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Black Churches: Has Their Role Changed?

by Steve Crabtree, Contributing Editor

May 17 marks the 48th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down legal segregation in public schools. It was an early victory in a civil rights struggle largely organized by black churches and black religious leaders.

At that time, the church was a focal point for black pride and advancement. Now that -- at least from an official standpoint -- segregation and many other social injustices are things of the past, has the role of black churches changed?

Church Attendance

With regard to the most important aspects, the answer is no. Gallup data* reflect that African-Americans continue to attend church services with greater frequency than other Americans, and that their focus on spiritual matters remains unchanged. About eight in 10 blacks (79%) say they belong to a church or synagogue, compared to 68% of whites.

Eighty-four percent (84%) of blacks say religion is "very important" in their lives -- a significantly higher percentage than is found among either Hispanics (62%) or whites (56%). And when asked, "Do you believe that religion can answer all or most of today's problems, or that religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date?", 80% of blacks say they think religion can answer today's problems, compared to 58% of Hispanics and 59% of whites.

Furthermore, according to Gallup's Spiritual Engagement Index**, a higher percentage of black churchgoers (27%) than white churchgoers (16%) are "fully spiritually committed." (For more on this topic, see "Spiritual Commitment, by the Numbers" in Related Items.)

Goals of Faith Communities

The fact that the primary focus of African-American congregations is now, as it has always been, on spiritual matters was the most prominent finding from a 2000 Gallup survey of clergy from predominantly black congregations conducted for the ITC/Faith Factor Project***. When asked about the focus of their sermons, pastors of black churches were far more likely to say that it was on spiritual matters than on social issues.

With regard to black churches' secondary functions, however, one evident finding is that they are no longer highly politicized. When asked about the statement "Your congregation is working for social justice," just 43% of the pastors said it described their congregation very well.

But that doesn't mean black churches don't play a role in their constituents' advancement. Two-thirds (66%) of pastors say the focus of their sermons is "always" on practical advice for daily living. This reflects the churches' reorientation around current needs in many black communities. The Dallas Morning News reported last month that "Today, black pastors again stand in the forefront of their communities nationally and locally. Now they are combining their message of faith in an all-sustaining God with one of self-empowerment and self-help."

Indeed, pastors of black churches indicate that they continue to provide social outreach, with 86% saying their congregations provided cash assistance to families or individuals in the past 12 months. About three-fourths each said their congregations took part in voter registration or voter education drives (76%) and volunteered time at a food pantry or soup kitchen (75%); two-thirds said they provided counseling services (66%) and tutoring or literacy programs (65%); and large percentages reported participating in a variety of other service-oriented activities.

*Results for blacks are based on samples of approximately 100 respondents each, and should be interpreted with caution. For results based samples this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±10%. Results for whites are based on samples of approximately 800 respondents each. For results based samples this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3.5%.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 729 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, conducted October through November 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3.6%.

***Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,863 pastors or senior lay leaders of black or predominantly black churches conducted Feb. 22 to May 11, 2000. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.3%.


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