October 6th, 2010
07:29 AM ET

Why Sunday morning remains America's most segregated hour

“Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America.”

That declaration, which has been attributed to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., used to startle listeners. Now it’s virtually become a cliché. For years, various academic studies and news articles have reported what many churchgoers already know: most American congregations are segregated.

In the latest issue of the academic journal Sociological Inquiry, two professors dug deeper into why Sundays remain so segregated.

The article, “Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations,’ said that nine out of ten congregations in the U.S. are segregated - a single racial groups accounts for more than 80 percent of their membership.

Kevin Dougherty , a sociology professor at Baylor University in Texas, and a co-author of the article, says churches haven't kept pace with other institutions.

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.

Attracting members of another race isn’t good enough, Dougherty says. Most congregations that draw racial minorities can’t keep them.

It’s not just an issue of attraction, of getting them into the door, but of retention.  Can we keep them? Our research indicates that we’ve not been able to.

Calling a church segregated may make some people uncomfortable because it implies that its members are racist. But many contemporary churches that are dominated by one racial group weren’t formed by racial animosity, Dougherty says.

Parishioners’ prefer to go to church with people who look like them, Dougherty says.

People choose churches where they feel comfortable. Maybe they get challenges there, but they’re going for the comfort.”

The first Christian church was known for its diversity. Jews, Gentiles, and Greeks mingled alongside women and slaves. Biblical scholars have long maintained that the early church’s diversity was one of the reasons it became so popular. Roman society was characterized by rigid ethnic and class divisions.

That was then, though.

How important is it for the  church to strive for that kind of ethnic diversity today - particularly since it seems many people don’t want it, according to the article?

Can American churches remain separate but equal?

Editor's Note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien looks at how some are fighting debt from the pulpit in "Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special," premiering October 21 at 8 p.m. ET.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Houses of worship • Race

soundoff (374 Responses)
  1. Jerome

    Our segregated prison system.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  2. Big Bob

    Thanks to Abudu and Noorullah to confirm that Islam is a religion/political system that (for some reason) appeals to many races. That said, next time someone complains about Muslims, don't call them racists. That term simply doesn't apply.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  3. Teekay

    My bible believing church of 3,000 members is multicultural – about half black and half white. In fact, our mailing address is 7000 All Nations Boulevard. Our Russian and Latino members and friends can listen to the service translated into their language by headset if they don't speak English. So they didn't check with Abundant Life Christian Center in E. Syracuse, New York when they did this study 'cause we're multicultural, love Jesus and live the Bible. Check us out at alcclife.org

    October 6, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  4. DaveSEMassachusetts

    We're a mostly white Episcopal congregation. We've had some Hispanic couples from time to time and one family is still attending with about as much as regularity as our average family, which is about 1 week in 3. We seem to get mostly positive feedback singing anthems from Lift Every Voice And Sing (LEVAS), an African American hymnal. We're not very animated (no dancing or much body motion) in our singing. I wonder if our congregation would find more animation exciting and motivational or simply distracting. From all of the posts, it would seem the latter. I think we're seeing what others have posted – there simply aren't many minorities in our white suburban town, so I'm not sure it's a reflection of the church or simply that people go to churches in their own towns and neighborhoods.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  5. GOD

    You mave have heterogeneity of race in church, but one thing you can depend on is that 100% of the people are utterly deluded.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  6. msaprilr

    Sociology professors should know better. This has absolutely nothing to do with race. It's cultural. Blacks and whites often come from two very different sub-cultures. The two cultures are on opposite ends of the scale when it comes to worship. The services that one culture likes are completely opposite from the services that the other culture likes. There are a few black folks in my predominantly white church who prefer our more subdued service. And there are a few white folks in my friends predominantly black church. But mostly, we keep to our respective cultural styles. Worship is a very emotional thing. We keep to the style that appeals to us the most and it's got ZIP to do with skin color.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  7. Architect

