Evangelism and race in the Episcopal Church

Perhaps welcomeNow that I’m back from my hiatus, I’ve got a backlog of posts to write. This is one I had been meaning to write since July, when an article on evangelism and race was the cover story in Christianity Today (“Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?“). The author set out to answer a vital question, “Do Christian churches in the United States actually welcome people from different racial and ethnic groups?”

We in the Episcopal Church love to tout our welcome (never mind the fact that we’re often not so good at it). We also like to imagine that we are inclusive in all sorts of ways, including race. And while nearly every congregation I visit insists that they are welcoming to everyone, the available data calls into question our anecdotal notions, our hopes. In the US, our population is just under 64% white (Wikipedia), but the Episcopal Church is 89% white (Pew Research Center). Look at those two pages, and you’ll see that TEC in the US is a good deal less racially diverse than the population in which we minister. This is, I think, a serious problem.

It might be tempting to dismiss this racial disparity for historical reasons (Our heritage is Anglo, which might not connect with ____…) or to find other excuses (There are “ethnic” churches for ____…). Some people might say that our newly installed African-American Presiding Bishop is a sign that we don’t have a race problem. But just as Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s election did not signal an end to sexism in the church, Bishop Michael Curry cannot be seen as a signal that our racism problems are behind us.

If we are not a bit uncomfortable considering the homogeneity of our church compared with our population, we are not taking seriously either our God-given work of reconciliation or our systemic racism or our mandate to go and make disciples of all nations. But there is more to note here on the topic of evangelism and race, and it’s not great news. Back to the Christianity Today article I cited at the beginning.

The author and a sociologist conducted an experiment.

More than 3,000 congregations received an email ostensibly from someone moving to their community and looking for a new church. We measured whether the churches replied to this email and, if so, what they said. But there was a catch: We varied the names attached to the emails so that they conveyed different racial and ethnic identities. Would the names alone change how churches replied?

You should go read the article (which might require a subscription to Christianity Today, which is totally worth it). The article talks about the broader context of culture, race, and racism, before getting to the findings of the experiment.

It turns out that mainline protestant churches responded to 67% of emails which looked like they came from white people, whereas only 60%, 58%, and 49% percent of emails which looked to be from black, hispanic, or asian people were answered. Got that? Mainline protestants were very welcoming to prospective white members, but significantly less welcoming to prospective members of color. For evangelical churches, the response rate varied from 59% to 56%, which indicates a much lower race bias.

Here’s how the numbers looked for protestant and catholic churches:

Response rate for prot and rc

And this is the result for evangelical churches:

response rate for evangelicals

Have a careful look at the numbers. There are broadly disturbing racial disparities to be found all over. The notable exception is seen among Willow Creek Association churches, which had both a high response rate and a fairly even racial balance. Perhaps this is because they value the Gospel enough to want all to share a transformed life? The overall low rates (without considering racial disparity) among mainline churches should be worrying in itself. Can we not be bothered to respond to those who are looking for a church? Why do we not take every possible step to welcome people into our churches?

For Episcopalians, we had a relatively impressive 82% response rate to emails which appeared to come from white people. That’s higher than any other segment in the report. We should celebrate that relatively response high rate, even as we lament the rates to which we responded to emails which appeared to come from black, hispanic, or asian writers (71%, 65%, and 63%). What does it say about our churches that 4 out of 5 times we wrote back to people we thought were white, but only 3 out of 5 times to people we thought we asian?

I’m hardly an expert on race issues, though I know enough to know that we have a problem. (Lord knows, I have my own racism with which to contend, as much as I would like to pretend I don’t.) For those who might like to see hard data on the issue of race, this report and the reports on our demographics demonstrate our race problem as a church. Simply put, we Episcopalians were more eager to add people who we believed to be white than other races. That is an abject failure and grave sin of which we must repent. We should bend over backwards to welcome all those who are seeking a church, who are seeking Jesus.

What are we to do? First, we should pay attention to truths which make us uncomfortable without making excuses. Racism, of course, has no excuse. How can we repent of the evil of racism? Second, we must address race issues head on. How are the demographics of your congregation compared with your neighborhood? What is the racial diversity of your leadership? Third, we must get back to basics when it comes to discipleship and evangelism. If we knew our lives to be transformed by Jesus, we would be compelled to invite others into relationship with the true and living God. If evangelism really mattered, our response rate across the board (of any segment) would be well above 82%.

I’ll have more to say about evangelism in the Episcopal Church in the next few weeks as I get back in the blogging groove. Thanks be to God, we have a Presiding Bishop who wants to be known as a Chief Evangelism Officer who, I hope, will fire us up for the Jesus Movement inside and outside our churches. I hope he is also able to build on the momentum of anti-racism legislation passed by General Convention to convene important conversations on rave. I hope we are able to repent and return to the Lord, who surely loves all people beyond our understanding.

