Protestant Churches Becoming More Diverse, Survey Finds

Diversity has become quite the buzzword. It’s even captured the imagination of the vast majority of Protestant pastors. According to a new survey conducted by Lifeway Research, “93 percent of pastors—including 80 percent who strongly agree—say every church should strive to achieve racial diversity.” The same survey reveals that diversity in this country’s Protestant churches is, indeed, growing.

It should be noted that three percent of the pastors surveyed said that they do not agree that churches should strive for diversity. Count me among that three percent. However, I am also very pleased to read about how diversity in churches is on the rise. Allow me to explain.

To begin, I want to note that I am on staff at a church that is quite diverse, which places my church in the minority. You see, the survey also reveals that “Eighty-one percent of Protestant pastors say their congregation is predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group.”

But I don’t understand what Lifeway Research means by “strive for diversity.” I mean, I know what my progressive-leaning friends mean when they say it. They mean that a conscious effort should be undertaken to evenly distribute the numbers across many ethnic backgrounds. If a church is 90 percent white, that’s bad—even if that church is in a community that is itself 95 percent white.

How do the 93 percent of pastors who agree that churches should strive for diversity strategize? Before soul-winning efforts, do they do the math to determine how many from each ethnic group are allowed to hear the gospel? For example, do they say, “We don’t have enough Cambodians in our congregation… so, for every non-Cambodian that you witness to, you need to witness to 10 Cambodians”?

That, of course, is silly.

For me, churches should be striving to preach the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ. If they’re faithful in doing that, then the church is going to better reflect the diversity of the community. Don’t misunderstand—I want churches to be diverse. Jesus is making a new nation out of all tribes and tongues. Faithful bodies of believers will organically reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom.

Interestingly, congregations are not in agreement with their pastors.

More than half of churchgoers disagreed when asked if their church needed to become more ethnically diverse. That included a third who strongly disagreed.

Evangelical churchgoers (71 percent) were most likely to say their church is diverse enough. White churchgoers (37 percent) were least likely to say their church should become more diverse. African-Americans (51 percent) and Hispanic-Americans (47 percent) were more likely to say their church needs to be more diverse.

Once again, I’m not sure what the respondents thought they were saying with their answer, but it strikes me as odd that so many churchgoers believe that their church is already diverse enough. Without defining what “diverse enough” means, it’s hard to say one way or the other whether I think my church is diverse enough. Because of the fact that so many feel confident in claiming that their church is diverse enough when the numbers say that churches tend to be racially homogeneous, the response to the survey strikes me as a possibly racist sentiment.

One good note: the number of Protestant pastors who say their congregation is predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group has decreased from 86 percent to 81 percent over the last four years. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, says, “Protestant churches are still mostly divided by race. But they’re heading in the right direction.”

I pray that the improvement is because churches are taking Jesus’ command to preach the gospel seriously. If it’s mostly the product of branding and demographic strategizing, then I’m afraid that the improvement will prove to be short-lived.