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. VistaNow

    Lori – The NJB (John 10: 29) The Father, for what he has given me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal anything from the Father's hand.
    30 The Father and I are one. This is what Jesus said in John's proclamation of the Gospel – St Paul states in his writing, that Jesus wishes all man to come to the Knowledge of the Truth. Can you see!

    October 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  2. VistaNow

    🙁 Consider that it will be difficult to come up with a bible translation without looking at both tradition and history. Somehow this unlocks the culture of those days. Does catholic teaching differ from that of the founding Fathers?

    October 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • :(

      Depends on who you name as the founding fathers.

      October 6, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • VistaNow

      St.Ambrose, St Agustine, St Therese of the Child Jesus, St Jerome, St Dominic, St Francis of Assisi, just to name a few

      October 7, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
  3. interestedbeginner

    I go to a christian church where MANY ethnicities are well represented. I love it! And it is in a predominantly so-called "white" neighborhood. This study clearly did not do its due dilligence. They just wanted an educated way to say we are still divided. And so most stay divided – it is circular...and a lie.

    As far as you so-called non-religious people ('cause let's face it – you all worship something! Most likely YOURSELF, which is humanism), you can't even make your own heart start or stop willfully. You just know and appreciate that you live!. :0) Now go dig up your Mama's or your Granny's Bible (they were wiser that you give them credit for! and you are not as "enlightened" as you suppose!) and read the book of Romans (written in the late stages of the Roman empire). Just because you choose to not believe in God doesn't mean God is not "real." Sorry, you don't weild that sort of power!

    October 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jesus Way

      Well said!

      October 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  4. roger stoller

    I wish CNN would do their homework, the quote about the nost segregated hour comes from Billy Graham in an article from the 1950s, not Martin Luthier King. King often quoted this line (rightly), but it shold not be attibuted to him – he was quoting Billy.

    October 6, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  5. Pat

    I haven't read every post, but having scanned many, I find there are three important detials that don't seem to have been addressed, either in the comments and certainly not in the study: 1. How does the ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the church reflect the ethnic make up of the immediate surrounding community? To say that a church is segregated because it has less than 20 % ethnic representation is, in many cases, an unfair expectation. I am the pastor of a small Baptist church in New England, and I can attest that my church is as diversified as my community. 2. To say that churches are segregated implies that churches are doing something to "screen" perspective members or are intentionally discouraging certain ethnic groups. However, nothing in the study indicated that anything intentional was being done to limit diversity, nor did it suggest that anything was unintentionally undone. Church attendance is very much a matter of free will and choice, where people make decisions based on geographic proximity, culture, preference of worship styles and, yes, comfort. And 3. Is Sunday morning the only measure of ethnic diversity. Was any consideration given to the outreach ministries of churches that minister to people of significantly different ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds other than in worship on Sunday morning? To look only at Sunday morning does not give a true picture of what is happening in the church overall.
    I simply want to encourage people to look at the wider picture before drawing unfair conclusions.


    October 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bill

      Pat. No offense, but we talked about all those issues. 😉

      October 6, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  6. Jesus Way

    How can some of you call Christians racist? Since non of you go to church and are involved in church I guess you wouldnt know about all the mission trips to Haiti and Africa and Romania and all other places that churches go to help out the people in need there. Look up the Samaritans Purse, they are a Christian based charity that go to Africa and build wells for the people there in the villages. That is just one of thousand of christian charities. Dont forget too that soup kitchens were established by Christians. You all need to get your facts right before you open your mouths.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • interestedbeginner

      @ Jesus Way – right back at you! Good comments!

      October 6, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  7. Beasley

    Aren't most bars segregated, too? Biker bars, townie bars, Yuppie bars, gay bars. Bars, like churches, are community-based, and communities are still, like it or not, segregated. The article speaks of schools becoming more integrated, but at the same time we see more people who want "community-based" schools, rejecting the busing and other artificial redistribution of students to achieve some court-mandated integration goals.

    Nobody wants to be a minority. Look at the anger in the Southwest, where Spanish-speaking immigrants, legal and illegal, threaten to overwhelm the Anglo population (who, as I recall, similarly overwhelmed the Native Americans.) For one hour on Sunday morning, isn't it OK to have a gathering with people who look like you?

