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. ELB

    I have a solution. Lets start bussing people to chruch. Enough with this idea of going to the church that is just down the street. It worked for the schools.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  2. stu

    well this makes sense – people like to live in fantasy with people of their own ilk. After all, what white person wants to believe his imaginary jeebus is black?

    October 6, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  3. loracidon

    I no longer go to church b/c for one I don't want to and two I haven't found the right one for me to call home. One day I will divulge in going back b/c my life was better when I was there. I don't knock anyone's religion b/c it is their own right to pray, preach, or worship whomever they want to. I have had many of friends from different ethnical backgrounds to whom I have partied with fought with and even worshiped with at their own church. Yeah it was a little odd being the only white person in a church but they opened their arms and hearts to me as if I was their own. I know especially here in the south people have their views of a lot of racism (which there is still a lot of it) but church is another home to people and people will protect their homes vigoursely with passion brought through christ or whomever they worship.. I just put this here for myself and not worried bout what people think of me or what I do or who I talk to or where I hang out. We all have our own right to worship whoever we wish and everyone will claim that their GOD is the only one in their eyes.. To each their own is how I feel and will respect your views and not condemn anyone for what they believe in b/c in any religion condemning someones beliefs is wrong in your GODS eyes...

    October 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  4. Sam

    When I go to search I don't want to hear screaming and yelling, I don't wont to jump around and dance. I want to sing, I want to hear a sermon and I want to pray. I don't give a crap what other people do in their churches.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  5. jd

    Bill, According to (John 20:17) " I am ascednding to my Father and your Father and to my God and your God" Does this mean Jesus is God or God's son when he is referring to god as Father?

    October 6, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • Bill

      JD. First, Noone has the answer to everything. Second. I can only make an educate attempt to understand what Jesus says. Third. That isn't the whole verse. It actually says "17Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "

      I believe this was talking about how He went to see Mary and Mary was crying because of the loss. She was holding on to the memory of His life on earth. He has just risen from the dead and is attempting to 1. soothe her soul. 2. This is saying that His work isn't done yet. He's speaking as "Father" as if He is returning to His home in Heaven next to God. God is portrayed many times as a "Father." The point here isn't whether He is Jesus' "dad." It's just statying Father as another term for "God."

      October 6, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  6. whateverone

    I don't see why this is such a big deal. Nobody forces people to go to church. I attend a fundamental baptist church in Alabama. We have a very diverse congregation. I went to a funeral at an all black church and never thought "Aww, this is so sad. Why are all these people segregating themselves?"

    Newsflash: Many blacks have a different worship style and they enjoy it that way. It is a cultural thing in some ways. But to view it as "segregation" is foolish. They choose to be that way because it is what they like and want. Nobody forces them.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  7. vernoninon9

    It's totally true. As a white girl living in South Carolina, I can tell you, I'm not welcome in their churches. But you know who the first group is to complain about racism? Yeah, the church goers.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  8. Dave r

    It's not about Religion, it is about having a personal relationship with Daddy God and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. If you are looking for true religion, visit the widows and orphans. Jesus is returning soon, are you ready, game time is almost over, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  9. Sesiente

    Well to believe that the segregation on Sunday between Christian Churches does not have any underlying tones of racism is ludicrous. It ignores American history and the fact that blacks in this country were not permitted to worship with whites in many areas. It also ignores the fact that black Christian pastors, leaders and civl rights activists used the pulpit as a means to address injustices. They also used their Churches as safe houses. It also ignores the fact that white supremacist groups such as the KKK used the Bible and Christianity and other Christian symbols to further their causes and in their acts of terror against blacks. Many pastors till this day believe and teach that a mixing of the races is not permitted and try to evoke passages from the bible to ad veracity to their claims. Christianity in America is very much divided on racial lines. Go to almost any Christian Church in the South. You will definately be able to tell whether it is a "Black Christian Church", "White Christian Church" or a "Latino Christian Church" just by looking at the faces of the parishoners. That is why I love my Church. Courageous Church in Atlanta, GA. Our congregration from our pastor on down is a wonderful mixture of races, ethnicities, and socio economic classes. We just LOVE GOD, LOVE PEOPLE, AND PROVE IT.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
    • Bill

      Just because Christianity was "used" to move these agendas (by the way. Did you know the KKK was birthed out of the democratic party?), doesn't mean that Christianity is responsible for it. The crusades is a perfect example. If the Christians that served in the crusades really knew what was going on, they probably wouldn't have served, however, the leaders of the time used their beliefs against them and got them to fight for what they called a "holy war." Kinda like the jihadists and extreme islams today. They believe they are fighting a holy war, much like the crusaders thought that before.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  10. Dennis

    The Sane stay home.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  11. Mr. E From Buffalo

    I guess that my church is against the norm, out of the box, and we like it that way. We are located on an Native American reservation in western New York and we have just as many natives as non-natives attending our church. We also have a contingent of African American students that attend from a local job corps program and just love being with us. But the funny thing is, when I invite non-natives to our church they inevitably respond, "white people can go there too?" Too funny.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  12. Roger

    The muslim religion is rooted in deception...why do you think Obama won't admit he's one...hmmm?

