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Understanding segregation in American Churches.

Cliff Huang has created some amazing graphics depicting racial segregation in US cities. What I found fascinating was quite how sharp many of the boundaries are. They're often sharper than you would expect if the causes were simply economic.

That's because there's a powerful social phenomenom at work here, which is simply that people prefer to be with their own 'kind'. If you identify with a particular community, and that community is defined ethnically, then living outside of it can be very uncomfortable.

Which brings me to some recent research by Chris Scheitle, at Pennsylvania State University, and Kevin Dougherty, and Baylor University. They've analyzed data from over 400 people who took part in the US Congregational Life Survey to find out how long people had been attending their congregation, and how that related to whether they were in a minority or majority group.

They found that those who were members of a minority ethnic group in any particular congregation (e.g. a black person in a mainly white congregation, or a white person in a mainly black congregation) tended to have joined more recently than members of the majority group. In other words, their membership duration was shorter.

Now, all sorts of factors could explain this. But even after they took account of the obvious ones (including demographics, type of congregation, and whether the congregation is growing) they found that there was still a significant interaction: the bigger the size of the majority group, the more important majority membership is for predicting membership duration.

The graphic shows the relationship between the two. As the size of the majority group increases, so the membership duration of individuals in the majority goes up. At the same time, the membership duration  of members of the minority goes down.

The lines cross at about 60%. So, when the majority group is only 60% of the congregation, then the average membership duration of minority and majority groups is the same.

Now, it is possible that the US has recently undergone a major racial mixing, so that congregations are becoming radically less segregated (which would lead to new members tending to be of minority groups). But the alternative explanation, and the one the authors think is most likely, is that members of racial minorities are more likely to leave.

That would fit in with other research into racial segregation. The problem is not simply straightforward racism. There are also language, food and other cultural barriers. Different people do things differently, and that can make it hard for outsiders to fit in.

Now, it's not possible to say from this research whether the problem is bigger or smaller for religious congregations compared with other social groups. But it is possible to conclude that it seems to be a big problem, and it probably helps explain why religious congregations are so segregated.

And all of this causes problems for the 'religious market' theory of religion - the idea that people are free to pick and choose their religion according to whether it fits their beliefs. If ethnicity is the barrier that it seems to be, then religious choice is much more restricted than the theorists often assume.

ResearchBlogging.orgScheitle, C., & Dougherty, K. (2010). Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations* Sociological Inquiry, 80 (3), 405-423 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2010.00340.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. (1)"The Religious Market Theory" of Religion
    Outside of believers, are there any academics who feel that we freely choose our religion. Heck, are their any psychologists, sociologists or philosophers who truly believe we totally-freely choose anything? Smile
    Your reviews make the determinism very clear.

    (2)The "X"
    (a) I would think that the reasons for Majorists leaving a congregation are significantly different for low who leave when minority is tiny vs larger. Perhaps those who just up-and-leave from the beginning are "race-averse" while those who wait for larger percent are "cultural-averse".
    (b) I don't understand the graph: how can the "Membership held by Majority" be less than 0.5?

    (3) Beautiful Maps
    Wow, Fischer's 40 maps were very tell-tale. He has maps of & cities I have lived in for > 2 years: Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Madison. Plus I am rather familiar with several others. And I will confess (I know this is politically incorrect) that the maps confirm highly the cities I preferred to the cities I would not want to return to.

    So, am I a "racist" or a "similarist"? But that said, I hang in mixed circles, but the minorist I hang with all are of my same culture or have bought into it.

    I could see such maps helping people where to live. Imagine if they had on-line maps showing income, car-make and single/coupled rates for members -- the marketing of churches would change quickly.

  2. I am very suspicious of results of a survey of 400 people, when the result is shown as straight lines without the individual data points.

    In this case, suspicion is increased by the scale on the Y axis. Why is average membership duration always so close to 4 years?

    Keith Carmichael

  3. Sorry for the pedantry, but isn't the graph partially misnamed? When the X-axis is at 0.5 or below, it should be "Plurality", not "Majority".

    Just sayin'...

  4. This data isn't showing choice of religion, just choice of style. We aren't following a color or race, we're following philosophies and traditions. Granted the results can sometimes vary in extraordinary ways, but for the most part we stand united and of one mind.

    You should feel shame in twisting data to claim division and lack of freedom which doesn't exist.

  5. What surprises me about this is how small the differences are. There's only four months difference between longest and shortest stays. I assume that the method is blind to cases where someone comes once and never again?

  6. Sabio: The 'Rational Choice' theory of religion is actually very popular among sociologists, particularly in the US. There are whole conferences devoted to it. And they do have a point. As to whether it's a "free choice" well, even economists would not say that free choice is required for their theories to work. If choice is 100% rational then it can't be free!

    You can have a 'majority' smaller than 50% if there are several different minorities. It's really just the largest minority in this case.

  7. Anon That's the output form the analysis of variance model - they always predict a straight-line relationship, it's in the nature of the beast. The reason it's so close to 4 years is that that is the answer you get after adjusting for all the other factors in their model. If you increase the size of the largest group from 40% to 100% then, all other things being equal, you would expect average membership duration to increase by around 4 months. So it's not a huge effect.

  8. David Flint:SOrry that's 4 years, not 4 months. Should've made that clear. And yes, this is a cross-sectional survey. SO it's only looking at people who responded to the survey at a given point in time. It only relates to their current church membership.

  9. You can have a 'majority' smaller than 50% if there are several different minorities. It's really just the largest minority in this case.

    I was about to write:

    "No, you can't. A 'majority' smaller than 50% is called a 'plurality'."

    But it seems this is a side-of-the-pond issue. According to Wikipedia:

    "In British English, majority and plurality are often used as synonyms"

    Ah. Carry on, then.

  10. Heh, true enough. 'Plurality' is a foreign term to us Brits. But that doesn't excuse the study authors - they're both Americans!


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