    Many churches in my area offer sermons in a specific language other than english. So, you would expect some self-segregation as a result. I don't see that as racism in that since it is merely accommodating different cultural needs. I suppose CNN could claim there is segregation within the local newspaper readership too. Spanish language newspapers read by latinos, and Korean language papers read by Koreans, and so on. So it must be racism, right? Or what about the public universities that have built ethnic-themed dorms. CNN doesn't complain about that. No, just bash churches.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  8. Redleg

    Dont' forget that the Soutthern Baptists formed in order to defend slavery and racism. They still allow congregations to stop people at the door based on their race.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  9. Noorullah

    God is All powerful, Most merciful and Most Compassionate. Your attributing a son to God is attributing a weakness to God. Your saying he cannot forgive everyone without getting Jesus killed is again attributing a sign of weakness, that he cannot forgive otherwise. The true message from Prophet Muhammad is – The like of Jesus the son of Mary is the like of Adam. God created Adam without a father and mother. The sameway God created Jesus without a father and God is All powerful to do whatever he likes". The correct concept of reward and punishment is – Believe in one true God without attributing any partners (Even children) and Do good deeds, avoid sinning and you will be rewarded by God. Otherwise you will never get salvation. Come to Islam and Come to Peace. Quran in the final testament.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • Bill

      Noorullah. You are speaking as if these are "my" rules. This is what God says. He said there is One True God. He says that Jesus is God. He says that the Holy Spirit is God. (Thus the Trinity of a single, Triune God. He could have done "salvation" any way that He wanted. HE chose to use Jesus as the means to salvation and thus, the means to Heaven. Jesus died for EVERYONE, yet many will choose not to follow Him. Anyone can receive Christ, but only those that DO receive Him as Savior will be saved. This is according to HIS Word, not ours.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • msaprilr

      Noorullah you seem to have absolutely no concept of the law of sin and death. It's got nothing to do with punishment or forgiveness any more than gravity is punishing you when you jump off a cliff. You have some anti-religious bias, yet you don't even know what religion is. Perhaps you should stop typing until you do.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  10. Terry North Carolina

    DUH! god believers are poor examples of intelligent thinking to begin with, So you think that would accept that we are all human beings and of the same equal status....it is ti laugh

    October 6, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  11. Memphispiano

    I think this article implies a racist element that is not really as prevalent you might think. The separation is far more cultural. I am a Christian music artist and I go to white and black churches. They are vastly different far beyond the ethnic makeup. For instance, many African-Americans have grown up going to churches that start at 9:30am and last til 2 in the afternoon. Although many whites love the excitement of a black church, they can barely stand church for 90 minutes let alone hours. They don't attend these churches because of that far more than because of racial issues. On the flipside, many African Americans who have been raised in this setting never feel fulfilled in the more conservative and short white services. I think both white and black churches are far more welcoming of diverse ethnicities than this article suggests.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  12. willie hou

    This is all about the style of church , if a predominately white Church was is into contemporary Gospel music and other things they will attract a diverse group. If the same Church was into the traditional hymms and pipe organs it will not be diverse. Lakewood in Houston (Joel Olsten ) is a very diverse congregation but it is non traditional. Even predominately black traditional churches are stuggling to keep members. People don't want a 3 hour service they want to get in and out of service.. I went to a Church in Overland Park Kansas which was diverse with good music and a white Pastor who spoke well. If I had lived there that would have been my church. I don't think people say I will or I won't go to a church based on race however if the church offers the things they llike they will drive miles to go to that church.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • Lindsay

      Agreed! Completely. Pastors are a HUGE draw. In Dallas, Bishop TD Jakes draws all backgrounds of people, and yes, there are many white faces in his congregation on Sunday.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  13. Lindsay

    Places of worship pop up in communities of like people (same ethnicity, culture, faith etc.), so it's no surprise that we see all black churches in predominately black communities, synagogues in predominately Jewish communities, etc. There are definitely some exceptions to this; many people looking for a church or other place of worship will hunt around to find one that fits them (whether it's like minded people, like-faithed people, or even people that look like you…). So I guess I'm not at all shocked by the findings of the study, but also don't feel there is anything wrong or bad about the expected results as a whole. I think the “wrong” is in the hearts of people and their motives, and only God truly knows what that is.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  14. jaman

