Learning from the Black American religious experience

From November 2019 to June 2020, Pew Research Center conducted its first large-scale, nationally representative survey of Black Americans about their religious experiences. By phone, by mail and online, Pew Research Center sampled 8,660 Black adults born before 2002 who identify as either Black/African American, Black and Hispanic, or Black and another race. The study included Black Protestants who attend different kinds of congregations as well as Black adults who are religiously unaffiliated. Pew Research Center released the report, titled “Faith Among Black Americans,” in February 2021. 

In this article, I review relevant findings about Black American religious and political identities, opinions and beliefs; explore where and why Black Americans worship; and interpret reflections from 30 African American or Black church pastors about decline in Black churches. I conclude by summarizing findings and implications for Presbyterian Outlook readers and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

Black Americans: Identity, opinion and belief

According to the study, most Black Americans identify as Christian and as highly religious by traditional measures of belief. For example, belief in God is nearly universal (97%). For most Black Americans, God is “a presence in earthly affairs” with the power to determine what happens in the world. God can heal physical illness and injury (78%) and judges us for our actions. While most Black Americans report that they pray daily (63%), a nearly equal percentage (62%) seldom or never participates in prayer groups or weekly religious education.

Sixty percent of respondents believe that civil rights organizations have done “a great deal” to help Black Americans move toward equality in the United States, whereas only 30% cited Black churches, 11% cited the federal government and 7% cited predominantly white churches as helping. In other words, 97% of respondents said that white churches have done the least to help Black Americans achieve equality.

In the October 11, 2020, issue of The Atlantic, in an essay titled “The Church’s Black Exodus,” journalist Dara T. Mathis writes:

Across the country, Black Americans feel under siege from the coronavirus pandemic and raw from the police brutality fueling Black Lives Matter protests. But some are nursing another intimate wound: their church’s failure to acknowledge their pain. Many Black parishioners, especially those at multiracial institutions, bristle when they hear rhetoric from church leaders that ignores how health inequities and racism are affecting the Black community right now. Others are hurt by their church’s conspicuous silence on these issues. The result is a quiet but resolute contingent of Black church members leaving their congregation to seek spiritual healing elsewhere.

A large majority of Black Americans (80%) are Democrats. Three out of four religiously affiliated Black Americans say that opposing racism (76%) and opposing sexism (71%) are essential to what it means to be faithful to their religious traditions. On average, 74% of respondents want to see congregations oppose racism and sexism: not in episodic, calendar or crisis-driven ways, but rather as a regular, organic part of what it means to be faithful in word and in deed.

If we really want Black Americans to feel welcome in our Presbyterian congregations, we need to press for Black equality, in season and out, as an integral, centering part of our ministry. To reach Black Americans, we must make central our opposition to racial and gender discrimination in all forms – in rhetoric, in budgets, in all locations and in sustained actions – in both congregation and community settings. We must demonstrate a deep, organic commitment to Black wholeness. Ministries that confront discrimination, prejudice and hate can be deeply life-giving and accomplish soulful, healing transformations of whole persons and communities. However, if a congregation invests too deeply in the toxic supremacy of whiteness – which, in this case, means refusing to repent – white churches, for the most part, will remain the greatest obstacle to Black equality in the United States today. The Holy Spirit will grieve, human suffering will deepen, and soul-nourishing, soul-saving discipleship will remain vaporous and out of reach.

Where do Black Americans attend services?

The Pew study found that 60% of Black American adults attend religious services, and 40% never or seldom attend religious services. Among those who attend services, 32% attend “just Baptist” or “just Pentecostal” churches; 30% affiliate with mainline or evangelical denominations; 23% attend historically Black Protestant denominations; 15% attend nondenominational churches; 6% attend Roman Catholic churches; and 3% identify with other Christian faiths (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses).

When the “just Baptist” and “just Pentecostal” respondents are combined with those who attend historically Black Protestant denominations, we find that a majority (55%) of Black Americans who attend religious services worship in predominantly Black congregations. When most Black Protestants travel to attend church, they travel farther, stay longer (75% of respondents attend services that last between 90 and 120 minutes) and are more inclined to worship in smaller groups.

Why most Black Americans who attend religious services go to Black churches?

In addition, 60% of Black Americans attend religious services where most or all of the attendees and the senior clergy are Black. They do so for several reasons. First, attendees know they will hear sermons that are relevant to the distinctive struggles of Black Americans, especially concerning race relations and criminal justice reform. Second, they avoid the discrimination and discomfort that some feel in non-Black religious spaces. Third, these religious services may feature worship elements distinctive to Black religious spaces (e.g., “call and response” prayer; spontaneous dancing, jumping or shouting; glossolalia; Gospel choirs). Finally, these congregations serve as valuable links between attendees and the histories and struggles of Black Americans.

