When Black History Month is observed each year, faith is a thread throughout many of the stories and celebrations of the Black community in the U.S. In fact, according to Black Americans, it’s an essential part of the narrative. New Barna research, from the recently announced State of the Black Church project, show that four out of five Black U.S. adults who align with some type of faith group agree to some extent (41% “strongly,” 38% “somewhat”) that “To understand the African American experience, it is necessary to understand the role of religious faith in the lives of Black people.” This percentage has actually climbed by eight percentage points (from 71%) since 1996 when Barna last included it in a survey.
Members of the Black Church are even more insistent that faith is crucial to the Black experience, with half (50%) agreeing “strongly” (plus 38% who agree “somewhat”). One reason for this may be that, as Barna recently reported, there is a strong opinion that an association with the Black Church provides comfort and agency, countering a broader sense of political powerlessness. Additionally, on a personal level, faith is considered a source of emotional strength, a perspective that has held steady among Black adults between 1996 (91%) and 2020 (87%). Nearly all Black churchgoers today (66% agree “strongly,” 26% agree “somewhat”) express this sentiment.
In this February release for Barna’s ongoing 2021 series exploring new data about the Black Church, we’ll look at how Black Americans perceive Black churches—as well as their pastors—and their own personal engagement in congregations. This data and more will be featured in the Trends in the Black Church report—now available for preorder—with the support of our partners Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker (of Black Millennial Café), Gloo, Urban Ministries, Inc., Lead.NYC, American Bible Society and Compassion. You can sign up for updates here or text TRENDS to 415-528-7403.
“Safe,” “Important” & Other Common Impressions of the Black Church
The new Barna study reinforces long-held public views of the Black Church as a positive and inspiring institution. Specifically, Barna presented respondents with ranges of characteristics—both good and bad—and asked, when you hear “the Black Church,” which term is your immediate association? Perceptions lean toward the positive. “Safe” and “important” are among the top selections, as well as “reliable” and “healing.” These sentiments are felt even more strongly among churchgoers in the Black Church compared to the general population of Black adults. More negative adjectives are less often chosen, though it should be noted that roughly one-third tends to see the Black Church as “old-fashioned” or even “stifling,” rather than “fresh” or “liberating”—and that some negative views are held more firmly by those who are actually a part of Black churches.
Black Adults’ Desire for Active Church Involvement Has Significantly Declined
Given this general warmth to what the Black Church represents, do Black adults want to be part of a church?
The proportion of Black adults who say church involvement is overall “desirable” is on the decline, from 90 percent in 1996 (71% “very” + 19% “somewhat”) to just 74 percent today (44% “very” + 30% “somewhat”). Though the question doesn’t specify involvement in a Black Church, a high percentage of Black Church churchgoers (58% “very,” 36% “somewhat”) desires to be active in a church.
Boomers who are part of the Black Church, in particular, express great enthusiasm about church engagement (66% say it’s “very desirable”), but this is something about half of their younger peers in the Black Church feel (55% Gen X, 51% Millennials, 46% Gen Z). Among the general population of Black adults, those generational numbers dip lower (49% Boomers, 44% Gen X, 39% Millennials, 41% Gen Z).
This trend over age groups hints at some of the retention issues facing the Black Church—specifically in historically Black denominations. When compared to churchgoers in other majority Black / Black-led congregation, interest in church involvement wanes for those in historically Black churches (51% in historically Black denominations vs. 62% in others say it’s “very desirable” to be actively involved in a church).
3 in 4 Black Church Churchgoers See Their Pastors as the Most Important Leaders in Black Community
Though Black Christians question their personal involvement in church, they are more certain about the importance of pastors.
As the Black Church is seen as part of the foundation of the Black community at large, its pastors—representatives and custodians of the institution—carry profound responsibility. The majority of religious Black adults in 2020 (69%) agrees (one-third “strongly” so) that “the pastors of African American churches are the most important leaders within the Black community.” This proportion trends slightly upward from the 1996 survey, when 63 percent backed this statement. Naturally, agreement climbs somewhat for those who attend Black churches (36% agree “strongly,” 41% agree “somewhat”)—and, perhaps surprisingly, it actually increases for young Black Church churchgoers (48% of Gen Z and 42% of Millennials agree “strongly,” vs. 35% of Gen X and 33% of Boomers).
The data speak to the challenge and opportunity facing Black faith leaders as they steward the influence of their Church communities for a new era.
Are you a pastor or leader in a Black Church? Keep in touch for new data and resources.
- Sign up for updates as the State of the Black Church project continues, or text TRENDS to 415-5287403
- Preorder the Trends in the Black Church report
- Barna will also continue to release additional data and exclusive interviews through Barna Access Plus
- Read a Q&A with leaders Rev. Dr. Larry V. Brayboy and Pastor Isaiah Robertson to gain more insights on the history and legacy of the Black Church, available exclusively on Barna Access Plus
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.
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.
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.
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