Less than 30% of US churches actively addressing racism, study shows

A person attends the MLK50 Conference, hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 2018.
A person attends the MLK50 Conference, hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 2018. | (Photo: ERLC)

Less than 30% of American churches are actively engaged in addressing racism or racial inequality even though most pastors agree that churches should oppose the social ills, according to recent research from Barna.

Despite the ongoing social unrest over racial inequality and police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in May, only 29% of Protestant pastors from Barna’s pastor panel said their churches were either completely or mostly actively involved in addressing racism or racial inequality. Another 30% of the 2,350 Protestant senior pastors on the panel polled in online surveys from March 20 – June 15, said they were somewhat involved in addressing the issues at their church.

“I was surprised that many people said that they were somewhat engaged in [addressing racism],” Pastor Albert Tate of Fellowship Monrovia in California said in response to the data during a recent ChurchPulse Weekly podcast with hosts Carey Nieuwhof, a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada, and David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. Also in the discussion was the Rev. Nicole Martin, executive director of healing and trauma at the American Bible Society.

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“There’s a whole propaganda [surrounding this] and people are comforted by voices that convince them that this issue isn’t even real, let alone someone empathizing in this moment,” Tate added.

Nearly all pastors, 94%, agree the Church has a responsibility to publicly denounce racial discrimination and 89% say it's important for church leaders to publicly show support for people of color, Barna also found.

And while 62% of pastors said their church made a statement on the recent protests happening across the nation, having conversations about issues of racism in church has been difficult because of the different perspectives people hold.

The majority of white practicing Christians, 61%, believes issues of racism are the result of an individual’s own beliefs and prejudices against people of other races while two-thirds of black practicing Christians, 66%, argue that racial discrimination is historically built into American society and institutions, Barna found in 2019. This situation has made it challenging for many white pastors to discuss the issue from their pulpits.

“Every Christian would say, community shows up in the Bible and that God cares about community,” Martin said in discussing the concept of individual versus communal faith. “And yet, for some reason, one of the challenges of evangelicalism is this hyper-individualization when it comes to salvation. It’s, ‘I accept Jesus for myself. He saves me from my sins,’ which then allows for some people to say, ‘Well, I personally like black people, therefore, [addressing racism] is not my problem.’”

This challenge was recently highlighted in the case of white Mississippi Pastor Bishop Scott Volland who was recently booted by The Heights Church in Columbus, Ohio, for supporting the idea that “black lives matter (as a human fact)” and standing with protesters against racial injustice.

“Over the last couple of weeks, what we’ve heard sporadically over the last several months has become much more concentrated, in that many here ‘do not share my views.’ Whether it is saying that ‘black lives matter’ (as a human fact), or in speaking out to remove racially offensive/insensitive monuments or politicians, I have been informed that my ‘agenda will not work at this church,’ and that I ‘don’t speak for the church.’ Nor do they agree with me sharing them publicly or being involved in any type of: marches, peaceful protests, governmental meetings, interviews, etc. concerning race or racism,” Volland said in announcing his June 21 departure.

“My heart grieves for 101 different reasons in this season,” Martin added. “There is a part of my heart that grieves for the lack of consistency and thorough education for white Christians to see themselves in this context.”

Barna found that 93% of U.S. Protestant pastors agree that it's important for church leaders to guide their congregations in thinking about racial justice, but when politics come into play that support wanes. Some 61% of pastors say conversations about race are too political, contributing to the difficulty in having these discussions.

Both Martin and Tate stressed that God is able to handle tough conversations.

“If God is big enough to handle all of these things, then what fear is not an authentic one that you can’t bring to Christ and say, ‘I’m afraid of that right there,’” Martin said.

“You’ve got to do what Paul does,” Tate advised. “Paul said, ‘When I was with the Jews, I became like the Jews. When I was with the Gentiles, I became like them. I became those things so that I might win some.’”

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