A live nativity scene at Calvary Baptist Church shows the multicultural makeup of the D.C. congregation.
A live nativity scene at Calvary Baptist Church shows the multicultural makeup of the D.C. congregation.

Pastors foresee raceless church

Pastors of racially mixed congregations believe that over time homogeneity will become the exception instead of the rule.

By Jeff Brumley

Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta is considered by some a hopeful sign that Sunday may soon no longer be the most segregated time in America.

A dwindling, all-white congregation eight years ago, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church is now black and white – and growing.

But its pastor and the leaders of other multicultural congregations aren’t declaring victory in racially segregated American Christianity, and an ongoing academic survey of such churches suggests it’s too early to celebrate.

The recent high-profile case of a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi that refused to marry a black couple aside, the leaders of culturally diverse churches say integrating congregations requires a perfect storm of ministerial calling, demographics and determination.

raceless5“I don’t think we have a raceless Christianity now,” said Tony Lankford, lead pastor of Park Avenue Baptist, a historically white church located near Atlanta’s Turner Field. “I think we are probably two generations out.”

But there are signs it’s headed that way, Lankford added. “I predict a church that is homogenous will be the exception, not the rule."

‘Never considered going there’

He bases that prediction on the experience of people like Michael Harris.

For four years, Michael Harris was homeless in Atlanta, roaming the streets of the city’s historic Grant Park neighborhood near downtown. What Harris, 60, knew about 140-year-old Park Avenue Baptist is that it was big, old and white.

“I never considered going there,” said Harris, who is African-American.

But stereotypes began to melt with the chance meeting with a friendly deacon from the church. Over a period of months, the man helped him get a cell phone and odd jobs, including a part-time position as the church janitor.

That’s how he got to know the church from the inside, where he discovered a congregation that is 60 percent white and 40 percent black – but most of all welcoming, Harris said.

“After a while I became a member,” he said. “Tony baptized me and I have been a member for almost four years.”

Study: diversity is ‘rare’

But such experiences are a minority according to an ongoing study of racially diverse churches. Such congregations, researchers have found so far, “are rare.”

Researchers with the Lilly funded “Multiracial Congregations Project” said in a preliminary summary that “any estimates we get from surveys are overestimates.”

So far they have found that most culturally diverse congregations are Catholic, and that most divese congregations usually are located in neighborhoods populated by people of different races.

They identified the accidental model – churches that are diverse because of their surroundings – and the intentional.

“Not surprisingly, the congregational model that seems to have the largest effect on parishioners' attitudes, religious understandings, and social networks is the intentional model,” researchers said.

Intentionality the key

Intentionality helps create sustainable diversity in ways that are not awkward or forced, said Amy Butler, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C. The congregation there is roughly 40 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and the remainder a mix of other races and nationalities.

“A big part is the neighborhood around us,” she said. “On the other hand, we have worked hard to have people in the pews who reflect people on the sidewalks.”

That’s meant hiring minority ministers (the associate pastor is from El Salvador) and designing bilingual worship.

“When we say the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll often hear people saying it in different languages,” Butler said.

The idea is to make sure the culture of the congregation mirrors those of its members. “So when people are looking in they will see themselves,” she said.

Talking about race

That intentionality also must extend to the details of worship, such as who’s taking up the collection plates, who says the prayers and reads scripture, Lankford said.

raceless3Park Avenue hired an African-American associate pastor in part so that black members can hear the preaching style they’re accustomed to, Lankford said.

And all of it has worked. In the eight years since Lankford arrived, attendance has risen from eight white worshipers on Sunday mornings to 80, of whom about 60 percent are white and 40 percent are black.

And no one pretends that race isn’t an issue, Lankford added.

“We talk about race. We talk about the struggle and journey of racial equality,” he said. “We don’t want to pretend that we have the same cultural background.”

While Lankford doesn’t see such congregations popping up quickly across America, he believes they’re on the way because of the changes in American society.

‘Do this or die’

Racially homogenous churches are populated by members who are experiencing diversity everywhere except at church, he said.

“We are finally beginning to feel that tension on Sunday mornings in a way that’s never been felt,” Lankford said.

Butler said it’s not only likely such changes will become more sweeping, but mandatory.

“The church will have to do this or the church will die,” Butler said. “The churches that are not ready and willing to open their doors to anybody eventually will find that no one is there.”