Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Progress is slow on racial reconciliation in this country, particularly given recent events. But why do lingering divisions exist in the Church, the very communities built on the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation? Finding racial unity in a congregation is a complex task that requires a deep recognition of racial differences in how Christians understand and practice their faith. In a recent study that builds upon our research on racial tension and the Black Lives Matter movement, Barna examined the divergent ways in which black and white Christians approach discipleship, individually and collectively, revealing insights that may contribute to the realization of King’s dream of an unsegregated hour of worship.
What Is Spiritual Progress?
The term “spiritual progress” is open to interpretation, and when asked to define it, differences in perspectives begin to emerge between black and white Christian leaders. Black Christian leaders are more likely to describe the process of spiritual progress as “spiritual maturation” (31%), while white Christian leaders prefer the phrase “spiritual growth” (21%). The language of “maturation” implies more of an internal transformation and the development of wisdom through life experience, whereas the word “growth” tends to suggest an approach that entails reaching key milestones.
When both groups define “discipleship,” white believers are more likely to refer to it as a “process of learning to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, seeking to observe all that Jesus commanded, by the power of the Holy Spirit and to his glory.” Black Christians instead commonly refer to it as “The process of transformation that changes us to be increasingly more like Christ through the Word, the Spirit, and circumstance.” For black Christians, spiritual progress tends to focus more on life experience rather than achieving goals, about maturing into a Christ-like character as they weather life’s storms.
The greater emphasis on experience is also evident when looking at motivations for spiritual growth. Although both groups share similar desires, black Christians are more likely to say they have been through tough times in life, and that growing spiritually will help them (34% compared to 27%). But negative life experiences don’t always foster deep spiritual growth, they can just as easily hinder it. For instance, black pastors are more likely than white pastors to state that “guilt about things in the past” pose a major obstacle for their congregation’s spiritual maturation (64% compared to 42%).
How Is Discipleship Pursued?
There are plenty of similarities in how both groups define the primary goals of discipleship, but black Christian leaders are more likely to say “deepening one’s faith through education and fellowship” is a goal of discipleship (85% compared to 71%).
Looking at these in more detail, a crucial part of fellowship for black Christians is mentorship. They are more likely to currently be mentored and discipled by another Christian (38% compared to 19%) and to be discipling others themselves (28% compared to 17%). White Christians are more likely than black Christians to prefer being discipled on their own (39% compared to 31%), whereas black Christians show a greater preference for group-based discipleship (32% compared to 22%). Black Christians are also more likely to list large group study or discussion groups (18% compared to 4%) and family members (71% compared to 61%) as “very important” in aiding spiritual development.
Black communities tend toward communal rhythms of spiritual development while white communities prefer a more individualistic setting. It is unsurprising therefore that white Christians are more likely to view their spiritual life as “entirely private” (42% compared to 32%). Black Christians, on the other hand, are much more likely to believe their personal spiritual life has an impact on others—whether they are relatives, friends, community or society at large. For instance, black Christians are much more likely to believe that their personal spiritual lives have an impact on broader society (46% compared to 27%).
This was a strong belief of Martin Luther King, and it appears to have had great staying power. He fundamentally believed that one’s personal spiritual life had implications for societal justice, and he called Christians—on both sides of the debate—to bring their faith to bear on the struggle for civil rights, to which he dedicated his life. This impact is also tied to the approach to evangelism: half of black Christians (50% compared to 34%) believe it is their responsibility to tell others about their religious beliefs, further reinforcing the public / private contrast between both groups.
Another crucial form of spiritual growth is education, or more specifically, studying the Bible. Black Christians, generally demonstrate a higher regard for and deeper devotion to Scripture. They are more likely to believe that the Bible is “totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches” (59% compared to 48%), a belief that translates into more consistent and frequent study of the Bible (63% compared to 45%) and memorization of Scriptures (46% compared to 16%).
