Professors research demographic changes in churches, encourage students to join focus groups

(L-R) Researchers Nina Nelson, Alva Johnson, Alan Parker, Tracey-Ann Hutchinson and Raul Rivero.
Monday, October 4, 2021. (Photo by: Stephen Ruf)
(L-R) Researchers Nina Nelson, Alva Johnson, Alan Parker, Tracey-Ann Hutchinson and Raul Rivero. Monday, October 4, 2021. (Photo by: Stephen Ruf)

Religion Professor Alan Parker is currently leading a research team of Southern professors studying the impact of demographic changes on Seventh-day Adventist churches across the North American Division (NAD). According to Parker, the team is currently conducting focus groups on Zoom, and eligible Southern students are encouraged to register.

“This is where we have a need,” Parker said. “Students can participate. They can have their voices heard. This is our opportunity for Gen Z and millennials to really add their voices to [the research], and we think that voice is going to be different.” 

The study, titled “The Influence of Race and Ethnicity on Congregational Dynamics in SDA Multiracial and Multiethnic Churches,” is a multi-phased project, which began in 2020 with the research team interviewing denominational administrators throughout the NAD. Other researchers on the project are: Social Work Associate Professor Nina Nelson, Journalism and Communication Assistant Professor Alva Johnson and Associate Director of Pierson Institute and World Missions Raul Rivero. Parker said the team has received about $40,000 in funding so far — nearly $30,000 from Southern and $10,000 from the NAD. He added that the NAD will soon grant them an additional $5,000. 

Now, in the second phase, the researchers are conducting interviews with pastors of multiethnic/racial churches as well as multigenerational immigrant churches. They have also begun focus groups with members of churches within multicultural state and regional conferences where the majority race or ethnicity does not make up more than 80% of the congregation. In addition, the team is recruiting members of multigenerational immigrant churches, such as Hispanic and Korean congregations where there is one predominant ethnicity. 

According to Parker, the effect that ethnic and cultural changes can have on churches has always been an important topic for him because he grew up in South Africa and pastored churches there when apartheid ended.

“I could see what happened in South Africa when the different races were able to come together, and I could also see what happened when we allowed our differences to divide us,” Parker said. “What I would love to see is how a Christian perspective actually brings us closer together because we are different.”

Parker said he performed an in-depth, qualitative examination of three South African churches that transitioned from a majority white to mixed or majority black congregations for his doctoral dissertation.  

For the current project, the team’s current findings are preliminary and still being analyzed, he said. So far, they have found that many churches are positive about embracing diversity, and leaders are generally hopeful for the future. However, Parker said a positive attitude toward diversity has not necessarily translated into a willingness to address racism. For example, church administrators were conflicted over whether open discussions about race would be helpful or harmful, he said. Over the last year, interviews also suggested the initial momentum toward open dialogue over race issues appears to have subsided.

Graduate student Tracey-Ann Hutchinson, who is pursuing a master’s in clinical mental health counseling and serving as the team’s research assistant, said the team has conducted six focus groups already and hopes to conduct nine more. Hutchinson said about 12 Southern students have been recruited so far through email blasts sent to several on-campus departments this semester and an ad placed in the Weekender for September 24 through 26.

According to Southern’s website, students who wish to join a focus group must be at least 18 years old and have attended a multicultural state or regional conference Adventist church for at least one year. The website also explains that members are asked how they have witnessed race, ethnicity and generational dynamics influence their churches. 

Participants are awarded a $20 gift card, according to the website. If students wish to participate, they must complete a brief survey, provided at https://www.southern.edu/administration/pierson/focus-groups.html

Hutchinson, who is from Jamaica, said it has been interesting to learn about racial dynamics in the United States.
“… [In Jamaica], our motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’, so we don’t have a lot of racial tension; at least, not that I have seen,” Hutchinson said. “We are also not as diverse a country as the U.S., so that could be one of the reasons for that. But it’s been interesting to hear about some of the challenges that exist here when it comes to multicultural interactions. On the flip side, it has also been comforting to see churches and conferences being willing to make strides towards diversity and harmony.”

After the researchers complete the interviews and focus groups, they will send attitudinal surveys to between 40 and 50 randomly chosen NAD churches, according to Parker.

He said the project will likely be completed by the end of summer 2022. He plans to present the findings on Campus Research Day and at the Southern Union Evangelism Conference, as well as NAD year-end meetings.  In addition, Parker has begun using this research to develop anti-racism training alongside Southern’s Senior Advisor for Diversity in the President’s Office, Stephanie Guster, for Southern’s Student Association next year. He hopes this training will be used by other NAD institutions.

“I think Southern ought to be a showcase for what can happen when, in spite of our past, we build together to develop a multicolored future,” Parker said.

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