What Multicultural Congregations Teach About Improving Race Relations

Durham Church and Iglesia Emanuel in Durham, N.C., have enjoyed a partnership since 2012. They share a building and a community life of meals and worship, nurturing their children and caring for their property, serving on committees and pursuing immigration justice. But their congregations don’t share the same racial makeup. Durham Church serves predominantly white congregants, while Iglesia Emanuel serves predominantly Latino congregants.

In the beginning, building a life together felt awkward, said Franklin Golden, pastor of Durham Church.

“Sometimes it felt like a middle school dance … where boys are on one side and girls are on the other,” he said. But the congregations remained committed to their partnership. “Then one year, we were playing cornhole, and everyone was talking trash to each other, and I thought, well, this is it.”

A movement is growing among Christian churches to become places of racial reconciliation and friendship between people of different racial and ethnic identities. But beyond awkwardness, racism and prejudice continue to make relationship-building across lines of race and ethnicity challenging at best and painful at worst. In fact, Clay Polson and Kevin Dougherty, social scientists at Baylor University, found that simply increasing contact may not be enough to break down these barriers. 

By encouraging true intimacy between members, multicultural churches are becoming part of the solution. When led with intention and care, they can offer wisdom for any organization seeking to foster true relationships across lines of difference, while still acknowledging that the learning process is continual. What can leaders learn from multicultural churches about cultivating a sense of true friendship between people of different races and ethnicities?

What Is Contact Theory?


Polson and Dougherty based their research on contact theory, the idea that race relations will improve and people of different racial or ethnic identities will begin to view each other as equals if they spend more time together. 

Research shows that contact “has real power to be able to diminish some of the prejudice,” Polson said, “if people from different racial and ethnic groups come together and interact regularly in a context where they share equal standing, where they feel like they all have a voice, where they’re able to pursue common causes.”

The professor expanded on the essential elements of this theory:

  • Interact regularly: Contact should happen consistently, as part of a group’s routine. Occasional contact is not likely to make a lasting difference.
  • Equal standing: No one group can hold all the power to make decisions.
  • Common causes: Sharing a mission can reduce differences as group members work toward shared goals. After World War II, for instance, social scientists found that people who served in integrated military units became less prejudiced.
  • Diminish some of the prejudice: As Polson’s research demonstrated, contact can decrease some — not all — of the prejudice that leads to poor relationships between groups.

In the framework of contact theory, an organization can foster relationships between people of different racial or ethnic groups by creating situations that bring them together and protect their equal standing. Contact theory holds that people will begin to relate to one another as whole individuals, rather than as members of separate groups.

“It’s hard to have those sorts of prejudices and stereotypes towards people you are now friends with,” Polson said.

Are There Limits to Contact Theory?


Polson and Dougherty began studying contact theory in congregations. Using national survey data, they looked at how the racial/ethnic composition of congregations in the United States was related to white congregants’ friendships and level of comfort with people in other racial or ethnic groups.

The authors found that white people in multiracial congregations reported having more friendships with people of different races or ethnicities than those in more homogenous congregations. They also felt more comfortable with non-white people. Overall, the results support contact theory.


People need to be able to talk about their different stories, even when those stories are painful.

But one finding troubled the authors. They discovered “less of a relationship” between contact and friendship for African American and white people — even when there was equal standing and a common cause. Why? Polson and Dougherty theorized that structural and historical racism create inequality and contribute to poorer relationships between these groups.

Churches can fall short of creating diverse communities when their leaders focus solely on getting people in the same space to worship together. Building racial harmony is going to take intimacy, explained the Rev. Kevin Smith, who pastors New City Fellowship, a cross-cultural church in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Just walking up to somebody and saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing,’ and then moving on doesn’t do that,” Smith said.

People need to be able to talk about their different stories, even when those stories are painful.

“The dominant white culture of America is very nervous … around hearing the stories of minorities,” Smith said. “Because when you hear that story, it will always, at some point, have something to do with oppression.”

Interactions on a Sunday morning cannot begin to address this discomfort and trauma.

The Rev. Irwyn Ince, a pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and the Executive Director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission, points out that being a minority member of a group is never free. Often, majority groups celebrate the presence of people from a minority group without acknowledging the price they pay. Ince said those in a majority group should ask: “What does it cost you to be here? What do you have to give up in order to have a sense of belonging in this group?”

In communities where people commit to engaging in these kinds of reflections and truly listening to the experiences of one another, reconciliation can begin to happen. By encouraging vulnerability and receptivity, leaders of any organization can help foster a sense of true friendship and care for all group members. Below, MSW@Baylor offers suggestions for developing strong, healthy communities.

How Can Organizations Encourage Stronger, More Intimate Relationships?

