Most black Americans attend black churches but want diversity: study

Members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia.
Members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. | Facebook

While most black Americans believe historically black congregations should become more racially and ethnically diverse, the majority prefer to attend predominantly black congregations that feature distinctive expressions of worship like praying in tongues.

The observation was among the key findings of a Pew Research Center survey of 8,660 black Americans, conducted from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020. The study is the Pew Research Center’s first large-scale, nationally representative survey designed primarily to help understand distinctive aspects of the religious lives of black Americans.

On the issue of diversity, while 61% of black Americans say their historically black congregations need to be more diverse and the race of attendees wasn’t a priority, the survey showed that most black Americans are drawn to black churches for reasons beyond race.

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“Sermons are a prime example: Black Americans who attend black Protestant churches are more likely to say they hear messages from the pulpit about certain topics — such as race relations and criminal justice reform — than are black Protestant churchgoers who attend multiracial, white or other race churches,” researchers said.

The distinctive worship style of black churches is also noted as a compelling attraction.

“Protestants who worship in predominantly black churches are more likely than other Black Americans to say their congregations feature worshippers calling out ‘amen’ or other expressions of approval (known as call and response). They also are more likely to feature expressive forms of worship that include spontaneous dancing, jumping or shouting. And 54% of Protestants in black congregations say the services they attend feature speaking or praying in tongues, a practice associated with Pentecostalism,” Pew’s report on the survey explained.

While most respondents participated in the survey in early 2020 — prior to May 25, 2020, when a handcuffed George Floyd died as two Minneapolis officers pressed their weight on his torso and a third pressed his knee into is neck, resulting in global protests — recent polling from July 2020 supports the observation that black Protestants are far more likely than Protestants of other races to have recently heard sermons supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last summer, Doug Weaver, professor of Baptist Studies and director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, told The Christian Post that many churches, particularly white congregations, don’t see racial reconciliation as an actionable priority even though they may acknowledge that it is important.

Recent research from Barna, also shows that 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.

“It’s not that different racial groups don’t think these issues [of race] aren’t important. It’s that there’s this question of how important they think it is. If you have a hierarchy of values, which ones are most important to you? I do think that’s where the Church at large can be indicted, and that race has not been at the top of the list even though it should be. Churches tolerate racial discrimination, it should never be tolerated, but … history shows that,” he said.

The new Pew report focused on describing the rich diversity of black people in the United States and included not only single-race, U.S.-born African Americans but also Americans who identify as both black and some other race or black and Hispanic, as well as black people who live in the U.S. but were born outside of the country.

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