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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References

If the particular demographics of attenders, their storied backgrounds, and the peculiar aspects of their social and economic circumstances fail to conform to an “ideal scenario” of “ultimate” diversity, we might find ourselves disappointed. This appears to be one of the most important aspects of Richard Pitt's critique. Pitt desires a different “ideal” case for analysis, a church with black leadership and a clear black dominance that successfully integrates whites. Such an analysis is sorely needed, but this does not reflect the dynamics of Oasis nor does it address what has been one of the most pressing questions among scholars of diversity over the past decade. Given that any black-white integration is rare, I would not so easily dismiss the specifics of this case. Indeed, rather than merely reverse the case, I want to radicalize the critique. It is time to more purposefully examine diversity beyond the “racial divide,” and I suggest here several ways we can expand the research agenda on diverse congregations.

Ethnographers take a risk whenever they select a case for study. We immerse ourselves among people in the hope of yielding significant findings, yet none of us can predict the outcome of our research. The commitment of time, energy, and professional status is enormous, but ultimately we cannot tell ahead of time the exact dynamics in play or the manner of their operation. It reminds me of the “mystery bag” game we played as children. Each of us would reach into a large sack without knowing what was inside and try to guess the contents based on the touch of our hands. Ethnographic sites are mystery bags; researchers have some sense that there is indeed “something” to be found but cannot entirely be sure what it is until a much greater degree of access, observation, and interpretation is achieved.

In the case of Oasis Christian Center (Marti 2010), I was certain there were important racial dynamics in this diverse congregation, but the nature of those dynamics could not be ascertained on my initial visits. If the particular demographics of attendees, their storied backgrounds, and the peculiar aspects of their social and economic circumstances fail to conform to an “ideal scenario” of “ultimate” diversity, we might find ourselves disappointed. This appears to be one of the most important aspects of Richard Pitt's critique. In idealizing a type of case study that he believes is most pressing, Pitt desires a different “ideal” case for analysis, a church with black leadership and a clear black dominance that successfully integrates whites into the congregation. While Pitt presents an alternative research question—What can we learn about white integration into black-dominant congregations?—the question is simply not appropriate for my study of Oasis.

I agree with the need for further research, but I want to radicalize Pitt's critique. Rather than ignore and merely reverse this case, we need to build on it and other available research to greatly expand our understanding.

Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References

From the time I began my first analysis of diverse congregations in 2001, the focus has been almost completely on the African-American experience. I had read Emerson and Smith's (2000) now-famous book, a gift from Michael Emerson for contributing to the research that culminated in United by Faith (DeYoung et al. 2003). At the time of my study of Mosaic, I believed a white/Latino/Asian congregation would be a distinctive contribution to the literature as one of the first studies to include Asian Americans and the only ethnography to give any attention to Hispanics. I wanted to respect the reality of racial boundaries without predetermining that ethnoracial boundaries were so rigid as to be unable to be overcome (Marti 2008a). I deliberately chose to label Mosaic as a multiethnic church, while Emerson and others use the label multiracial and interracial church, and through that choice sought to expand the focus beyond biracial congregations (Marti 2005:29). I also wanted to allow for situational dynamics that might negotiate racially specific identity markers (2005:11–17). And I offered a new conceptual approach for understanding the possibilities for cultivating racially diverse, religiously centered communities (2005:4–7; see also Ganiel 2010).

Interacting with scholars, journalists, and church leaders, these subtleties were quickly passed over. Although I oversampled African Americans at the church and presented a few speculative remarks about them (2005:187–90), my study of Mosaic is “discounted” for its failure to make the subject of African-American involvement more central. Even so, I am continually asked about the potential for black-white integration in other congregations and the best practices for attracting black members. With every year I receive more invitations to present talks, give workshops, and speak with journalists and church leaders about black-white church dynamics, the issues of racial reconciliation in white-dominant religious organizations, and the potential for breaking up white hegemony in mainstream American life. In short, from the beginning of my scholarship on diverse congregations through today, the overwhelming question asked by most people regarding diverse congregations concerns the experience of African Americans. And it was this concern for the African-American experience that motivated me to pursue a study that focused on blacks at Oasis before I turned toward its “Hollywood” aspects (Marti 2008b, 2010). This fascinating church has many structural similarities to Mosaic and offers many insights regarding the development of contemporary religion. Yet because the congregation was founded and led by white pastors, the setting reinforced the basic question asked by so many others: Why are blacks willing to join a mixed congregation?