True relationship building among people of different races or ethnicities takes intentionality. Inspired by healthy multicultural churches, Polson, Golden, and Ince offer the following advice for organizations and leaders.

Avoid exit strategies.

Exit strategies will always avail themselves when people begin doing hard work. Expect reconciliation and relationship-building to be painful and commit to sticking it out when disengaging would be easier.

Embrace honesty.

All individuals, of any race or ethnicity, have biases that can be difficult to acknowledge, much less address. Group members need to take an honest look at themselves, their way of being in the world, and their expectations. This can help create an environment of learning, where everyone has something to gain, and something to give. One assessment tool groups can use is the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). The IDI can help leaders, sometimes with a facilitator, understand what happens when their group experiences cultural differences.

Probe preferences.

Most groups say they want to welcome people different than they are — but sometimes, their behavior indicates otherwise. If leaders recognize a lack of openness toward other cultures in themselves and their organizations, they should ask two simple questions: What are the actions we do to live out our values, and why do we do them this way? Exploring these answers can help groups begin to understand and change their behaviors.

Use a wide lens.

Improving race relations in one area of life may not transfer to all areas of life. Communities need to think creatively to address patterns of racial segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and social events. Begin by asking: Where else in the community can these divisions be tackled?

Cultivate passion and curiosity.

Simply having members of different racial or ethnic groups is not enough to develop healthy, multicultural congregations. Leaders should cultivate a passion for learning about and from people of different cultures and people in marginalized communities. People without experience in multicultural communities may become frustrated with the time and effort spent on “diversity for diversity’s sake.” But a variety of experiences can only enrich a group and its outputs.

Establish shared leadership.

Leadership is a primary way that organizations demonstrate their values. Healthy multicultural congregations have shared leadership: every group, even those in the minority, are integrated into the leadership structure. When people see members of their own group in positions of authority, they are more likely to believe their perspectives are represented. Members also have leaders with similar experiences to whom they can bring questions or concerns.

Be vulnerable.

Leaders need to have a lived and public vulnerability, being honest about their mistakes. This invites individuals to be honest in more private settings about their own shortcomings and stories — all of which helps groups and their members take steps toward healing.

Build a common terminology.

The words a group uses reflect its core values. When a church is truly multicultural, the congregation will use a different terminology that both reflects and builds an inclusive organizational identity. Once a group identifies being multicultural as a core tenet, members should learn about the language and ideas of that realm and knead the terminology into their shared vocabulary.

Ensure representation in decision making.

Each group — no matter how small — should have a say in making decisions, especially those that affect the whole. In places where a minority group is present but not represented in leadership, those in the minority can increasingly feel marginalized and disenfranchised. They will then be more likely to leave.

How to Design Committee Structures Intentionally

In many organizations, plans and decisions are made in committees. Leaders can invite all perspectives into the decision-making process by creating opportunities for each member’s voice to be heard.

Encourage membership to reflect the whole.

Committee members may not think to invite those with different perspectives. By intentionally recruiting people with a variety of experiences, committees will be better prepared to make decisions on behalf of the entire group, not just those in leadership.       

Set ground rules.

At the beginning, leaders can lay out their expectations of the group: at minimum, that each member’s voice needs to be heard and disrespect will not be tolerated. Another option is to set aside time to develop ground rules as a group.

Be sensitive to patterns of who is being heard and who is not.

Ask, “Who have we not heard from?” If leaders get the sense that someone wants to speak but is struggling to find an opening, consider prompting them.

Call the roll.

When making important decisions, check to be sure the voices of groups or individuals with a personal stake in the outcome have been heard. 

Develop alternative opportunities to share.

Not everyone will feel comfortable openly sharing in a group. Create opportunities for individuals to express their desires or wishes in some other way, whether through follow-up conversations or emails.

How to Communicate Diversity as a Primary Value

Leaders that identify multiculturalism as a core value can integrate this into the organization’s sense of identity through public communications.

Polson advises those in positions of authority to consider:

  • Oral messages: When leaders speak to the group, do they reflect an understanding of why diversity is important? Do they express enthusiasm and commitment to improving race relations?
  • Organizational value statements: Is multiculturalism — and the why behind it — included among the organization’s outward-facing documents??
  • Mission and purpose statements: Is diversity and inclusion woven into the organization’s statements about its values and vision?
  • Trainings: Does your organization offer employees training on topics related to diversity and inclusion, such as microaggressions or bias in hiring? 

The integration of our congregation is a wonderful, wonderful thing that does have impact,” Polson said, “but in and of itself, is not a magic-bulleted answer.”

Leaders and communities will need to think through the larger systems and structures that perpetuate division and act to change them — and church can be a place to start.

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.