Images here are taken from the article in Christianity Today.

NOTE: I have left racial descriptors all lower-case deliberately. There are various schools of thought on which ones should or should not be upper-case, and I didn’t want to favor one over others.

UPDATE: As I was writing this post, I see that the Episcopal Cafe has posted an article on the same study which also appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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21 Responses

  1. bmars52 says:

    As a communications volunteer for a secular organization, I suggest that the rate of response to an email solicitation is not a very reliable measure of anything. Emails from unknown senders, whether they appear to be from individuals or organizations are widely ignored. A response rate of 82% is exceptional. Typically a “reading rate” of 30% would be considered very good and a “click through rate” — when someone actually clicks on a button within a message to reply — of even 5-10% is great. Response rates from churches, many of which do not have the staff or capability to monitor emails on a constant basis, also tell us little. The Willow Creek Church mentioned in the article is no doubt more technologically savvy than the average parish church, which may account for the consistent rate of response. To infer racial profiling from this very thin data set, seems questionable at best.
    Nevertheless, the article deals with much more fundamental barriers to understanding and communication among races and cultures and does not depend on the validity of such measures. It is well worth reading an reflecting upon.

    • Franklin says:

      You are totally dead on in your analysis. It’s pseudo-statistical analysis because it doesn’t actually understand statistics – create graphs and don’t establish a logical foundation for your illogical/pointless inferences and you’ll get a publication on your resume doesn’t actually give meaningful data.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      If the problem were only technology sophistication, one would expect to see the results consistent across race lines. But the consistent patterns suggest patterns that are troubling. We can make excuses or dismiss data we don’t like, or we can confront our race issues. I choose the latter, imperfectly to be sure.

  2. Joe says:

    Seems like this article could also be titled, Evangelical Churches more likely to welcome non-whites 😉

    I agree that being inclusive is extremely important and we shouldn’t be satisfied until 100% of inquiries are answered. We should also celebrate that people with ethnic specific names are more likely to get a response from an Episcopal church than just about any other tradition.

    I think it would be interesting to try the same experiment by class. Would Dr. Wong get a better response rate than Mr. Jorgensen (fill-in-trade here).

    Or better yet, if someone has a Tea Party “Don’t tread on me” tagline in their signature vs. Bernie Sanders sticker what’s the response rate?


  3. Chris H. says:

    Thanks for pointing me toward a very interesting article. I wanted to see what was in the letter and while they didn’t post the letter, they mentioned the one fact I was looking for, whether the letter spoke of a family or not. It’ isn’t just race that gets people the cold shoulder in church, not having family can be just as bad. Many churches focus only on families and those, especially women, who don’t have either spouse or children have no place in the community, as those are the correct topics for spiritual women to talk about. Men’s groups are allowed to have broader themes and topics, but having been told to go join the high school/college group even into the 40+ age range has driven all but one of my single friends(both genders) and I out of the church. And since, depending on city and demographic, 20-40% of the population is never getting married, the church is cutting out a large group of potential and/or former members.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I believe the letter was nearly identical except for the name. So family bias is not a factor here, though I agree that churches often fail to welcome folks who don’t fit into “conventional” ideas of family. That said, we should not let this take our gaze away from race issues.

  4. Jon says:

    Sorry, I’m coming to this a bit late. The research is interesting, but what’s up with the parenthetical breast-beating about having to contend with internal racism? Maybe you’ve had a way more profound wrestling with internal racism than I’ve heard about, but that sort of line, which seems to crop up regularly when well-educated, white liberals talk about racism, is starting to feel more like a performance used to mark the speaker as a well-educated, white liberal than a realistic recognition of personal sin. Sort of like the type of evangelical Christian that’s happy to go on about how they were and perhaps still are a horrible sinner absolutely depending on Jesus’ mercy without any particularly serious sins actually in their past.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I find that it is generally better to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling — and to worry mostly about my sins — rather than imagine motives in others. Perhaps it would be worth asking why my side comment (which I meant sincerely, if you can believe that) is the focus of your response to an article on racism in the Episcopal Church.

      • Susan says:

        Scott, I know you are trying to keep this conversation focused on the racism pointed out in the article and I respect that. I also know you well enough to know how thoughtful, sincere and honest you are in your reflections. I can’t speak for Jon, but I think he is saying something important. He seems to have come from a place of frustration and made it a bit personal. But I have heard that frustration about well-educated, white liberals expressed before among people of color. There’s a subtlety to it that needs to be grasped and understood. I’m not saying that you don’t understand it, but I do think that it is worth wondering where that comment comes from and learning as much as we can from the current literature on race in America to help us as non people of color to understand. Peace to you, my friend.

