Church lacks racial diversity, officials say

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Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

The United Methodist Church, since its formation in 1968, has aspired to promote racial inclusion and end centuries of segregation that divided black and white churchgoers.

The denomination as a whole has made some strides. In recent decades, church members have elected a greater diversity of bishops, seminaries have enrolled more multiracial student bodies, and general agencies have hired more racial and ethnic minorities.

Yet the church still has precious few children who are red, yellow or black. The faces in United Methodist pews remain overwhelmingly white.

"The nation is getting younger and more diverse and the church is getting older and less diverse," said the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., the director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

"There is an increasing gap between the makeup of the church and the people God has given us in the United States to minister with."

The church's racial and ethnic profile remained constant from 1998 to 2008.

The denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration reports that as of 2008, the church's U.S. membership was 90 percent white, 5.8 percent black, 1.1 percent Asian, 0.7 percent Hispanic, 0.4 percent multiracial, 0.3 percent Native American and 0.2 percent Pacific Islander.

In 1998, the figures show the church as nearly 87 percent white.

The church's demographics were included in an Operational Assessment of the denomination released earlier this summer. They support the assessment's conclusion that the church is experiencing a "creeping crisis" of relevance, said Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

"How relevant is a 90 percent white denomination to a nation that's rapidly becoming less white?" she said.

Worshipers kneel at the chancel of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church for a time of silent prayer.
Worshipers kneel at the chancel of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church for a time of silent prayer.

Changing country

According to the U.S. Census, whites comprised 74 percent of the nation's population in 2008. Hispanics accounted for 15 percent and blacks 12.3 percent.

In the past decade, immigration accounted for about a third of the nation's growth. By 2042, the census projects the United States will be a majority-minority country.

To minister to a changing population, the denomination needs to focus on local congregations, church officials say.

Hawkins said her commission is working with clergy and lay leaders "to effectively lead outside their own cultural contexts." That includes training in communication, conflict resolution and connecting with changing neighborhoods, she said.

"People being able to worship in communities that are reflective of their lives and relationships is not a negative thing," Hawkins said. When "churches are exclusive of people and promote segregation by not being welcoming," problems arise.

New places for new people

Efforts to reach out are going on across the denomination.

The church now has five "national plans" to reach different racial/ethnic or language groups in the United States.

The Rev. Paul Chang, executive director of the Korean American National Plan, said the church needs to be sensitive to recent arrivals from South Korea who want to worship in their native language and second- and third-generation Korean Americans, who often prefer services in English.

The Korean-American National Plan has set the goal of developing 12 new Korean-language faith communities and seven new English-language ministries by 2012.

Chang and other national plan leaders are working with Path 1, a division of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship that focuses on starting new churches.

Since 2009, Path 1 has worked with conferences to reach growing populations in their regions. For example, Path 1 has a goal to form 75 predominantly Hispanic congregations where the immigrant population is growing.

Some of the new churches will be multiracial from the get-go; others will serve specific ethnic groups, said the Rev. Candace Lewis, new church strategist with Path 1.

"I think it's a 'both/and' approach," she said. "People want choice in worship styles. There are people who want the historic African-American church experience and those who are looking for a more diverse experience. I think we live in a time when both can be valid."

The Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, pastor of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, preaches. During his sermon, he welcomes churchgoers to text each other about the day's topic.
The Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, pastor of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, preaches. During his sermon, he welcomes churchgoers to text each other about the day's topic.

Open existing doors

The Rev. Yolanda Pupo-Ortiz has this piece of advice for long-established congregations that want to become more diverse: Expect changes.

She is in the process of merging the smaller Latino congregation Camino de Vida (Road of Life), where she serves, with the larger Epworth United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, Md. The new congregation, for now, is called Epworth-Camino.

Having a truly multicultural church, Pupo-Ortiz said, is more than sharing worship space. It also involves sharing leadership and learning from each other.

"It's finding a way that everybody feels at home," she said. "When you have a multicultural church, it's like a marriage. You can't do things the same way you did before. You expand your family, learn new traditions and eat new food."

The Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow had a slightly different experience as pastor of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He decided the key to his predominantly black congregation's revival was reclaiming the historic black church experience of call-and-response worship. But he added a contemporary twist.

For years, the denomination's African-American membership - like its overall U.S. membership - has been shrinking. Last year, 23 historically black United Methodist churches closed their doors. Now, there are slightly fewer than 2,300 black churches in the denomination, said Cheryl Walker, director of African-American ministries with the Board of Discipleship.

Figures are based on the denomination's total U.S. membership. They do not total 100 percent because some annual (regional) conferences do not fully report racial/ethnic makeup.
Figures are based on the denomination's total U.S. membership. They do not total 100 percent because some annual (regional) conferences do not fully report racial/ethnic makeup.

But that's not the experience of Wesley Chapel, which over the past decade has seen its average attendance climb from about 30 to almost 200. Since Miller-Yow became pastor in 2003, the church has added 152 members. Most have been students from neighboring Philander Smith College, a historically black United Methodist college, where Miller-Yow is chaplain.

"The secret to our success is that you can't put new wine in old skins," said Miller-Yow, who is the president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. "We've created a space for traditional worship and contemporary worship."

Miller-Yow, who grew up in the Church of God in Christ before joining The United Methodist Church in college, jokes that Wesley Chapel's style of worship is "Methocostal."

That Pentecostal fervor is evident during the service. Where once parishioners relied on hymnals, they now follow the lead of an exuberant choir, music leader, a Hammond organ, piano and drum set. Some of the worshipers in the pews raise their hands in the exultation.

Like many traditional black churches, the sermon is an interactive affair with parishioners shouting "Amen" and clapping when they feel led by the Spirit. But some of the students who attend also have their cell phones handy and text each other lines from the sermon that they want to remember.

At the end of a service in August, five worshipers - all in their 20s - joined the church.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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