Standing in the parking lot of her church on a summer morning, Modestine Davis explained why she was drawn to the predominantly Black congregation in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“First Baptist Church of Highland Park just meets all of our spiritual needs and wraparound service needs in terms [of] family, children’s church, ministries that are strong,” she said. And those ministries include social justice and job-hunting for its African American members.
The holistic approach of the congregation in Prince George’s County includes community distribution of free food and COVID-19 vaccinations as well as services featuring gospel singers, praise dancers, and sermons that highlight the Bible, real-time Black cultural issues, and self-improvement tips.
Her senior pastor “reminds us to use wisdom and to get understanding,” Davis said before heading home with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter after the 7:30 a.m. service.
“For example, God is with us, but we have to do our part in terms of taking care of our personal health, getting vaccinated, going to our doctor’s appointments, making sure our health is in check.”
The church on a hill—from which it’s possible to spot the Washington Monument on a clear day—is one example of the houses of worship that a far-reaching study by the Pew Research Center found remain popular with African Americans: Sixty percent of Black Americans who attend religious services go to Black congregations. An even higher share of Black Protestants—67%—attend Black churches, which the study defines as congregations with predominantly Black attendees as well as African American leadership.
The study, released in February, also found that while 7 in 10 Black adults say that offering spiritual comfort and a sense of fellowship are highest on their list of key functions of houses of worship, more than half (55%) cite helping the needy with food, bills, and housing. More than 40% cite the teaching of practical life skills and providing a sense of racial pride. A quarter say sermons addressing political topics such as race relations and immigration are important.
The 176-page report, “Faith Among Black Americans,” is the center’s most in-depth look at the Black church in particular and the religious life of African Americans in general. It also is a departure, both in approach and size, from comparative studies that the Center had conducted previously, said Besheer Mohamed, the lead author.
“We realize that really to understand Black American life broadly, one of the things you have to understand is Black American religious life,” Mohamed said of the research, which had been planned for years and is the first part of a new series focused on Black Americans.
The nationally representative sample of 8,660 Black adult respondents, surveyed from Nov. 19, 2019, through June 3, 2020, is highly unusual. Most studies don’t have nearly that many research participants overall. And Black respondents tend to number in the hundreds in studies that contrast them, as a whole, with other racial/ethnic groups.
Many of the respondents answered questions online, but the Center also reached participants by phone and mail to ensure the inclusion of people from a variety of age levels and socioeconomic situations. The Center drew from three nationally representative survey panels, supplemented by a new survey designed to aid in representing the views of harder-to-reach groups such as foreign-born Black Americans.
In some cases, these people were contacted several times via mail, with reminders, postcards and sometimes even a FedEx delivery of the paper version. All answered the same questionnaire.
In addition, 4,574 non-Black adults were surveyed to provide comparisons between African Americans and the entire U.S. adult population.
Although the Center has staffers with expertise in Black religiosity, Mohamed said they were aided by scholars with particular academic specialties. These experts helped the Center produce a report that demonstrates that the Black church is not a monolith: Beliefs and religious practices can differ among Black Americans who are U.S.-born or immigrants, Catholic or Protestant, and younger or older.
Many Pew studies have found that Black Americans tend to be more religious than White Americans. But this new research found African immigrants to be significantly more religious than their U.S.-born counterparts, with 72% of them agreeing that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 59% of Black adults who were born in the U.S. or the Caribbean.
Looking within Christian subgroups, the survey found that Black Catholics were more likely than Black Protestants to hear sermons about abortion or immigration from the pulpits of churches they attend. Catholic African Americans were far more likely to say that their religious leaders should perform same-sex marriage ceremonies (62% of Catholics compared with 37% of Protestants).
Two-thirds of older Black Americans, both Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation, who frequent houses of worship say they attend Black congregations, compared with just slightly more than half of Black Generation Zers and millennials (53% each). Among Gen Z, the youngest grouping, a quarter say they attend congregations that are mostly White or predominated by another race, and almost a fifth (19%) say they worship in a multiracial setting.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of sociology and African American studies at Colby College in Maine, said the report may have the most breadth since the landmark study of seven historically Black denominations by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, whose book, The Black Church in the African American Experience, was published in 1990. But, she said, the Pew study goes even further, to include participants at mosques and in home-based religious practices, such as praying at an altar or shrine.
“What makes this study so helpful is the very large sample and the extent to which the researchers knew enough about the African American religious experience to get at the different lines of difference, the different places in which Black people find themselves being religious,” Gilkes said. “They asked questions in such a way that grasped that diversity.”
