Jun 15, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Charlie Dates on Listening to Black Church Leaders

In a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman are joined by returning guest Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin (VP of Church Engagement and Executive Director of Trauma Healing at American Bible Society) to discuss recent data from Barna’s upcoming Trends in the Black Church report. Martin also takes time to interview Dr. Charlie Dates (Senior Pastor at Progressive Baptist Church, Chicago, IL), covering topics such as the importance of Black pastors in their communities, why church involvement is declining among Black congregants and what the future of the Black Church might hold.

On the Importance of Hearing from the Whole Church
Before jumping into fresh data from Trends in the Black Church, Nieuwhof, Kinnaman and Martin begin the conversation talking about why it’s important for all church leaders to pay attention to what is going on in the Black Church in America.

“The black community in America has been one of the most spiritually vibrant and one of the most Christian communities in our society,” Kinnaman offers. “All leaders have a lot to learn in terms of the trends that have emerged in this study and how that’s shaping the overall trajectory and future of the Church in America.”

Martin notes, “The other thing I’d add is that if we miss out on what God is doing in this portion of the Church, we can miss out on what God is doing, period. There is a certain kingdom mindset that we need to have for such a time as this. We’ve got to be looking at how God is moving in every area so that we can be better together.”

Nieuwhof wraps up the conversation by noting, “I think you [as a leader] can look at your church, but if your church isn’t a reflection of The Church, you start to run into problems. The Black Church is part of The Church. The diversity of the kingdom of God is something that has to be reflected and embraced by every church, or eventually your church is not The Church anymore.”

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On Black Pastors Being Viewed as the Most Important Leaders in the Black Community
As the conversation progresses, Kinnaman offers both historical and recent data to emphasize the influence that Black church leaders have in their communities. Data collected in 1996 state that three in five Black adults (63%) said that Black pastors were the most important leaders in the Black community. The data collected in 2020 shows that number increased by 6 percentage points.

During Martin’s interview with Dr. Dates, she mentions this finding before offering, “The research also shows that more young Black churchgoers are likely to say that when they choose a church, they’re choosing the pastor that they’re going to be led by. So pastoral leadership matters for this next generation. Pastoral leadership obviously matters as your voice expands, as God opens doors for you to go elsewhere. That kind of feels like a lot of pressure. What implications does that have on church leadership?”

“I don’t like it. I hate it,” Dr. Dates responds. “I’m about to be very vulnerable here. Yes, [the leadership of the pastor] has always mattered, but it’s different now in 2021 than it was in 1991. And we could go back even further, as it relates to some of the research I’ve done in Chicago from the 1950’s, ’60’s and ’70’s.”

He adds, “The Black pastor has always—as Kenyatta Gilbert says, ‘carried a tri-vocal voice’—sage, prophet, priest. But the Black preacher has also been given autonomy to be human.”

“There has come, I think—with a more diverse population matriculating in certain institutions—an expectation that the pastor is not simply above reproach, but that the pastor is perfect. With this cancel culture, as people choose churches based upon pastors, I find myself pumping the brakes all the time, saying to our church, ‘Not only am I far from perfect, but I’m on this road to discipleship like you are.’”

On Giving Black Pastors the Space to Speak Freely
As Martin and Dr. Dates conclude their discussion, Martin asks, “What challenge or encouragement do you have for white pastors and leaders who may be listening to this [discussion]? What do you want those listeners to know about your experience as a Black pastor?”

Dr. Dates responds with both advice and a request, noting, “I take this from Bishop Timothy Clarke. ‘Give a Black pastor in your life the freedom to make the big ask.’ … The big ask is this—they need to be able to call you and say, ‘Don’t say this about that issue.’”

“When we do that, we will have more humility within the clergy and more mutual submission, in one sense, to bring a more well-rounded theological view to America,” Dr. Dates shares. “As long as it’s just white men leading the charge, writing the books and getting all of the information, then we’re going to have [only] one point of perspective.”

Martin chimes in, “[Doing] that requires relationship, it requires trust, it requires a willingness to trust you [a fellow leader], sometimes over some very persuasive voices in their congregations.”

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About the Research
Any effort to capture a political snapshot of the “Black Church” is complicated due to the theological and denominational diversity that characterizes Black churches in the U.S., not to mention the many other ways individual congregants may differ. There is not a “Black Church;” rather, there are Black churches. Furthermore, common categories (i.e., conservative, moderate, liberal) commonly used in polling may only offer limited insight into a wide array of ideologies (i.e., Black nationalism, Black feminism, liberal integrationism).

2020 data: Online survey of 1,083 U.S. Black adults, plus 822 Black Church churchgoers, conducted April 22–May 6, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 2.3 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

The pastor data includes 293 online surveys conducted among Black pastors who consider their church to be a Black church or a predominately Black church. A follow-up question was asked to ensure that at least half of the congregation was Black, although 93% of these pastors lead churches in which more than three-quarters of their congregants are Black. Pastors included in the survey who have another pastor over him / her must report to a pastor who is also Black. The research was conducted August 26-October 1, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 5.6 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

1996 data: Telephone interviews with 802 U.S. Black adults, conducted in March of 1996. The sample error is plus or minus 3.3 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Due to methodological changes and context between the 1996 and 2020 surveys, some question language and scales of agreement have changed slightly.

Black Church churchgoers are defined by the racial identity of the pastor and the majority of the congregation:

  • Self-identifies as Black
  • Self-identifies as “Christian”
  • Over the past year, on average, attends a church worship service at least “once every six months”
  • Considers their church “a Black church”
  • Notes that their senior pastor is Black
  • Notes that if that senior pastor has another pastor over him / her, that pastor is also Black
  • Notes that their congregation is primarily Black

The study also provides opportunity to further segment and analyze this group by associations with historically Black denominations.

 Photo by Eber Devine from Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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