Sad Truth about United Methodist Racial Diversity

The most and least racially diverse U.S. religious groups


 From the Pew Research Center comes the sad truth about racial diversity in American churches. Some years ago I said that my own beloved United Methodist Church has shown little intention of taking the costly, painful steps that might lead to greater racial diversity; we prefer slogans about diversity to actual racial inclusiveness. Years ago Lyle Schaller said that the more a congregation talks about “diversity” and the less it talks instead about “evangelism,” the less diverse that church is.

During the four decades of my ministry, the UMC we spent millions to subsidize mostly failing ethnic minority local church, we have an elaborate, rigidly enforced system of racial quotas for our leaders, and a higher percentage of ethnic minority bishops than any other church. And yet, as you can see, we are at the bottom of the list in actual inclusivity of membership.

This data shows that the UMC is actually less inclusive than we were four decades ago. I think the data confirms my contention that racial inclusiveness is exclusively a local church issue; it is not solved by Annual Conference and General Conference measures. I pray that the UMC will use this dismal data from Pew as encouragement to dedicate ourselves anew not to being more inclusive in our hierarchy but inclusive in our Sunday worship. I bet we would have to reform our training of clergy, our deployment of clergy, our worship and hymnody. There is no painless way for us to move from being one of the most racially exclusive church to a church that more faithfully mirrors the mission of Christ.

The UMC’s location at the bottom of the diversity index is an affront to our tradition, our theology, and our fidelity to Jesus Christ. How ironic that we will probably spend more energy at the next General Conference talking about sexual orientation than about our now well-documented racial exclusivity.

Will Willimon

If a religious group had exactly equal shares of each of the five racial and ethnic groups (20% each), it would get a 10.0 on the index; a religious group made up entirely of one racial group would get a 0.0. By comparison, U.S. adults overall rate at 6.6 on the scale. And indeed, the purpose of this scale is to compare groups to each other, not to point to any ideal standard of diversity.

Seventh-day Adventists top the list with a score of 9.1: 37% of adults who identify as Seventh-day Adventists are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.

Muslims (8.7) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (8.6) are close behind in terms of diversity, as no racial or ethnic group makes up more than 40% of either group.

Although U.S. Jews (90% white) and Hindus (91% Asian) are not very diverse, especially compared with Americans overall, the five least diverse groups in the index are all Protestant denominations. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a mainline denomination), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (an evangelical denomination) and the United Methodist Church (the largest mainline church) are all more than 90% white.

4 thoughts on “Sad Truth about United Methodist Racial Diversity

  1. This is a very sad commentary on the United Methodist Church. Throughout my years in ministry, I have heard many excuses for not being more racially inclusive in the church from both Lay Persons and Clergy. I have worked to be more inclusive and open in the churches which I have served.


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