In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared that “11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week … And the Sunday school is still the most segregated school.”
Surveys from 2007 show that fewer than 8% of American congregations have a significant racial mix. But in some churches, the racial divide is beginning to erode, and it is fading fastest in one of American religion’s most conservative precincts: evangelical Christianity.
According to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University, the proportion of American churches with 20% or more minority participation has languished at about 7.5% for the past nine years. But among evangelical churches with attendance of 1,000 people or more, the slice has more than quadrupled, from 6% in 1998 to 25% in 2007. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Such rapid change in such big institution “blows my mind,” says Emerson.