“Salsafication” and the Problem of Racial Essentialism in Congregational Life

October 2, 2018

Tapping into Growth Areas of Christianity

Have you heard about the “salsafication” of American Christianity? That is, while Christianity overall seems to be in a precipitous decline, Latino Protestantism is growing—and even thriving. No less than Time magazine trumpeted the “Latino Reformation” in a 2013 cover article.1 Survey numbers demonstrate a significant shift within the Latino population regarding religious identity. In less than a decade, the amount of Latinos reporting a Catholic religious affiliation dropped from 68 to 48 percent.2 In other words, less than half of the U.S. Latino population now identifies themselves as part of the Catholic faith.

At the same time, many mainline and evangelical denominations have been hemorrhaging members. A dramatic surge in church disaffiliation has led to unprecedented numbers of Americans who describe their religious identity as “none” or “nonreligious.”3 These two oppositional narratives—rising Latino Protestantism and declining historic denominations—has led some religious leaders to seek to tap into the growth areas. In other words, denominational and seminary leaders of traditionally Anglo populations have interpreted Latino Protestants as potentially fertile markets for restoration and growth. “Salsafication” then, according to some theologians, is the American church becoming more Latino.4

The Perils of Congregational Diversity?

Of course, religious organizations that seek to become more diverse should be lauded. The Bible offers pretty clear directives regarding diverse populations finding unity in their common faith. Beyond that, in some instances the badge of diversity has become an emblem of status that accords profile and influence. However, intentionally pursuing diversity has proven a sometimes perilous proposition. A recent study of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations revealed that the process of becoming more diverse correlated with decreasing congregational size.5 Proponents of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) have long asserted that the homogeneous unit principle—attracting very similar types of people and families—functioned as the lynchpin strategy for growing a church. In fact, experts have insisted that planting multiracial congregations presented an easier path than attempting to transition an established congregation from racial homogeneity to racial heterogeneity. The ELCA’s deliberate attempts at nurturing diversity seem to directly affirm the CGM principles while underscoring the difficulty in actually getting people from different races to worship together.

Moreover, even established multiracial congregations may find their paths forward fraught with potential problems. Some studies indicate that multiracial congregations avoid overt discussions of racism, racial inequality, and politics. In fact, members of these congregations may even tend to downplay their racial identity in an effort to find points of unity.6 At first, such a posture might sound right; after all, should we not find a deep unity in common faith? And yet, such an explanation undermines the realities of minorities who have been marginalized by systemic racial injustice. Indeed, in some cases, racial minorities worshipping in integrated congregations even find themselves victims of “managed diversity.” In other words, while their presence is celebrated by white leadership for offering evidence of authenticity and progress, these racial minority congregants experience marginalization through a tokenism. That is, the leadership will highlight the presence of, for instance, African Americans by placing them in high-profile roles like the praise band or as greeters—but never in official capacities that allow for tangible leadership opportunities within the congregation.7

The Difficulties of Multiracial Worship

Yet, in the face of these obstacles and uneven outcomes, established congregations throughout the United States have continued to try to attract of more diverse cohort of attenders. Moreover, congregational and denominational leaders often share the conviction that worship stands as the most plausible venue for nurturing racial unity. Typically, since it is the central act of congregational life, they have attempted to utilize the worship service as the onramp to diversity. These noble intentions to integrate the “most segregated hour of the week” require careful attentiveness to not fall prey to simplistic formulas and reliance on tired tropes that actually exacerbate racial divisions in congregational life.

For example, worship experts have shared that finding a mode of worship that appeals to different races runs into the barriers presented by “liturgical homelands”—the assumption that different groups of people have inherent affinities for only certain types of musical styles and genres.8 Interviews have revealed that members of diverse churches tend to associate hip hop with African Americans, techno and trance with Asians, pop and alternative with whites, and salsa and merengue with Latinos.9 Congregational leaders, then, operate on these stereotypes as they attempt to implement music that they think will cultivate diversity in worship.

An Example: Diversity Within Latino Protestant Congregations

The inherent danger in these racialized assumptions resides in the manner in which they cloud understanding. These expectations of worship preferences based on racial backgrounds rely on essentialism: the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities. Dependence on essentialism festers as it creates boxes and boundaries that inhibit full expression.

