certain threshold. A congregation with 12 percent black and 10 percent Chinese would be classified as multiracial because the majority group is only 78 percent of the congregation.

The second aspect of this definition relates to the way racial groups integrate in worship. A historically white church that sponsors a Spanish language service in the gym would not meet this criteria as a multiracial church even if under the oversight of the same congregational leaders. A multiracial church must have a basic commitment to building relationships between races. While simply attending worship services together doesn’t guarantee relationship building, it’s a lot more likely to happen than if the two groups worship separately.

The 80 percent figure may seem like an arbitrary definition. Yancey addresses this in his book and states that “there is sociological evidence that such churches [meeting the definition] differ from monoracial churches.” Of course, that’s not saying there’s a huge difference between 81 and 79 percent, but simply that the church culture is significantly impacted when no single racial group makes up more than 80 percent of the church membership.

I appreciate this definition because it provides a firm benchmark in a sphere of thought that is often ambiguous. It’s not the only definition, and some would argue it’s not the best definition, but it’s a whole lot better than just using words and terms that have different meanings to each person.

Having a racially diverse congregation that meets this basic numerical definition of a multiracial church does not make any statement about the intentionality or racial health of the church. Such a church may not have racial diversity in its leadership or may maintain its traditional worship forms. However, defining a church as multiracial based upon its membership or attendance provides a fundamental starting point for churches to explore the numerous challenges that this diverse population presents to congregational life.

 

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