Barna’s Perspective on Race and the Church

The past few weeks have been a time of listening, learning, repentance and lament for the Barna team. As social researchers who seek to equip the Church to effectively engage with the world, we find ourselves standing alongside other believers in an effort to right the wrongs of racial injustice. As a team, we have begun with deep soul searching. About how we have contributed to problems of racial inequity, whether implicitly or explicitly. About how we can better listen to and serve our Black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ.

This soul searching is more than a few days or weeks of processing and then getting back to business as usual. We commit ourselves to both short-term actions and long-term results as we seek to be a catalyst for genuine and lasting change in the Church.

Even as we are early in this process of self-reflection, we believe we can serve the Church. First, we can issue an urgent call to action regarding the deep gaps our research reveals between Black Christians and white Christians. Simply put, most white Christians miss and misunderstand the lived experience of Black Christians. We’ve been tracking this gap for years, including the higher degree to which Black Christians perceive police brutality, experience the effects of racism and believe the effects of slavery continue to this day. We encourage leaders, especially white leaders, to use this research to broaden your perspective and the perspectives of those whom you lead. Feel the weight of these gaps. The report Where Do We Go From Here?, a special report that assesses our nation’s reputation of racism, past and present through recent data, articles, infographics and expert commentary.

Research is an invitation to share the truth, even when it is unpopular or challenging, and Barna aspires to report fairly and fully on how the Church is addressing racial injustice and inequity. It is the Church’s responsibility to reject racism, embrace responsibility to tear down unjust and white-centered systems and, in the Spirit’s power, advance justice and reconciliation.

A second thing Barna can do is broadcast the strength and vitality of Christianity among Black Americans. Research shows that Black Christians far outpace the spiritual vibrancy of white Christians on almost every measure of faith we use. For example, there is great trust in and use of the Bible among Black Christians. The broader Church has much to gain by following the model of Black believers and their leaders, and we are eager to highlight different facets of that story.

As such, we see our existing initiatives in a new light and feel the weight of stewarding the stories these projects are uncovering. One is The State of the Black Church, with research led by Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker and produced in partnership with Urban Ministries, Inc., Movement Day, American Bible Society and Compassion. This national study listens to leaders and laypeople in the historic Black Church to find out how these communities are thriving and where they are struggling.

Another study is part of a larger research and training collaboration with the Racial Justice & Unity Center, funded by the Lilly Endowment, which uniquely emphasizes understanding the dynamics of multiethnic congregations. (You can preview some of those findings here.) We’ll be reporting on these projects in the coming months and into 2021, and we’re hopeful they will sharpen the lens through which Christians view our present moment.

Further, we recognize church leaders’ urgent need for insights right now. You can’t lead well in this moment without better understanding the context in which you lead. In light of this, Barna and our technology partner Gloo have created a free Faith & Race Check-In for pastors and congregations. This includes two anonymous polls that can help pastors listen to and learn from the experiences of their peers, collaborate to respond with wisdom and facilitate constructive conversations in their own churches.

These tools are available in Barna Access, alongside a curated channel dedicated to covering Race and the Church, which features Barna’s past research and reports as well as new workshops and video content. We invite you to learn alongside us.

Beyond all this, our team is engaged in a frank self-assessment with the help of Black and other leaders of color. We’re stepping back to listen and be led. We want to help churches navigate these crucial conversations, and that means sharing with our audience about our team’s opportunities for growth. As social researchers, we work hard to ensure the voices of people of color are heard through all our studies and reporting. Yet the fact is that we’ve been most comfortable interpreting and applying the data for majority white culture. No longer. We will take proactive measures to create a different future for Barna’s work.

We’re in the early stages of change, starting with reflection, training and advisement, with the long-term goal of representing the Church’s God-given diversity in our team, in our partnerships, in our research and in our public-facing resources.

There’s no doubt this will be a lengthy and demanding journey, one that will call us all to continuous repentance, reflection and response. But we are up to the challenge and hope to encourage other followers of Christ to commit to the same journey.

—David Kinnaman
President, Barna Group

Feature image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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