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Recently, while analyzing interviews from seniors at our university, we came across a curious and disturbing finding.  In three consecutive interviews, non-white students talked about how they had not attended church during their time at the university, and it showed in their own admitted lack of spiritual growth and sense of belonging at the institution.  Puzzled, we turned to survey data that we collected from graduating seniors in spring 2020.  Our concern grew.  Whereas 75% of white students said they attend religious services at least occasionally, only 62% of students of color indicated they did.  And this was true for Black students (62%), Hispanic students (63%), and Asian students (60%). Furthermore, 35% of non-white students reported attending church in the past but not in the present (compared to 22% of white students) indicating a steeper drop off for non-white students.  We clearly have an ethnic attendance gap. 

What makes this finding so astounding is that the two largest ethnic minorities in America, Blacks and Hispanics, attend church at higher rates than whites.  Furthermore, they usually persist with church attendance through college more so than whites.  The contrary finding at our own Christian university made us wonder if this gap existed at other Christian colleges. 

We then looked at a previous data set we had collected in 2012 from over 7000 students at 31 Christian colleges and universities.  We found the same gap.  While 67% of white students attended church at least 2-3 times a month, only 55% of non-white students attended this frequently.  In addition, the percentage of non-white students who never went to church jumped from 11% to 27%, while the percentage of white students who never went to church jumped from 8% before college to 19% in college.  Over one quarter of ethnic minorities at these 31 Christian colleges were never attending church. 

As Christian scholars, we do not consider these statistics mere differences.  We consider them an institutional shortcoming and challenge.  Christian colleges need to face up to this church attendance gap and do something about it. 

The first step is to understand it.  What is it about going to a Christian college that makes a higher percentage of non-white students disconnect from the church?  We have a variety of theories.  Our prevailing theory pertains to college ministries and college ministers. When we examine students’ accounts of what helped them grow spiritualty and morally in college, one of the top reasons they identify is their involvement in a college group at a local church.  These groups usually have hip college pastors and programming that provides relevant teaching, relationships and a sense of belonging.  Yet, in our area, booming college ministries are led by white college pastors inside large, predominantly white congregations. 

Another difficulty that we imagine is that many Christian universities may not have partnerships with non-white pastors and churches that could promote this connection.  Perhaps they have not even established a list of ethnic congregations nearby.  

Of course, there are basic demographics reasons as well that are more difficult to change.  There are likely fewer ethnic church options near Christian colleges in rural locations.  Even if non-white churches are available, they may have fewer college students in them.  

Whatever the reasons, we think Christian college leaders need to be aware of this attendance gap and start seeking remedies. That’s why we are excited by a new initiative started by Baylor’s Student Government called “Church to You.”  It is meant to assist non-white students connect with Christian churches and small groups at Baylor, including help finding a certain denomination, worship in a certain language, or with a cultural community in which they feel more at home. They are also reaching out to local ministers to invite them to campus to connect with students. We hope that these connections help increase non-white church attendance or connections with local Bible studies or worship times. Recruiting students of color is not enough, if they fail to thrive and find a spiritual home once they arrive.

For more on race and the church in CSR see:

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Kevin D. Dougherty

Baylor University
Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology