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Church Culture

Understanding the Black Church is Key to Appreciating the African American Experience, Study Says

Seven out of 10 Black adults and nearly nine out of 10 Black churchgoers think that to really understand the African American experience, it’s important to realize the role of religious faith in the lives of Black people.

Yet, according to a new study by Barna, a research organization that studies the intersection of faith and culture, the proportion of Black adults who think church involvement is “desirable” has declined steadily over the past 25 years, from 90 percent in 1996 to 74 percent today.

Half or less of Black Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z today think church engagement is “very desirable” as compared to 66 percent of baby boomers, the researchers found.

When asked to choose from a series of responses to the question, “When you hear ‘the Black Church,’ which term is your immediate association?” survey respondents most often selected positive words including “safe,” “important,” “reliable,” and “healing,” although roughly one-third said they found the Black church “old-fashioned” or “stifling.”

The leadership role of Black pastors has grown in importance, however, especially among those younger churchgoers. In 1996, 63 percent of Black adults agreed strongly that “the pastors of African American churches are the most important leaders within the Black community.” In 2020—a year rocked by national racial unrest—the number grew to 69 percent, including 48 percent of Gen Z, 42 percent of millennials, 35 percent of Gen X and 33 percent of baby boomers.

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The percentage of Black adults seeing faith as a source of emotional strength has held steady for the past 25 years, with 91 percent relying on the church in 1996 and 87 percent in 2020.  In addition, most said they find that association with a Black church provides them with comfort and emotional strength and counters a broader sense of political powerlessness, Barna found.

The 2020 data was based on an online survey of 1,083 U.S. Black adults, plus 822 Black Church churchgoers, conducted April 22–May 6, 2020. 

Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.