        • Scott Gunn says:

          Of course, the problem is that if I do not acknowledge that racism is a personal issue for me, then someone will (rightly) point out that I am lecturing others from a place of imagined moral high ground. On the other hand, wailing too much makes the conversation about me, and not about systemic racism, which is the culprit and the thing I believe we should be talking about.

          I will make zero claims to understanding racism anywhere, in my own life or in systems. However, I will observe (in this case, with empirical data) when systems of which I am a part are filled with racism. Lord knows we need to repent, and I know we can’t do that if we don’t start with an admission of our need to repent.

          And my point stands that, based on the comments here and in social media, not many folks in the Episcopal Church want to acknowledge that our we-are-totally-inclusive narrative has some serious flaws.

          That said, I am grateful to be having whatever conversation we can have, and I hope to listen to others as we continue to learn from one another.

      • Jon says:

        Sorry to take so long to reply, real life has kept me busy.

        I don’t doubt your sincerity; I just don’t think that the demand for and acting out of tasteful breast-beating has anything to do with actually ending racism or the other isms that afflict our society. The whole dance you mention to Susan looks like it is only really useful for activists trying to jockey for position and influence. I trust that they sincerely believe that the behavior they demand is important in fighting racism too, but sincerity is no guarantee of effective action.

        As for why I focused on this point instead of racism among US Episcopalians, anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade or more knows that many parishes aren’t particularly welcoming, and racism is clearly a major issue for Americans in general. While it’s good to be reminded of the state of things by studies like the one you linked to, there’s just not much to say in response, especially when the post culminates with something uncontroversial like a generic call to repent of racism in our church and/or community.

  5. Setting aside the issue of why all those numbers aren’t 100% (how in heaven’s name do you get an email from an inquiring potential parishioner and not respond? Wake up, people!), this is a question I’ve been asking around our parish of predominantly (though not exclusively) white parishioners. How can we be open to more races, encourage more diversity? Part of the issue is proximity; our neighborhood is also predominantly Caucasian, and roughly 20-30 minutes drive from the town across the river where the largest number of non-whites live (this demographic reality brought to you by “Sundown Laws” in place from the 1940s until the mid 1970s). We’ve been learning about that, among other things, in the 5 years I’ve been here. We’re still a work in progress.

  6. Vernon King says:

    I read the title of your article and it caught my attention because i thought to myself that it is an oxymoron. The Episcopal Church for all of its inclusiveness is one of the least diverse communities with which I associate.

    Your statistic of 89% white surprised me. I thought it would be over 90% I guess the new Presiding Bishop might make a difference, but just because he is African American I don’t see that significantly changing the demographic. As a somewhat lapsed, make that a very lapsed, Episcopalian the church and it’s clergy need to do a better job speaking to the people and marketing itself to all groups.

    The Church needs to provide classes that resonate with people in their 20 and 30s. it also needs to truly meet people where they are in life with targeted Sunday School classes. Yes, I called it Sunday School. We don’t need to give this hour of the week a fancy name like “Adult Formation.” Call this ministry what it is and give people the bread of life that they can eat all week long, so they are hungry for Sunday mornings. The Church MUST compliment it’s liturgical life using the Daily Office with topics that are relevant to its people such as divorce, mental illness, grief, and talk about sin and don’t be afraid to call sin a sin. And most importantly bring the Good News of the Gospel to the discussion while talking about a personal relationship with Jesus.

    These are the topics people want to hear about and how the Church can help them in a crisis. The laity could careless that clergy can quote Bonhoffer, Barth, Niebur, or Tillich. However, if the clergy can apply these theologians concepts to our everyday lives to help us in relationships, major life decisions and simply coping with the day to day stressors of life, well maybe then and only then will the Episcopal Church begin to grow and attract all people. Until we can truly embrace these concrete concepts and leave the abstracts to the theologians and the seminaries, I fear the Church will remain the white loaf that it is today for the next 200 years.

  7. Susan says:

    The human beings answering (or not answering) these emails probably are more a reflection of their upbringing and ingrained societal biases than they are of the religious beliefs that they subscribe to. We hope that the leaders of these churches are more enlightened than the average bear but we know that is not always the case. Think of all the devout Christian haters who fear that some group or other is going to take something or someone away from them. Think of all the clergy who’ve caused tremendous harm to the vulnerable in their care.

    That said, most people don’t know how to have the conversation on race. They fear that they don’t have the proper words or that they’ll offend someone. They may not understand the social constructs that engendered and perpetuate racism to this day. I think that, because of this not knowing, it is easy to try to explain away the statistics about racial disparity in this study as caused by some other factors that they are familiar with.

