ONE OF MY favorite descriptions for the people of God, what the New Testament calls the “body of Christ,” is the evocative language of “the beloved community” used by Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.
A beloved community is a powerful vision of a new coming together, a new community that welcomes all peoples in their diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Everygroup, clan, and tribe is included and invited in. That dream and vision undergirded King’s movement for civil and voting rights, both spiritually and philosophically, and deeply reflected his own underlying moral belief and hope as a Christian minister.
Yet in one of his most famous quotations, King also said this: “I am ashamed and appalled at the fact that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” He said this in 1953, while he was still associate pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But obviously, and most painfully, that quote is still true today.
Incredibly, prior to 1998 there was no good national data on how many U.S. churches were “multiracial.” In this context, a multiracial congregation is one in which less than 80 percent of members belong to any single race. This definition is now widely used by scholars of modern religion, including Michael O. Emerson, the definitive scholar on multiracial congregations. According to scientific surveys of U.S. congregations of all faiths, Emerson has observed that “7.4 percent of U.S. congregations were multiracial in 1998, [and] in 2010 that figure had grown to 13.7 percent.” In other words, truly multiracial congregations in the United States are still very much the exception to the rule. At the same time, it is highly encouraging that their number nearly doubled in just over a decade.