In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared that "11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week." That largely remains true today. Despite the growing desegregation of most key American institutions, churches of all races are still a glaring exception. Surveys from 2007 show that fewer than 8% of American congregations have a significant racial mix.
Yet the group where the change is coming fastest is in large evangelical churches. Among evangelical churches with attendance of 1,000 people or more, the the proportion with 20% or more minority participation has more than quadrupled, from 6% in 1998 to 25% in 2007 according to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University and co-author of several notable books including Divided by Faith.
TIME magazine noticed that development and just released a fascinating lengthy article by its main religion writer, David Van Biema, profiling the journey in racial awareness of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and of its founding pastor Bill Hybels in particular. As it explains:
In 1974, Hybels was a youth pastor whose meetings outdrew the church he worked for by a factor of three. In '75, he and several friends founded Willow, aiming at people with little Christian affiliation, informally dubbed "unchurched Harry and Mary." The congregation boomed . . . and Hybels became the poster boy for the new movement of exurban big-box churches.
Yet Harry and Mary were white: Willow attracted almost nobody of color. . . . Hybels, while denying intentional exclusivity, says that "in the early days, we were all young, white, affluent, college-educated suburbanites, and we all understood each other. When we reached out to our friends, it became self-reinforcing."
Hybels decided about 10 years ago to aggressively welcome minorities and today few sermons or services pass without a cue that he is still at it. By February 2009, Willow had hit the 20%-minority threshold that signifies an integrated congregation. Today its membership is 80% Caucasian, 6% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 2% African American and 8% "other" ethnicities. By its own admission, Willow has not arrived to fully where it wants to be, but it is a very different church today in who feels welcome there (see photo).
Willow Creek is certainly not alone in its journey of intentionality of being a racially mixed congregation. Another excellent model, including theological foundations, is found in Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation by Mark DeYmaz, a pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation. Recent blog posts include Why Is “Everyone” Interested in Leadership Development, What’s New in Young Adult Ministries, Questions Raised by Executive Pastors, Looking for Lean Staff Churches, Downtown Churches: How Visible?, What Is Your Church Learning about Outreach?, What Are the Most Urgent Questions Tomorrow’s Church Must Face?, Nigerian-Based Church Comes to North America and Today’s Co-Pastor: A Slightly Growing Trend.