    Thankfully, we are being bombarded with multiple examples of the racism of law enforcement that have previously been kept hidden and are now coming to light. This has brought good-willed white people to finally admit that racism still exists. Books are being written and read on the New Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of people of color, the school to prison pipeline. People know about #BlackLivesMatter. Even our completely unresponsive Congress is considering criminal justice reform (though I just read yesterday that the poor Koch Brothers are advocating for softening of the penalties for the poor white collar criminals! color my face purple!).

    We’ve been having these conversations in our church. We are a diverse congregation. We’re bilingual, multiracial, lesbian, transgendered and heterosexual, and Episcopalian. It was awkward at first. We listened to each person’s story. We believed each person’s story. There is much to understand. Not every person of color in our community has experienced racism in the same way. Not every latino person of color is comfortable with the same terms. For example, some of the younger generation refer to themselves as latinos, but, during one of our vestry discussions, one of the 45-50ish men said that he considered “latino” a pejorative term referring more to race than language or culture. These conversations have opened all of our eyes and have brought us closer together. It’s not awkward anymore. We trust each other to care, to offer feedback and to accept feedback.

    There is more to do. It requires an acknowledgement that racial constructs exist and operate within our midst, a conscious decision to engage in the dialogue with openness and love, a willingness to look within and to change our heart, our thoughts, our actions, and our words for the sake of the other. When we do it this way, it’s no longer scary, it is beautiful.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      You wrote: “The human beings answering (or not answering) these emails probably are more a reflection of their upbringing and ingrained societal biases than they are of the religious beliefs that they subscribe to.”

      I don’t doubt that. My point wasn’t to suggest that Episcopal beliefs are (or are not) racist. I only wanted to suggest that our beloved church has a serious race problem, whose dimensions and causes I would not presume to understand. Nor would I prescribe a solution, though I’m pretty sure those of us with great privilege need to begin by acknowledging our need to repent.

      • Susan says:

        Agreed. I thought of the article that we’re commenting on here last night when listening to Larry Wilmore. He asked the question of his panel: Do you think people make hiring decisions based on whether the person’s name sounds white? I was surprised that their initial response was No since there have been innumerable publicized studies proving the point. Incidently 2 of the 3 panelists were white.

        So how are we going to change this tendency in our Episcopal church? What’s the next step?

  8. MDT says:

    Am I reading the chart wrong when it appears we have the second highest response rate to African Americans and second only to a historically African American denomination?

    Also, the graphics are a bit misleading as the mainline churches tend to have higher overall response rates than the evangelical churches, but the bars are longer for evangelical.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      You are correct that our response rate for black (the term used in the article) writers is among the highest, but it is also true that our response rate is notably lower when compared with our response to white writers. Not sure of American Baptist counts as historically black; and our response rate to black writers is the same as WCA churches, I think.

      Point taken on the length of bars. That might have had to do with the layout into the original print article.

      But none of this should obscure the Episcopal Church’s failure to response to non-white writers at the same rate as we responded to white writers.

      I wonder why this point is so hard for us to acknowledge and discuss?

  9. AAK says:

    Too often in these matters our rhetoric tends to suggest that if we were all nicer and more considerate, everything would be fine. This is a mistake.

    Imagine what is in my experience a typical Episcopal church, which will be in either the historic business district or, perhaps more often, the nice neighborhood in town. A predominantly white church, in a predominantly white neighborhood. If 89% of Episcopalians are white, I’d venture than a comparable percentage of our churches are in white neighborhoods.

    So what’s the problem here? Is it the stuck-up white people in the pews with their antique liturgy? Or is it the educational, employment, and housing discrimination that made the whole social edifice at issue?

    The answer is, of course, both, but we must remember that the composition of the church is the product of a legal and economic system more than of any individual will. The work which we undertake in Christ’s name must be to put right not only the small matter of our own house, but the large matter of our American society in which racism remains codified. There is more to it than just being well meaning, nice people, as these are problems we can’t “nice” our way out of. Ceaseless tinkering with our liturgy is really just window dressing, allowing us to feel better about ourselves without addressing the underlying issues in which we are all complicit.

    Should we follow St. Benedict’s rule that ALL who present themselves, whether at the door or in our inbox, are to be welcomed as Christ? Absolutely and without question, and shame on us for not doing better.

    But the work which we undertake in Christ’s name must be carried out in the world, as much as if not more than within the church. Remember the words of St. James: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass” (James 1:22-23).

    Our obsessive and ceaseless proclamation of how welcoming we are, while then getting into our cars and going about our business in a world that remains fairly contentedly segregated, this is our beholding our faces in a glass. We must never forget that our Christian work is done in the world, until “he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead.”

    • Susan says:

      Well-said about our need to recognize where in society racism is codified and to begin to change the codes. I think the problem the article points out though is that when people of color come to our doors or write to us, we are not adequately responding and in fact at times have a bias against responding to people of color over whites.

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