The events of 2020, from police killings to the devastation of COVID-19, have renewed and furthered a nationwide conversation on issues of racial justice. However, Barna data shows that the U.S. Christian Church is far from consensus on these issues. Instead, congregations and leaders are discovering painful divisions within their beliefs, hopes and experiences.
On the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman are joined by Latasha Morrison, speaker, author and founder of Be the Bridge ministry. Morrison, whose ministry seeks to empower people toward racial healing, equity and reconciliation, shares her thoughts on the Church’s complex relationship with justice—and how it can move forward from here.
Christians’ Responses to Justice Are Polarized
Even as 2020 has resounded with calls for change, certain Americans have become less convinced that change is needed. While Black self-identified Christians are more likely to say that “our country has a race problem” than they did in 2019, the number of white self-identified Christians who agree has declined from 40 percent to 33 percent.
And when asked about motivation to address racial injustice in the US, the number of white Christians who said they felt highly motivated sank from one in three (32%) in 2019 to one in four (25%) in 2020. In contrast, Black Christians saw motivation increase.
Kinnaman sees this as a sign of deepening polarization: “Two different tribes of people have become more entrenched” in their views regarding racial justice.
In reaction to this data, Morrison expresses “disappointment—but not surprise.” For Morrison, this fits with the complex history of the Church’s involvement in justice issues; “people are hardening their hearts, as historically has been done.”
Furthermore, she suggests that the polarization of Christian thought is driven by an “idol around partisanship,” where individuals’ own political and ideological partisanships shape what they believe. Where this idol exists, she argues, “justice takes a back burner to partisanship.”
Ultimately, though, while Morrison is disappointed by the results, she feels that “we’re not waiting for white Christians to move the needle on this.” She reminds Nieuwhof and Kinnaman, “It’s always been a minority group of resilient people that God was with, who pushed the needle. So, although [recent data on racial justice] is heartbreaking for us to hear, I know that the majority of people will never believe… But we go with the ones who want to go, and we push the needle with the people who get it, who are open to seeing it and are open to a heart transformation.”
The Next Generation Wants Change
Despite the general disinclination from white Christians to respond to issues of racial justice, there is a factor that mitigates this trend: youth. “Among younger evangelicals,” says Kinnaman, “these issues are of more concern than for their parents and their parents’ generation.”
Polarization is evident along generational lines; three in 10 among both Millennial (28%) and Gen Z (31%) Christians is “very motivated” to address racial injustice. In contrast, only 9 percent of Boomer Christians are “very motivated.”
Morrison counsels the Church: “This next generation is watching.” Younger Christians are looking to the Church to be able to address the issues which are important to them. Morrison’s fear is that “the next generation of Gen Z African-American youth are disappointed in the Church… and disappointed in Jesus” because of their experiences there.
Morrison warns, “If we get this wrong, there’s no way they’ll come back.” As the Church seeks to appeal to younger generations, Nieuwhof suggests, the music and the after-church coffee may be less important than a theology that can respond to injustice.
Justice Starts in the Heart
Nieuwhof points out that many leaders worry about the repercussions of speaking out on justice—especially in an increasingly contentious election season.
For Morrison, this worry is not entirely unfounded. “It will cost you,” says Morrison. “You do it afraid.” However, leaders have an opportunity to “pick up the cross and follow Jesus,” surrendering idols along the way.
Practically, leaders may need to seek spiritual formation before trying to guide their congregations. “What we have is a deep theological problem; the answer to that is discipleship,” says Morrison; pastors can seek to be spiritually formed by a diverse cohort of mentors and authors, and enter deep study of what Scripture has to say about injustice.
And decisions about leadership can have a crucial influence. “As you’re bringing on elders…maybe hiring someone who has the biggest bank account for your board may not be the answer, but [instead] someone who has laid their pride at the foot of the cross.”
Fundamentally, Morrison suggests, “whatever is being poured into you, you begin to disciple your people in that mode.” This means that leaders can seek to be guided in the very way they want to shepherd their church. “I think a lot of pastors need consultants, leaders, and mentorship through this, to help them decipher this journey.”
Results may come slowly, but, as Morrison reminds us, the task of facing injustice is slow. “Maybe you’re not where you want to be, but you’re not where you were.”
About the Research
2020 Survey Conducted in Partnership with Dynata
The research for this study surveyed 1,525 U.S. adults online between June 18 and July 6, 2020 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.8 at a 95% confidence interval.
Due to low sample size when segmenting practicing Christians by race / ethnicity in the 2020 study, Barna instead chose to report on self-identified Christians—a nationally representative sample—throughout the briefing. Barna is also unable to report on Asian self-identified Christians or U.S. Elders due to low sample size.
2019 Survey Conducted in Partnership with Racial Justice and Unity Center (Michael Emerson, Glenn Bracey, Chad Brennan)
The research for this study surveyed 2,889 U.S. adults online between July 19 and August 5, 2019 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Practicing Christians, African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.89 at a 95% confidence interval.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Christians are self-identified Christians, including those who identify as Catholic, excluding those who identify as Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness.
Gen Z: Born between 1999 and 2015
Millennial: Born between 1984 and 1998
Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomer: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elder: Born before 1946
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, 2020
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.
Get Barna in your inbox
Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.