How Racial and Ethnic Groups Join Together in Churches ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Monday, February 2, 2009

How Racial and Ethnic Groups Join Together in Churches

I just received the proof sheets for a new article I have coming out in March. The article suggests a process of how members of different racial and ethnic groups come together in diverse congregations. It will be available in March in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

New Article on Racial Diversity in Churches

How do different races/ethnicities come together in diverse churches? That's a big question, and we haven't settled it yet. But it's an important--and persistent--question. Toward answering this, I wrote an article being published next month based on over 100 interviews and over 24 months of observation in two racially diverse churches:

Affinity, Identity, and Transcendence:
The Experience of Religious Racial Integration in Diverse Congregations

by Gerardo Marti

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 48:1 (March) 54-69.

Rather than focus on survey data or broad-level statistics in this article, I focus on actual member experiences. It's a process I call “religious racial integration.” I wanted to look at the process by which members of different ancestral heritages come to consider their diverse congregation to be their congregation, considers themselves as belonging to the congregation, have committed themselves to the congregation, and see themselves as an extension of the congregation. In the article I treat “race” and “ethnicity” as analytical concepts that reflect negotiated, subjective identities rather than mere demographic labels.

Here's a quick overview:

How do members of disparate ethnic and racial heritages come to identify and achieve stable affiliation with multiracial congregations? This article specifies an approach to understanding member experiences of corporate belonging in diverse congregations using ethnic identity theory. Synthesizing ethnographic data drawn from two extensive case studies, the article provides a heuristic model for understanding the process by which members of disparate ethnic and racial heritages come to identify and achieve stable affiliation with multiethnic/ multiracial congregations. Three “moments” (affinity with the congregation, identity reorientation, and ethnic transcendence) represent key phases in the lived religious experience of members as they co-construct common bonds of spiritual kinship. Cautions and suggestions are provided for future research.

The Process of Religious Racial Integration

Cover of Cover via AmazonThe study of multiethnic/multiracial congregations is quite new, growing in the last decade, and particularly with the publication of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

A notable spurt of scholarship has already occurred (including my own books, A Mosaic of Believers and Hollywood Faith, other books by Kathleen Garces-Foley and Korie Edwards as well as several articles in a recent issue of JSSR).

Even with all this research (and more books and articles on multiethnic/multiracial churches not listed here), an understudied dynamic within diverse congregations is the formation and negotiation of subjective identities among members who join them. My analysis suggests a process of religious racial integration within multiracial congregations.

Without positing a strict linear sequence in the construction of a new corporate identity, I propose three “moments” that characterize key phases in the lived experience of members.

Moment I: Affinity with the Congregation

The process of membership in a multiracial congregation from a sociological standpoint is a process that begins with individuals establishing some base of affinity. Affinity exists between individuals when they share interests that draw them together and provide an initial orientation for further interactions. The article provides more detail on this.

Moment II: Identity Reorientation

The second moment in the process of integrating individuals from diverse races into a single congregation is identity reorientation. This is when a person moves away from defining themselves on the basis of interests, values, and preferences found outside of the congregation but rather defining themselves more within a shared identity within the congregation.

Moment III: Ethnic Transcendence

The third and last moment of integrating people of diverse ethnic and racial heritages into a single religious organization culminates when a person’s shared religious identity overrides potentially divisive aspects of ethnic affiliation in considerations of social interaction.

I first wrote about "ethnic transcendence" in chapter 7 of A Mosaic of Believers. Ethnic transcendence is not to be confused with a type of “color-blind” approach to diversity that intentionally seeks to ignore or erase ethnic differences. The occurrence of ethnic transcendence allows significant racial and ethnic issues (like structural racism and institutionalized discrimination) to be discussed or even accentuated in the public ministries of the congregation.

In short, the distinctive work of multiracial congregations lies in shaping people toward a new identity framed around new interests.

Of course, there's a whole lot more background, analysis, information, and points to consider in the article itself when it arrives in March.

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