While most Black Christian adherents attend predominantly Black American congregations, many of those same religionists (61%) say that historically Black congregations should become more racially and ethnically diverse. Majority-Black churches will continue to offer distinctive patterns and practices of worship that are historically rooted in African American and greater African diaspora histories. Yet a majority of Black religionists are open to and desirous of wider racial/ethnic membership compositions.

Thirty pastors of predominantly Black churches assess Black church decline in the 21st century

As part of the Pew Research Center study, 30 Black Christian clergy – most in senior leadership roles in congregations across the United States – were asked to analyze a decline in Black clergy influence in public life. Their responses address four main areas: the history of the Black church and Black pastors; the recent decline in the influence of Black pastors; newer changes in service formats to attract younger attendees yet retain older attendees; and their widespread optimism that Black churches will survive current institutional challenges.

  1. The pastors express great pride in the history of the Black church as a central gathering place in many Black communities and in the historical role of Black pastors as civic community leaders. During enslavement, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras, Black churches uniformly provided opportunities for Black people to hold leadership positions at a time when such positions were largely unavailable elsewhere in society. The energizing, emotional experiences of worship served then and now as gathering places where an oppressed people could express emotion, often by shouting or crying during services. “Where else can you express how hard things have been?” says one respondent. “Where else can you have an outburst without people assuming you’re insane?” asks another.
  2. The influence of Black pastors in local communities has declined in recent decades. Respondents posit several reasons for the decline. First, since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black pastors have found it harder to stake out public positions in common. Second, too many pastors and congregants have fallen sway to the prosperity gospel. Third, they must grapple with the high demands of maintaining membership in an age of declining religious affiliation, including a growing secularization that reduces young adults’ attachments to churches. Fourth, higher urban property values and rents are forcing lower-income residents, including many Black church members, to move away; those transplants then join suburban churches. Fifth, higher property values are leading more Black churches to sell their buildings and move to the suburbs, where they become less central to their communities than they had been. Those Black churches that remain in urban
    areas find that higher property values make it impossible for them to buy parking lots, which means commuting congregants struggle to park on busy city streets. One pastor who responded shares the story of a colleague with “a beautiful [AME] church in center city Philadelphia” who had to sell the building “because her members were driving around the block for 15, 20 minutes looking for a parking space and couldn’t find it and went home.” Finally, ongoing clergy scandals have hurt the collective reputations of people of the cloth.
  3. To attract young adults yet retain older congregants, many pastors have changed key elements of church services, including average length, dress codes, music and preaching styles, as well as adding virtual-format services. Many pastors report that they labor to make young adults feel welcome without driving away older congregants, who tend to be their most devoted members. Younger adults typically want a casual, shorter service with praise-and-worship music, whereas older adults tend to prefer traditional choral hymns. Preaching is increasingly delivered in both instructional and emotional (which the Pew report describes as “call and response” and “whooping”) styles. Responding pastors also struggle with the tension between preaching acceptance of LGBTQ people yet opposing same-sex marriage.
  4. Finally, most of the responding pastors are optimistic that Black churches will survive the institutional challenges they face, arguing that no other institution has risen to take on their historic role. For example, recent polarization of partisan politics has led many Black people who previously worshipped at multiracial churches to leave and join predominantly Black churches. But some of the responding pastors can see the possibility of further decline in Black churches because “if society becomes more holistic, the need for (the) Black Church will become less necessary. It will just be ‘the church.’”

What can we take away?

Black American Christians are highly religious and believe in God. They credit civil rights organizations with doing the most to advance Black equality — and see white churches as doing the least. A majority of Black Christians attend Black churches because of their historic community roles and distinctive worship styles, but a significant minority attends evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. Even larger majorities of Black religionists see opposition to racism and sexism as essential, nonnegotiable elements of their faith, and they are open to and desirous of wider and deeper racial/ethnic memberships in churches. All of these findings suggest opportunities for the PC(USA).

The PC(USA) Confession of 1967 points us in the right direction to hear the prophetic voice of this report:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

In the world as it should be, and in every PC(USA) congregation, the church would be known – north and south and east and west – as militant laborers for the abolition of all racial discrimination. The whole of congregational life would be organized around ongoing confession of and repentance from toxic whiteness, resulting in a startling sacrificial love of Black people made manifest in every aspect of our lives together. The legions of the unaffiliated and disaffected would be shocked and amazed. They would stumble joyfully back to our churches because they would know we are Christians by our love. We would be those peculiar people who believe Jesus and who dare to follow Christ with our whole being. In other words, the PC(USA) must listen to the voices of those on the margins of society, including the Black voices in this PEW report, and we must fight injustice in every element of the church from our preaching and teaching to our budgets, mission and hiring practices. We must lead with love. May it be so.