    You cannot regulate a bigot or a racist and that is a simple fact. The problem there has never been counselling offered for racist and bigot views as one would for alcoholism, drugs, marriage etc because it was never considered a big issue. Many historic racist like Abraham lincoln came around after a while to the need for integration but when a general freed the slaves in the Civil War Abe promptly fired him only to realise later that freeing the slaves was a good ploy in winning a war in which slavery was not a paramount cause has many people today believe

    October 6, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  15. talon10

    All religion is stupid. So this isn't surprising.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • Phil

      Yeah. Blaise Pascal was a moron, right?

      October 6, 2010 at 11:27 am |
    • Dennis

      Phil, Pascal's ego made him ignore all the other gods he might have worshiped. That's a big roulette wheel.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  16. Noorullah

    Why did God create humans in different colors and gave them different languages?? God answers these questions in the Quran: "And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for those who know" (Quran 30:22)."O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)." (Quran 49:13)

    October 6, 2010 at 11:09 am |
    • Dennis

      That just makes my head hurt. A races skin color is math formula..

      There is no magic, it's evolution and annual ultraviolet radiation exposure.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  17. YBP

    "Many contemporary churches that are dominated by one racial group weren’t formed by racial animosity," Dougherty says. "Parishioners’ prefer to go to church with people who look like them."

    That sounds a lot like racism to me. Because it is.

    "The first Christian church was known for its diversity. Jews, Gentiles, and Greeks mingled alongside women and slaves."

    That's not quite true. The first followers of Jesus were strictly Jewish. This continued after his death. Jesus' cause, the "Kingdom of God," was about Jewish patriotism, violence and world domination centered in Israel. The Gentile (meaning non-Jew, a racist term) "religion" which exists today was invented by St.Paul, who was a rival and bitter opponent of Jesus' family and first disciples until his dying day.

    Paul's cult had nothing to do with the historical Jesus, what he stood for, what he said, or why he died. It was (and is) a pagan-based mystery cult that due to an accident in history (i.e. the Roman-Jewish War 66-70 CE, during which Jesus' original sect called "the Nazoreans" ceased to exist) has become Christianity, a non-Jewish and anti-Jewish religion.

    Christianity was spread throughout Europe by the sword three hundred hundred years later. Christianity was used as war propaganda by the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine. The reason it survived after the Roman-Jewish War is that it existed outside of Palestine, throughout the Roman Empire, whereas Jesus' original following, a sect of apocalyptic Jews, was based in Jerusalem. Very few Nazoreans survived the devastation of the war.

    So, it's no wonder that Christianity is segregated. But even if Nazoreanism had survived for twenty centuries, which is highly unlikely since Jesus never returned, it would still be segregated because it would only be practiced by a small sect of fanatical Jews.

    Don't believe me? Please look into it.

    Hard to accept? Yes. It was for me, too. The trouble with tracing the roots of Christianity back through history and learning who Jesus really was and what really happened is that you lose your Christian faith along the way, and you can never get it back. I couldn't believe now, even if I wanted to. And I was a seminarian.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  18. Todd

    US Schools, highly segregated;
    US Neighborhoods, highly segregated;
    US Malls, highly segregated...

    This is how things work, people naturally gravaitate towards their own people and culture, preach diversity all you want, but facts are facts.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  19. lburman

    "Organized religion is another form of segregation". Something I have said for a very long time.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • TripleM

      I thought you said that. We do after all hang on your every word.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  20. Jason

    Idk about other churches but my church is like this, all white some black people come to visit and people say hello but they kinda ignore them and i think thats extremly wrong. God loves us all no matter what we look like or whatever and i think we all should worship together

    October 6, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • Phil

      I hope you're leading by example and going to at least say hi to them yourself

      October 6, 2010 at 11:07 am |
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