    October 6, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  8. Jesus Way

    For everyone of you that dont go to church, which reading some of these ridiculous comments do not. The church is a PUBLIC place. PUBLIC places do not say only white people are allowed here. How can it be the churches fault that most of it's members are white? At my church most of the members are white but we do have many people that go that are not white. If non white people start going to church more often then that is GREAT. But this is not the churches fault. If there is a church that doesnt allow non white people in it then it needs to be stopped because that is wrong and they are falling away from God. This is coming from a African-American christian by the way.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  9. Frank

    I think it has more to do with where the church is more than anything else. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's (un)conscious racism. Maybe with some, of course, but they would be in the minority.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  10. LeslieJ1

    Just like I wouldn't volunteer myself to participate in an activity I am not interested in or surround myself with a group of people who are completely different than myself or my family, I don't want to make worship uncomfortable and unfamiliar. People of different ethnicities have differences in behavior therefore a different kind of participation and get a different reaction to certain situations. I prefer to sit in church, not particularly sing a whole bunch, listen to a minister I feel is really relaying God's message as he would want it told, and really take in what is being said. I don't want to sing a majority of the time or shout or listen to others speak random languages. I don't feel you are getting the real message of God that way and you aren't learning all you can. Praising yes, learning no.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  11. DfromthePeg

    They printed this article for one reason. To paint the church as segregationist. Because to the new left-wing oligarchy, a christian may as well be a Klan member or a Black Panther or a redneck. And because they hate the church, they are using the media to demonize the church by printing articles such as this. Ask yourself who owns this news outlet and you'll find your answer.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • geo59

      If you knew anything about the Black Panther Party you would not mention this historic American organization in the same breath as the KKK or rednecks.

      October 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • DfromthePeg

      My point is not to compare the KKK with the Black Panthers. My point was that the new left-wing power structure paints christians as KKK and Black Panthers, groups who advocate for one ethnic group exclusively.

      October 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • geo59

      On that point we agree.

      October 7, 2010 at 5:02 am |
    • geo59

      However, the Black Panther Party did not advocate ethnic exclusivity. The Party formed to fight police brutality and racism in inner cities and to act as a community organization for poor people. It was the Black Muslims, aka The Nation of Islam, who wrongly advocated for ethnic exclusivity. As far as the media being left-leaning, well they aren't left enough for me. As far as religion, it is delusional and counter-productive to the species, in my opinion.

      October 7, 2010 at 5:07 am |
  12. Daniel

    As long as there is one person of color in a church congregation, it is not segregated, and thus there are many many thousands of churches in America that are not segregated (here in Atlanta, I don't know of any). Overall, this article deals with a non-issue.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  13. Pumkin

    Why do so many of you bring blacks up to make a point. Most cultures stick with themselves. All major cities have areas where the same group lives, take NYC for example, there's little italiy, China town, Harlem areas around canal street was once called jew town. whites want to be with other whites, blacks want to be with other blacks and asian want to be around other asian that's during their personal time, work and travle is another story.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  14. Scott

    The article describes de facto seperation, not segregation, which is a forced state. Free people can choose to associate with whomever they wish. The problem is force. You can't force people to associate with a perfect rainbow of skin color any more than you can force an individual to use a particular drinking fountain because he has dark skin. The author doesn't understand this simple concept, and instead suggests that "attracting members of another race isn’t good enough". Good enough for whom? The author?

    October 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  15. Del

    I seldom worship in a different ethnic congregation, not because of race, but because of the difference in the style of worship. I don't like loud, often repeated phrases in songs. I don't prefer sitting in church for hours. I prefer more cognitive, than emotive worship experiences. It appears the majority of difference ethnic groups have different preferred styles of worship. This apparent segregation, and articles about it, are missing the point IMHO.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  16. Julio Mariaca

    I am giving YOU a new commandment, that YOU love one another; just as I have loved YOU, that YOU also love one another. By this all will know that YOU are my disciples, if YOU have love among yourselves.”
    John 13: 34, 35
    Apparently, these churches are not following Jesus's command since they are segregated. Therefore, they must NOT be true disciples of Christ.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • jhg

      Julio you may be on to something here

      October 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  17. dcr

    Say what you want about a particular faith's beliefs (which is not even remotely referenced in this article), but Jehovah's Witnesses are the most racially integrated, least racist faiths I've ever encountered.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • jhg

      dcr; i think you and julio are on to something.

      October 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  18. BullzFan

    People go to the church that's closest to their home. I don't believe in religion, but I don't see how it's a church's fault that the people in the neighborhood are all of one race.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  19. 11:11

    Evolution is the ongoing process of creation. Science and philosophy were both born from religion. True religion is not a dogma that can be hijacked and manipulated for a political agenda. It is the observation of nature to understand the reality of the divine.

    As above so below.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  20. Candra

    I've always figured the main reason why churches are segregated is because of differences in "style" of worship. If you go to an African American church the style of worship and preaching may be significantly different from the style of an Anglo church. There are Korean churches here in Nashille TN as well as Spanish churches and even a few small Laotian congregations. But there are also mixed churches (my church, and I'm African American btw) in the city too! It all depends on what you are comfortable with. As long as we are all praising God, I kinda think this is a secondary issue.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
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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.