Study: Changes in racial composition lead to decline in church attendance

The more mixed the Sunday morning pews are, the fewer people are likely to be in them.

That’s the primary finding of a new study from Baylor University published in the current Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Researchers studied the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where racial diversity doubled from 1993 to 2012, and found that, at the same time, churches with the greatest diversity growth also had the steepest declines in attendance.

Kevin Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor and lead author on the study, said the findings should not be taken as a stab at racial diversity in churches.

Rather, he said, it shows congregations that are not originally started — “planted,” in church parlance — as diverse will have a tough time becoming so after their planting.

“That change in the fundamental character of a congregation is an extremely daunting task,” Dougherty said. “Congregations intentionally planted as diverse from the beginning have the greatest potential to sustain that change while those that are trying to change their diversity will have a bumpy road ahead.”

The study also found:

  • Rises in racial diversity were associated with declines in weekly attendance, especially in the 1990s.
  • Older congregations were more likely to see a decline in attendance.
  • Congregations in predominantly white communities were more likely to grow.

The study was conducted among more than 11,000 ELCA congregations and used data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The ELCA is one of the least racially diverse denominations in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, with white people making up 96 percent of its membership. Only the National Baptist Convention, with 99 percent black membership, is less diverse.

Gerardo Martí, an associate professor of sociology at Davidson College, and Brandon Martinez, an assistant professor of sociology at Providence College, were co-authors of the study.