Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous observation that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week in America still holds largely true, but there are signs of hope for those who believe that a mixed church more truly reflects God’s kingdom.
The number of multiracial congregations in the country nearly doubled in the decade to 2010, according to a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
But before anyone gets too excited, a more recent 2015 report from LifeWay Research found that 80 percent of congregations still comprised one dominant racial group—and that 67 percent of people were okay with that. That status quo will be challenged in the years to come, however, as the United States continues to become more ethnically mixed. Within 40 years, researchers say, there will be no single racial or ethnic majority.
While Hispanics currently are the largest minority group in the country, that community’s growth rate has leveled off in recent years; meanwhile the Asian population continues to rise, as do the numbers of African immigrants.
What does all that have to do with Christian bookstores? Well, some believe that if churches are, for the most part, still slow to bring together believers from different backgrounds, then Christian retail might provide a place for that to happen by better serving shoppers from different backgrounds.
Such a possibility will require some intentional action, however. America’s increasing racial and ethnic mix is occurring most in urban centers, while many independent Christian retail stores are in less diverse communities.
One quick litmus test for a store’s readiness might be to simply check how many books by MLK it has on its shelves. Though he is one of America’s most famous pastors, he’s “frequently overlooked for yet another C.S. Lewis title,” observes Nicholas Hein, outreach director at His Word Found Here in Ballard, Washington.
The customer base this Seattle-area store mainly serves is slowly trending to diversity. As a hub in the IT industry, the region has drawn many from Asian backgrounds, but Hein says some fear that different groups are becoming more divided.
“Gentrification and political strain can cause inclusiveness to the point of division, which we believe interferes with the mission of bringing the Gospel to all people,” he adds. “Therefore, it’s the responsibility of Christian retailers to make their space welcoming to everyone.”
That isn’t just a challenge to the more white-bread stores out there, looking to serve other segments of the church in their communities.
“I have had to adjust the things I think about bringing in to make sure we appeal to everybody,” says Jon Curtiss, general manager of Word of Life Christian Bookstores’ two locations in Los Angeles.
Dating back more than half a century— founded by his parents Joe and Evelyn, long-time leaders in the African-American Christian retail community—the stores’ customer base was for decades almost exclusively black.
But that has changed in recent times as other Christian stores in the area have closed and the racial makeup of the community has changed. “People who don’t want to use Amazon will Google and find us,” says Curtiss. One category Word of Life has grown, as a result, is its Hispanic resources.
Not only is this a major ministry opportunity—according to Cris Garrido, director of Spanish publishing for LifeWay Christian Resources (LCR), “the fastest-growing segment of the evangelical church in the U.S. is Latino; some would say it’s the only growing segment”—it’s also a big marketplace.
A recent report by the Latino Donor Collaborative estimated the Latino community’s gross domestic product (GDP) is at more than $2 trillion. Another way of putting that: if the 56 million-plus Latinos in the U.S. had their own country, they would have the seventh biggest GDP in the world.
Part of recognizing the significance of this population has meant seeing it as a primary focus rather than a secondary one. Historically, a publisher with an English best-seller would plan to “print it in as many languages as you can and it’s probably going to do good enough,” says Garrido. “But we’ve found when we’re more intentional, we get better results—sometimes a lot better than just translating the English best-seller, because it’s speaking to a specific need.”
That approach has seen LCR’s Spanish-language publishing grow a lot in the last couple or so years, with some successful Spanish-first titles. They included the evangelism and discipleship La Biblia de Pescador (The Fishermen’s Bible), which has sold more than half a million copies globally and been translated into Portuguese and English.
Such deliberately developed materials have helped LCR discover “a lot of mom-and-pop Spanish Christian bookstores that most English publishers are not even aware of,” says Garrido. His company now has someone dedicated full-time to serving Spanish-only bookstores.
The African-American population may not be growing like the Hispanic and Asian sectors, but as stores that previously served this community have been among the Christian retail casualties in the last few years, there’s a need for others to step into the gap.
Word of Life has survived in part because of the strength of its church accounts— several hundred of them—that make up almost half its business these days. Though the biggest change in America’s racial landscape may be occurring in the cities, rural and suburban communities are not entirely unaffected.
At First Baptist Church of Loveland in Loveland, Colorado, a predominantly white part of the state, Pastor John Turnage has welcomed a Korean congregation to his church in the past couple of years. Attendance is relatively small, but a community-wide Korean music event attracted around 200 people.
Integrating other groups means letting go of some personal preferences and “coming with more of a Christlike attitude, saying absolutely everybody is welcome regardless of their racial background,” Turnage says.
A similar approach is necessary for stores wanting to better serve other ethnic communities. “We want everyone to feel special and have an experience that leaves them feeling warm and welcomed,” says Robin Hogan, who oversees the bookstore at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York City.
While core shoppers are from black Caribbean and African-American communities, more are coming from Russian and Hispanic backgrounds. Also catering to visitors from Catholic backgrounds—the church hosts graduation and promotion ceremonies for NYC fire, police, and EMS personnel, many with a Catholic heritage—the store has added some appropriate products, including rosaries.
“I explain to other Christians that having rosaries is just like having an open Bible on the nightstand; they just bring a sort of comfort,” says Hogan, illustrating how the store seeks to accommodate others. “When other populations visit us, we take time to engage them in dialog that helps us understand their needs.”
Looking to do the same? Consider a focus group with several members of the community you have in mind to serve, or try to connect with some local churches, suggests Curtiss, echoing the importance of good communication over just assuming you know the answers. “Listen and find out what people are asking for,” he underscores.
Read more about reaching and serving multicultural communities at Serve the Hispanic Community Yearlong.