I agree with Pitt that attention could be productively placed on whites who seek multiracial and/or predominantly black congregations. It would help to overcome what Steinberg (2007:66) refers to as “the racial optic” of social science in which “blacks, not whites, must be the ‘problem’ under examination and thus the object of inquiry.” In that case, the study would be titled “The Religious Racial Integration of Whites into African-American Churches.” Examination of such cases would be fascinating, but the motivation for such research does not appear to exist. To date, no one is talking about diversification in the context of the Black Church.

Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References

Aside from Oasis not conforming to Pitt's desired case, I find aspects of Pitt's assessment troublesome. Most obvious is that Pitt lacks his own systematic analysis of data. I do not believe citing characters from literature or presenting anecdotal evidence carries much weight in comparison with the immersive and methodical data collection conducted for my analysis.

I would continue asserting that Oasis brings congregants through a process that encourages African Americans to appreciate and accentuate diverse relationships more than simply absorbing those who are already open to diversity. I certainly agree with Pitt that recognition of “being black” may not be necessary for every black member. But if a comparison with Mosaic is added to the research reported in the article above, such racial-specific recognition is indeed important. A comparison between interviews with blacks at Mosaic and those at Oasis reveals the outstanding difference is whether African-American distinctives are highlighted. Mosaic makes no effort to accentuate particular races or ethnicities (“There's nothing in Mosaic that even says ‘Black’, culturally speaking … . ”; Marti 2005:163), while Oasis sustains an emphasis on how historical and contemporary discrimination affects African Americans in the United States. Members who have attended both churches affirm this difference. I found my interviews suggested a pattern, and I began to consider reconceptualizing congregational havens to allow for this new data (see Marti 2009c:xvii). Thus while Pitt speculates that blacks at Oasis would stay even if such elements were absent, my analysis of the data cannot easily dismiss the importance of black recognition.

I can also appreciate considering whether blacks who switch from Black Churches to white churches (and I would remind readers that whites are not the largest percentage of Oasis attendees) may have already transcended aspects of their racial identity. Perhaps so, and my article indicates this. Nevertheless, my interviews indicate that blacks, even with their diverse backgrounds, enter the church questioning whether they would be accepted as members. When the church affirms desires for diversity for those who seek it, they stay. Others who are drawn by friends or the reputation of the church check out the church with suspicion. Some leave, but others overcome their hesitancy (and even opposition) and move toward transcendence.

In this new article (Marti 2010), I am urging attention to nuance. I do not believe that “only nonwhites are consumed by the dominating influence of race,” and it is unfortunate that my brief article may read that way. Whites (and Latinos and Asians) also talk about racial matters at Oasis, and they talk about overcoming their own issues. However, every article requires a focus, and I chose to focus on the African-American experience. For some blacks at Oasis, diversity is desired and welcome. For other blacks, they are open to diversity as long as the church does not ignore the distinctiveness of the black experience; clearly, this is true at least for some black members. On the other extreme are those who demand a more exclusive orientation toward a black identity; Oasis will never be “black enough” to allow them to stay.

Overall, when Pitt states that he “briefly attended a multiracial church,” it reminds me of how often I am faced with anecdotal evidence. I see this as a core difficulty in addressing issues within multiracial churches more broadly. The attempt to overcome people's casual exposure to diverse congregations can only be accomplished through systematic research that attempts to carefully account for challenges of sampling. Pitt seems to ignore this for the purpose of illustrations. For example, when he writes, “I suspect Oasis’s music director makes similar choices,” he is speculating. The music director at the time of my research was African American, was raised in the Black Church, and actively incorporated black gospel music. While some worship music was written within the congregation (by African Americans), Kirk Franklin songs were incorporated at times along with other tunes with a beat that Oasis musicians consistently described in racial terms.

On the role of music, I share Pitt's hesitancy regarding music's determinative effects on diversification. He is aware of my own cautions on this subject when I presented portions of a book project under contract with Oxford University Press at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (Marti 2009b, forthcoming). Pitt is also right that many blacks at Oasis reduce the Black Church to a caricature, yet I do not agree that members see worship as similar to Dubois's (1969)“preacher, music, and frenzy.” To answer Pitt's question, yes, whites at Oasis do describe the music as “Gospel” or having a “funky beat” and not as “racially neutral contemporary soft-rock worship music.” More generally, while I agree that black worship directors use CCM music, I would assert Pitt's own caution before supposing that all Black Churches draw on the CCM worship catalog.

Also in terms of speculation, Pitt believes multiracial churches “retain mostly white characteristics even when whites are outnumbered by other racial groups.”Edwards's (2008) recent book suggests this to be true for “interracial” (meaning biracial, black-white) churches, but I would hesitate before claiming this as an established finding. I simply believe we need much more research before such statements can be made. Even more important, theoretical influences matter here as there is a way of reading all nonblack churches as being white dominant. For example, critical race theory contains assumptions that fruitfully accentuate certain features of race, but it can also emphasize them to such a degree that they leave little room for other theoretical insights into the dynamics of race-ethnicity. Would it ever be possible to conduct an analysis using critical race theory that doesn't emphasize white privilege? I have been quite willing to admit white dominance when I see it (Marti 2005). Yet, an analysis of black-white churches using critical race theory constrains its understanding of race to a certain set of ideas embedded in historic black-white relations (especially in the United States). At some point, the whiteness of churches is overplayed. It is not necessary for all research on diverse congregations to focus on the dynamics of white privilege. Moreover, other population compositions, particularly Pan-Asian, Pan-Hispanic, and the swirl of new immigrant congregations, contain processes that remain to be uncovered.

Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References

It is hard to ignore Pitt's statement that “examining how young, middle-class, college-educated blacks transcend race in order to attend historically white, predominantly white, or ‘ethnically-diverse’ congregations doesn't seem like a monumental shift in our understanding of race relations.” Ouch! It begs the question of what gets “credit” as a successful multiracial church.

The case of Oasis cannot claim to represent all black-white congregations; yet, the fact that integration happens there cannot be quickly dismissed with several “exceptions” such as being “young,”“middle-class,” or “college educated.” I find listing such exceptions to be problematic. As researchers we need to understand black-white integration wherever we find it without presupposing what seemingly “valid” cases would be. With multiracial churches still comprising a thin percentage of American congregations (perhaps 8 percent or so), finding and assessing diverse congregations is difficult. Even by establishing a minimum threshold of 20 percent presence of a nondominant racial or ethnic group, the number remains quite low. The challenge for researchers is further complicated when church leaders routinely exaggerate the so-called diversity of their churches and scarcely 10 percent or even 5 percent of their congregation is “diverse.” With these considerations, I believe Pitt is far too restrictive in granting significance for achieving diversity.

Some scholars have an idealized notion regarding the type of diversity they most want to see, almost defining it as impossible to find from the start. In particular, the instances of black-white diversity are so few that any attention is welcome. In the midst of such work, we need to avoid overhomogenizing the white experience, as when Pitt characterizes both Mosaic and Oasis as “essentially, culturally white in any meaningful measure of church life and worship.” We also need to acknowledge the immense heterogeneity of the black experience (see Jackson 2001; Lacy 2007; Patillo-McCoy 2007). Finally, it is time to more purposefully expand the exploration of diversity beyond the biracial, black-white divide.

Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References

The credit for diversity should not be restricted to any idealized processes since any attempt to specify the type of diversity we want explained may miss types of diversity that exist and forms of achievement that remain to be uncovered. Rather than limiting future research questions, we should expand them. I offer my own suggestions for research on diverse congregations that does not yet exist.

First, we should expand more widely the scope of “diversity” examined in diverse congregations. I join Pitt in seeking more research on Black Churches led by black pastors that successfully manage to attract white (and other nonblack) members. In addition to looking more closely at blacks, there is much room for the exploration of the “white experience.” I reported on whites at Mosaic and found that attending a diverse church resonates with their desire to become more cosmopolitan because they believe a diverse church provides opportunities for “cross-cultural experiences” (Marti 2005:157–60). More than this, I anticipate future research on diverse congregations to expand greatly beyond black-white issues. Listening to scholars of the Latino experience (Manuel Vasquez) and the Asian-American experience (Russell Jeung), in addition to my own fieldwork, it is surprising how often complex issues faced by more recent immigrant groups are ignored. Still, we can build on available research that does not focus solely on black integration, among the most important being Garces-Foley's (2007) case study of a Pan-Asian congregation (2007), as well Jeung's (2004) and Ecklund's (2006) fascinating books that also focus on Asian Americans. My own book, A Mosaic of Believers, also draws attention to diversification beyond the black-white divide, but much more work is needed. In short, we need to continue the work of Christerson, Emerson, and Edwards (2005), Ecklund (2006), Garces-Foley (2007), Jeung (2004), Kim (2006), Kim (2010a, 2010b), Marti (2005), Warner (1997), and others to more actively incorporate a broader scope of cultural experiences and ancestral backgrounds.