Black Christians also consistently rate the personal spiritual impact of many forms of biblical study—including memorizing or meditating on Scriptures, studying the Bible in a group or on one’s own or following Bible study curriculums—at higher levels than white Christians. This starts with leadership; black church leaders are also more likely than their white counterparts to believe that “teaching the Word in weekly services” (90% compared to 80%) and “memorizing Scripture” (75% compared to 63%) will have a “significant impact on developing disciples.”
And finally, one of the more significant contrasts between the two groups is the role played by friendship in spiritual growth. Black Christians are more likely to rate their relationships with family members, mentors, church members, Christian communities outside of church and small group members as “valuable” to their spiritual journey. Though both groups equally deem friendships as “valuable to their spiritual journey” (43% of white Christians, compared to 41% percent of black Christians), only 14 percent of white Christians thought their friends were “not too valuable” or “not at all valuable,” in contrast to one-quarter (26%) of black Christians.
Black Christians are also slightly more likely to believe that when their friends aren’t as interested in spiritual things, it poses a major obstacle to their spiritual growth (11% compared to 8%). Black church leaders are also more likely to believe that “negative peer relationships” pose a major obstacle for people’s growth as disciples (73% compared to 48%). This outlier of friendships for black Christians is an interesting shift in narrative. Black communities clearly appear to have robust formal relational networks for spiritual development (mentorship structures, family networks or small groups), but it appears their informal relational networks, specifically friendships, is more likely to be a source of spiritual hindrance.
The Unsegregated Church
Three-quarters of Americans agree that “Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation” (73%). This is good news for the Christian church-at-large. But as leaders and pastors we must learn to celebrate these differences rather than lament them. The particular community of faith in which we belong undoubtedly shapes the ways in which we experience and understand God, particularly the modes of discipleship—a practice central to what it means to develop a Christian identity. Bridging the racial divides when it comes to spiritual practice is a complex task. But it begins by observing current approaches and recognizing ways in which they might be, however unintentionally, tailored toward a specific audience. Sticking to monolithic, cookie cutter approaches to discipleship and spiritual development without considering how to integrate other approaches will unlikely change the status quo. Approaches detached from experience that are privately practiced might struggle to appeal to the black Christian experience. Likewise, approaches that rely heavily on broader social mechanisms (such as mentorship structures or large groups) for discipleship will be met with a similar reluctance for a white Christian.
What the Research Means
David M. Bailey is the founder and executive director of Arrabon, a ministry that equips churches and organizations to engage in the ministry of reconciliation with cultural intelligence.
“Missionaries often know they are going to ‘cross a culture,’ so they take time to understand the sociology and anthropology of the new people they will engage with. Pastors working domestically don’t often engage this same practice, so generally they don’t lead their church with strong cross-cultural intelligence. As a result, too many Christians jump into conversations about racial reconciliation without a firm foundation of cultural understanding.” Read more here.
… and cross-cultural worship in the Church:
“Worship is not only expressive, but also formational. As leaders, we have to ask ourselves, How are we forming people? Are we forming people in consumer spirituality? Are we forming people to prefer others before themselves? Are we creating a church for the least of these or for our big givers? When we ask ourselves these questions with honesty and transparency, we allow space for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through a diverse group of brothers and sisters and hear things we wouldn’t normally hear. When we don’t ask these questions, we leave ourselves open to malformation according to our own cultural blind spots.” Read the entire Q&A with David here.
About the Research
These findings are based on several research studies conducted by Barna Group.
In partnership with The Navigators, Barna examined discipleship habits of self-identified Christians as well as perspectives on discipleship among senior pastors. The survey of 2,003 Christian adults was conducted online March 6 through April 15, 2015 and included 170 black American Christians, weighted to represent the national population. The sample error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. A survey of 833 church leaders (including 68 senior pastors of primarily black congregations) was conducted online April 7 through May 30, 2015. The sample error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level.
An additional survey on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted with a random sample of the U.S. adult population, including 160 black Americans. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level.
Barna research 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, 2017
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