Jul 27, 2009

From the Archives

How the Faith of African-Americans Has Changed

African-American woman praying

From the earliest days of America’s history, a deep-rooted spirituality has been one of the hallmarks of the black population in the country. A new study released by The Barna Group underscores that the passage of time has not diminished the importance of faith in the lives of African-Americans. The study examined the religious beliefs and behaviors of the black population, today and in comparison to 15 years ago, as well as comparing the faith of blacks to that of the U.S. population as a whole.

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Religious Beliefs
The research explored 12 religious beliefs. The current data indicates that among the four largest ethnic groups in the nation – whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians – blacks had the highest score on 10 of the 12 belief indicators.

Survey respondents reacted to nine statements regarding faith. Blacks were highest among the four ethnic groups in relation to eight of those nine statements. Those were as follows:

the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches49%66%46%*
have personal responsibility to tell others your religious beliefs344632*
your religious faith is very important in your life728670*
Satan/devil is not a living being but is a symbol of evil394638*
when He lived on earth, Jesus Christ did not commit sins435442*
single, most important purpose of your life is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul668563*
God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today708469**
your highest priority in your life these days is your faith111811***
number of persons interviewed923212726038


* = answered “strongly agree” with the statement posed
** = chose this description from several options
*** = gave this response (i.e., “faith”) without prompting or options to choose from
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

The only faith statement for which the African-American response was similar to that of the U.S. average was “if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in Heaven.”

There were three other belief oriented results in the survey, and African-Americans were the highest ethnic group on two of those three. Specifically, blacks were the group most likely to be born again Christians (59%, compared to a national average of 46%) and were the ethnic segment most likely to consider themselves to be Christian (92% did so, versus 85% nationally). However, they were no more likely than average to qualify as evangelical Christians.

Religious Behavior
The Barna study examined 13 religious behaviors. Again demonstrating their spiritual uniqueness, African-Americans ranked highest among the four ethnic groups on eight of those 13 indicators and lowest on two of them. In all, blacks differed significantly from the national average on nine of the behaviors.

Compared to the other three ethnic groups, blacks emerged as the most likely to engage in each of five church-related activities in a typical week (attending church services, participating in a small group, attending a Sunday school class, praying, and reading the Bible). They were also the most likely to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life and to have an “active faith” (i.e., attend church services, pray to God and read from the Bible during the week). They also had the lowest proportion of unchurched adults and were the ethnic group least likely to be Catholic.

Religious behaviors and choices among blacks that occur at levels equivalent to the national average are being “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” and having shared one’s faith in Christ with others during the past year.

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Changes Over Time
The Barna study compared current statistics for African-American faith with that measured 15 years ago and found substantial change during that period.

Six of seven measures of belief had changed significantly. Blacks today are more likely than they were in the early 1990s to believe that the principles taught in the Bible are totally accurate; to say that their religious faith is very important in their life; to have a biblically orthodox understanding of the nature of God; and to be born again. They are also less likely to strongly affirm that Satan is symbolic, not real; and to contend that a good person can earn his/her way into Heaven.

The measure that had not changed was the sense of personal responsibility to discuss their beliefs with others.

Three of the five behavioral measures that were evaluated both recently and 15 years ago showed substantial change. Those efforts included an increase in the proportion of African-Americans who have made a personally important commitment to Christ, church attendance, and Bible reading. The measures that reflected no movement were Sunday school attendance and affiliating with the Catholic church.

American-American Faith in Context
The African-American population is presently about 15% of the national population. Other research conducted by Barna has indicated that spirituality is generally a more central element in the lives of blacks than in the lives of people from other ethnic groups. That spiritual emphasis accounts for some of the higher levels of religious activity and the more biblically-oriented beliefs registered within the black community.

While the beliefs and behaviors of America’s white population have changed little since the early 1990’s, the new research underscored that the faith of African-Americans is dynamic, generally moving in a direction that is more aligned with conservative biblical teachings.

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group among nine nationwide random samples of adults. In the course of the 9,232 interviews conducted, each respondent was asked if they considered themselves to be black or African-American. These surveys were conducted between January 2007 and November 2008. In total, there were 1,272 adults in the African-American category. The range of sampling error associated with the total sample of adults is between ±0.2 and ±1.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of African-Americans is between ±1.3 and ±2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the recording of responses.

“Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

Photo by Diana Simumpande on Unsplash

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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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