Second, we should pursue a more inclusive range of diverse congregations. Current research treats “multiracial churches” as a homogenous category; clearly, they are not (Emerson and Kim 2003). In addition, Garces-Foley (2008) argues that there is a “Protestant bias” in the current approach to processes of diversification. It is not yet clear if there are differences among churches based on the composition of their diversity, the cause of their diversification, or the effects of diversity on the actions of a congregation. It would be instructive to more finely differentiate between different types of diverse congregations and the processes embedded within them. We could become more diligent in comparing between denominational traditions or geographic regions. In doing such work, we should encourage midrange research between case studies of single churches and macro surveys of diverse congregations (see Marti forthcoming). Essentially, researchers could become more deliberate in constructing theoretically meaningful groupings of diverse congregations for analysis.

Third, we should focus more attention on non-Christian congregations. Although there is some indication that non-Christian religious congregations have more diverse memberships (Dougherty and Huyser 2008), the cultural imperative of addressing wrongs of past generations toward African Americans (through racial reconciliation movements) and the desire to reverse the tide of segregation (through continued efforts to expand civil rights achievements) continue to lean attention toward the black-white divide within the Christian tradition. Most of the other available research also focuses on Christian congregations. In acknowledging that any form of congregational diversity is sufficient for study, we open ourselves to investigations outside of Christianity. By doing so, we will surely discover processes other than “race issues” and uncover additional structures that alternatively enable and constrain processes of diversification.

Fourth, we should isolate significant arenas of diversification and investigate contemporary initiatives for diversification. Michael Emerson (2009) recently suggested that megachurches are diversifying more quickly than other congregations. Such an observation is provocative and potentially important, but we lack the systematic research to state this more confidently. Can we identify processes of diversification that differ by the size of congregations? This is a fruitful avenue of research that builds on recent attention to the phenomenon of American megachurches (Thumma and Travis 2007). I would also agree with Emerson (2009) that there is great enthusiasm among church leaders to catalyze and sustain diversification. New conferences and pastoral networks as well as new publications and program initiatives are aggressively advocating diversity as a missional cause. Research is required to identify the nature and scope of this broad movement. I suspect that rigorous research will identify intriguing ironies and contradictions, and I expect to articulate some of them through my own research on music and worship in successfully diverse churches (Marti forthcoming).

Fifth, we should exercise greater caution in our use of racial and ethnic categories. I believe research on diverse congregations still requires much greater nuance in the use of racial and ethnic labels (see Marti 2008a, 2009a, 2009b). Scholars need to better anticipate and accept the fluid boundaries of ethnicity and shades of identity orientation without exaggerating differences and reifying racial categories. We have yet to find a way of talking about “race” that does not reinforce historic issues of oppression and leaves open new ways of understanding boundaries and group identification. This is particularly important as more biracial and multiracial persons introduce unacknowledged complexities of attribution, affiliation, and association (Rockquemore and Brunsma 2002, 2009; Shih and Sanchez 2009). Expanding our sensibilities will leave us better prepared for working through new and changing “multiracial identities” in the coming decades.

Finally, we should expand the use of multiracial churches as strategic arenas for data collection. The work of Ecklund (2005, 2006) is an excellent model; she uses a comparison of “monoethnic” and “multiethnic” churches as a resource for answering important questions of civic identity. Sharon Kim (2010a, 2010b) usefully distinguishes monoethnic, pan-ethnic, and multiethnic congregations to tease out relationships between religious imperatives and immigrant acculturation. And my analysis of contemporary economic stresses and occupational disappointments reveals connections between the racial composition of Oasis with the experiences of entertainment industry workers (Marti 2008b:Chap. 7). In sum, as the number and accessibility of diverse congregations grows, researchers can move beyond the question of diversity to address other interesting and important social dynamics.

I am immensely grateful to Richard Pitt for opening a larger conversation. I am mindful that “the product of a good case study is insight” (Gerring 2007:7) and hope others take my case study and our exchange here as a catalyst for even more expansive work.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Overwhelming Focus on Black Integration into White-Dominant Churches
  4. Idealizing or Dismissing Instances of Black-White Integration
  5. Which Congregations Get “Credit” for Diversity?
  6. Suggestions for Expanding the Research Agenda on Diverse Congregations
  7. References
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