Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?

In a multiethnic church in Columbus, Ohio, white members addressed their minister by his first name. Black members viewed that as disrespectful, believing he should be addressed as “Pastor.” Conflict also broke out over disciplining children during worship services. Black parents tended to discipline their children when they were being disruptive, while white parents tended to let their kids move around.

Another multiethnic church, one located in Los Angeles whose core members were mainly Filipino Americans, faced similar discord. The whites and the blacks in the congregation were frustrated that they could not forge the deep friendships shared by Filipino American members. Conversely, some Filipino American members didn’t want to change their worship style to the hymns or gospel music that the black and white congregants preferred.

One church in Chicago selected both a white and a black pastor. They clashed over preaching styles until the church shut down.

In other words, integrating a church is rarely easy, and often leads to a litany of unintended slights and unrecognized biases. And this can happen at the earliest and most basic level: welcoming visitors. Do Christian churches in the United States actually welcome people from different racial and ethnic groups?

To answer this question, another sociological researcher and I conducted a nationwide field experiment to see how churches respond to emails from potential newcomers. More than 3,000 congregations received an email ostensibly from someone moving to their community and looking for a new church. We measured whether the churches replied to this email and, if so, what they said. But there was a catch: We varied the names attached to the emails ...

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Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?
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July/August 2015

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