    October 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  13. Dr Bill Toth

    Wow Imagine that – a country where people are free to worship when, where and with whom they choose. What an awesome concept.
    Live with Intention,

    October 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  14. Eric

    I think it's naive to think that the church is segegrated due to race only. When I go to church, I chose a church that I like the music and the message. We know that each race has different preference on those subjects. I for one don't enjoy Gospel music as much as British Rock Hillsong, so I don't go to the 1st church. Am I a racist for enjoying the music that I like? I don't think so.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  15. hardpill

    A low life dog crap tryin to rub of his/her
    Bigotry on the church. Wen was the last time
    Anybody here saw a sign outside a church sayin
    'Whites only' or blacks only or Hispanics. Ppl go
    wherever they wanna go. No business of liberal
    Retards suggesting who n how churches run. If u
    see only one race outnumbering in a church then
    take off ur racial Glasses and realize they are all
    Sinners saved by grace.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
    • Architect

      Well said.
      This article almost implies that the federal government needs to legislate some type of church attendance "reform".

      October 6, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  16. Barbara

    If you don't want a segregated church – seek out one that is diverse. My church - Calvary Chapel of Cary (NC) - is the most diverse church I have ever attended. I purposely sought out a diverse church – one that was across all ethniticies (black, white, asian and hispanic) – because it is important that my children are exposed to and interact with folks from all backgrounds. This is the one place where you will find someone from all walks of life. These churches do exist and are flourishing but unfortunately not in abundance.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  17. Noorullah

    Bill, These are not my rules. This is what God is according what God says. The concept of trinity is not mentioned in Bible at all. Prove me from the Bible where Jesus himself says "I am God". You cannot. The mighty Prophet of God, Jesus (Peace be upon him), who was given powers by the true God to heal people, give sight to the blind, and bring the dead back to life, never said that he was God. Infact he worshipped God. He called people to believe in the one true God. He prostrated to God according to the Bible. Your concept of trinity came into conception during the council of Nicaea in 3rd century after Jesus. The correct belief about God, Jesus and Holy spirit is given in Quran which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)which came after the darkness spread with the corrupt belief endorsed by the Council of Nicaea. Quran is the final Testament. Watch this to know more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcMzHgq2zRo

    October 6, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Bill

      Noorullah. You should really read something before you say its not in there.
      1. Isaiah 9:6 For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

      2. Isaiah 43:10-11: You are My witnesses,” says the Lord, “And My servant whom I have chosen, That you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, Nor shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the Lord, and besides Me there is no Savior.”

      3. Isaiah 44:24 – (God created the world by His self alone)
      John 1:3; Colossians 1:16 – (Jesus made all things)

      4. John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,

      5. John 5:17,18 – “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” Therefore the Jews sought to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

      6. John 8:58 – Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

      7. John 10:30-33 – Jesus answered them, “I and My Father are one.” Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.”

      8. John 14:6-7 – Jesus said to him, “I AM the way, the truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

      Should I go on?

      October 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
    • Bill

      I cannot watch youtube. They block it here at work. I probably wouldn't watch it anyway. I don't believe the Quran to be any more accurate then any other piece of fiction. However, I'm sure you feel the same about the Bible. Throughout the entire Bible, it references Jesus as the Messiah (not just a prophet). it references Him as being there at the beginning when God created the Heavens and the earth. Jesus even says "I and my Father are One." It says that The Word was with God and the Word WAS God and Jesus is the Word. Your statements are incorrect if you are speaking of the Bible.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  18. Jim

    While I agree with the article in general, let it be known that not all churches are segregated. My family and I attend a church in southern California that is multi-racial, mutli-cutural, mutli-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-site. A recent survey of our church family showed members and regular attenders almost evenly divided between caucasian, african-american and hispanic. It has its challenges, but the rewards of such a diverse membership are incredible.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • Bill

      Jim. When you say they are multi-site, does that mean that the hispanics meet in one building, the blacks meet in another build, the whites in another building, etc? What about service times. Do you have multiple services and different cultures attend different services? Thanks.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  19. Roxy

    Church or the belief in God doesn't divide people, People divide themselves. As you see from the article, those of ROMAN descent starting segregating people. I currently go to a church where there is a white pastor and a mixed congregation, but the majority of members is white. If we changed pastors to another race, I am sure those whites would leave as I have seen it done before. When God is truly working in a person's life, they will be able to see beyond the color of their leader, as in the case of the President of the United States and look at the character of the person. Continue to PRAY for this!

    October 6, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  20. Clark1b

    I wouldn't have focused on the "they look for comfort therefor they go to worship with people they look like" .... I would have looked at other variables .... like "they feel comfortable with a specific worship style that they grew up with".

    But I would even more importantly note that as a Christian ... every other Christian (not the pretenders) are my brothers and sisters and I care deeply for them no matter their color, national origin, worship style, etc.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:43 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.