The State of the Black Church: A Q&A About Church Engagement & Politics
As part of an ongoing Barna Group study on the State of the Black Church, conducted alongside partners including Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker (of Black Millennial Cafe), Gloo, Urban Ministries, Inc., Lead.NYC, American Bible Society and Compassion, researchers sought to learn more about the connection between pastoring and politics within the Black community.
One of the key findings presented in our first release, shows that the general Black population (71%) and Black Church churchgoers (79%) say both spiritual and social issues should be the priority of the Church.
In light of this, Barna asked panelists Pastor John K. Jenkins, Justin Giboney, Dr. Kendra Momon, Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker, Pastor Michael McBride and A.R. Bernard to offer more insight about pastoring and politics.
Subscribe to Barna Access Plus to read the full research briefing and accompanying Q&A.
As political and social issues continue to be at the fore of the Black Church’s influence and experience, how would you draw comparisons between this moment and the Civil Rights era, in terms of Church engagement in political and social issues? What are the nuances in the differences?
Jenkins: During the Civil Rights era, the Black community had a national leader, something we don’t necessarily have now. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ influence in those days was remarkable. … Incredible! We don’t have a modern-day Martin Luther King. There are many influential voices, but they don’t have the kind of national appeal that Dr. Martin Luther King had. I think that’s one of the big differences.
Giboney: [When compared to the Civil Rights Era], I don’t think the Church is as much controlling the narrative around political and social issues. Today, outside of the Church, social justice and engagement is more performative.
I think the Church is still involved, but it’s not necessarily the prominent voice that people see when it comes to social justice issues. We’re engaged, but not necessarily controlling how political and social issues are talked about, and the symbolism of these. That’s been kind of handed off to, or in some ways taken control of by, more secular groups.
Momon: I think we are witnessing a revisitation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s clarion call of “Give Us the Ballot” which was a 1960s remix of Frederick Douglass’ 1865 address entitled “What the Black Man Wants.” In summary, we are—once again—witnessing a modern-day remix and revitalization of the direct-action phase of the Civil Rights movement’s philosophy of organization, mobilization, constant communication, unification, collective group consciousness and economic, social and political action.
During the Civil Rights movement, the Black Church was the organizational center and brainchild of movement activity. Today, we are witnessing a needed pivot away from simply “preaching the gospel” to the “collective” Black Church being the gospel, actively, vocally and unapologetically claiming its place—center stage—as a vocal, as well as ardent, critic of American injustices, social ills, institutional and systematic oppression, political malfeasance and the need for truth, equality and justice.
Parker: I think we have learned to not just romanticize the Civil Rights Era, but to take and duplicate what was best in it and move beyond it with technology and other opportunities that weren’t available before. We used to simply decide that [the Civil Rights era] was just a great era. In reality, less than 10 percent of Black churches were actually active during that era.
Now, coming out of national elections and the [Georgia] runoffs, trust me, we understand that. I would say there was probably more than 10 percent of [Black] churches who were active this go-around, but I think that’s because we stopped romanticizing [the Civil Rights era] and started working it.
McBride: I think we lazily assume that the Black Church in mass was involved in the civil rights struggle. I think the reality of segregation required Black church spaces to be much more a multi-use space for Black folks to engage in civil rights and liberation efforts. … I think we have to remind ourselves that it’s usually a smaller group of activist clergy, justice-oriented clergy that are really championing these issues on behalf of the larger Church and the larger community.
I think we still see a lot of that today. Pastors are having a reckoning about the way they are trained and formed to respond to systemic and structural injustice. … Many of our Bible colleges are led and infused with Evangelical theology, which is at its core very anti-black and consumed with whiteness and White supremacy. It takes a lot of untangling of that for [pastors] to be able to show up well.
Bernard: I was a social activist back in the ’60’s; it was a decade of many revolutions, especially here in the United States. For us as black and brown people, it was a revolution of identity… We were suffering from the deferral of hope because we realized that the promise [of the American Dream] was not given equal access to all participants here in American society. We had to fight and struggle for that.
Fast forward to today, here we are dealing with some of the same issues, but in a different way. One of the differences today is that back in the ’60’s there was a deep divide in American society. … Dr. King was very successful in bringing the issue of race to the conscience of America, but there was not a total buy-in. It was still deeply divided and much of white America reacted by digging deeper into their racist thinking. But today we have for the first time in American history, a national consensus of moral outrage. … We now have this momentum for change within American culture that is being fueled by that consensus.