Our own research on Latino Protestant congregations has revealed wide diversity in worship preferences that interrogates essentialist typecasting in worship. Reliance on gross stereotypes undermines the diversity that exists within Latino Protestantism. If Latino Protestant worship inherently involves “spiciness” and the “spirit of fiesta,” how do we explain a Pentecostal congregation comprised of mostly Guatemalans in the Pacific Northwest? Worship there could be described as only staid and orderly. A monitor in the back signals to the band to slow down or stop altogether if the congregation starts to sway too much. Bodily motion remains limited to holding up one arm and moving back and forth at the elbow. If a person begins to show too much physicality in their singing, an usher will admonish quietly: “Keep it between you and the Lord.” Moreover, interviews with these congregants demonstrated a severe aversion to worship involving emotion. In almost every way, the congregation undermined the notion of fiesta.

Similarly, other Latino Protestant congregations have sought to be hospitable to converts from Catholicism by mimicking aspects of mass—including sanctuaries featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, implementing holy water, following a standard liturgy, and even calling Sunday services misa (mass). In fact, interviews from the Latino Protestant Congregations Project revealed attenders of Protestants churches who thought they had been at a Catholic church—and rarely do observers equate mass with a fiesta. In yet another case, a Latino megachurch in Texas has the throbbing bass lines and flashing lights of a nightclub, all while a manicured praise band leads choruses written by Hillsong. Salsa and merengue do not come to mind when the band strikes the opening cords of “Oceans.”

Ethnographic research on Latino Protestant congregations has revealed the rich diversity that exists within these churches. While some might assume that descriptors such as “spicy,” “passionate,” or “salsafied” might be complimentary, they actually diminish the depth and breadth of Latino Protestant worship. In other words, reliance on easy stereotypes precludes fuller appreciation of Latino Protestantism and its diverse manifestations.10 The research, then, complicates racialized assumptions about paths toward creating and maintaining diverse congregations. Such a realization should not dissuade church leaders. Rather, they should feel challenged to pursue a deeper, more nuanced understanding of and appreciation for the heterogeneity that exists within different racial groups.

Mark Mulder wrote this article in collaboration with Gerardo Marti.
Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King Professor of Sociology at Davidson College. He is the author of several books, including A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, and Latino Protestants in America: Growing and Diverse.
About the Author
  • Mark T. Mulder, professor of sociology at Calvin College, is the author of Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (Rutgers University Press, 2015) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

  1. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/04/the-rise-of-evangelicos/.  

  2. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/racial-and-ethnic-composition/latino/.  

  3. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/.  

  4. https://www.amazon.com/When-Faith-Catches-Fire-Reformation/dp/0735289689/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537446093&sr=8-1&keywords=when+faith+catches+fire&dpID=51gBeunDzRL&preST=SY344_BO1,204,203,200_QL70&dpSrc=srch  

  5. Kevin D. Dougherty, Brandon C. Martinez, and Gerardo Martí, “Congregational Diversity and Attendance in a Mainline Protestant Denomination,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 54 (December 2015): 668-683.  

  6. Korie L. Edwards, Brad Christerson, and Michael O. Emerson, “Race, Religious Organizations, and Integration,” Annual Review of Sociology 39 (2011): 211-228 (https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145636).  

  7. https://www.amazon.com/Urban-Church-Imagined-Religion-Authenticity/dp/1479887102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537319578&sr=8-1&keywords=the+urban+church+imagined.  

  8. https://www.amazon.com/Trouble-Table-Gathering-Tribes-Worship/dp/0687426561/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537362848&sr=8-1&keywords=trouble+at+the+table.  

  9. https://www.amazon.com/Worship-Across-Racial-Divide-Congregation/dp/0199912165.  

  10. https://www.amazon.com/Latino-Protestants-America-Growing-Diverse/dp/1442256540/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537319839&sr=1-1&keywords=latino+protestants+in+america&dpID=51l41xO9YKL&preST=SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40&dpSrc=srch.  

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