Across ages and faith groups, the study offered a key finding about the intersection of race and religion: About three-quarters of all Black adults—and similar percentages of Black Protestants, Catholics, men, and women—say that opposing racism is essential to their faith. Even higher percentages of non-Christians (82%)—many of whom are Muslim—reported this sentiment. And 76% of agnostics and atheists say that opposing racism is essential to their definition of “being a moral person.”
Almost half of Black Americans who attend Black Protestant churches at least a few times a year say they had heard a sermon on racial inequality or race relations in the past year. They also were more likely to say they’d heard preachers address voting or criminal justice reform than African Americans who attended churches that were multiracial, White, or predominated by another race.
“For many Black Americans, the racial character of the congregation isn’t why they go to a Black church,” Mohamed said. “They go to a Black church because
they want to have a sermon that speaks to them. And it turns out that many Black Americans feel like the place where that happens is almost always a church where the pastor is Black and the congregation is Black.”
The finding contrasts with another: Six in 10 Black Americans (61%) say Black congregations should be more racially and ethnically diverse. Just about 1 in 7 (13%) say that if they were looking for a new house of worship, finding one where most other attendees shared their race would be very important.
Yet many Black Americans still seek a welcoming and relatable atmosphere and inspiring sermons that address the issues they care about.
“If they went to a White church that was doing all that, they’d be content to be there,” Mohamed said. “They just haven’t ever been to a White church that was doing that.”
The Rev. Dr. Henry P. Davis III, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park, said he and members of his congregation have “shared experiences,” such as racial profiling—having their license and registration checked by a police officer who pulls them over when they are driving a “nice car,” or being closely watched by a store clerk who seems to assume they might be ready to commit a theft.
“Many of them can relate to it, of being profiled,” said Davis (no relation to Modestine Davis). “When I’ve raised that kind of an example, I don’t have to do a lot of education, in terms of the audience and them understanding that.”
Most of the respondents took part in the Pew survey prior to the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White Minneapolis police officer. Thus, Mohamed said, the report’s findings could present “a really valuable baseline understanding” for future studies of Black Americans’ views on the relationship between religion and social justice.
The report also delved into the kinds of worship practices that are common in Black congregations.
The vast majority of Black congregants (89%) who attend religious services at least a few times a year say they experienced the call-and-response tradition, hearing congregants say “amen” or utter some other approving expression as they participated in worship. Virtually all African American Protestants (99%) who attend Black churches reported having that experience.
Six in 10 African Americans who attend services at least a few times a year say the services featured shouting, jumping, or dancing; about half (49%) say they included praying or speaking in tongues, a practice common among Pentecostal Christians.
Although more than three-quarters (78%) of Black Americans overall identify with a religion, 18 percent say they are “nothing in particular” and 3% are atheist
But the lack of affiliation does not reflect an absence of belief: Ninety percent of religiously unaffiliated Black Americans say they believe in God or a higher power, and slightly more than half (54%) say they pray at least a few times each month.
The study also found that volunteering was more prevalent among Black Americans affiliated with a religion than those without such ties. The highest rate of volunteering—48%—was among members of non-Christian faiths, a category that included Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional African and Afro-Caribbean religions.
At First Baptist Church of Highland Park, community service often includes distribution of fresh produce from a local food bank—and sometimes fresh meat from a county office—to people who line up in their cars on Saturdays. The church has no restrictions on who receives the food. “Everyone gets a box,” said the Rev. Dr. Renee Alston, an associate pastor who helps load boxes into the trunks and back seats of waiting vehicles. Sometimes they even have two boxes to distribute to each car.
“When they come up here on this lot, 9 times out of 10, they aren’t a member of our church; they’re from the surrounding community,” Alston added. “They’re Asian. They’re Hispanic. They’re African American. They’re—you name it—White.”
This form of local service is a modern-day continuation of the long-term influence of Black congregations in their communities, a reality that was acknowledged by Black Americans overall. The vast majority of Black adults (89%) say civil rights organizations helped Black people move toward equality in the U.S., while about three-quarters (77%) credit Black churches, and a bit more than half (54%) cite Black Muslim organizations, such as the Nation of Islam.
Although 81% of Black Protestants credit Black churches for moving African Americans toward equality, almost 7 in 10 (69%) of non-Christians credit Black Muslim organizations.
The report, which includes a chapter with a brief overview of Black religious history in the U.S., noted that some—but not all—Black churches had been involved in the civil rights movement. Many of the nation’s historically Black denominations were created in protest of slavery and segregation so that Black Americans could have the freedom to worship as they saw fit.
Although almost half of Black Americans (47%) say that Black churches are less influential today than they were 50 years ago, 41% say they currently have “too little influence,” and 45 percent say they have “about the right amount of influence.” Just 10 percent say they are too influential.
Mohamed said the research provides a statistical explanation of that influence for people who may have been unfamiliar with the societal imprint of African American churches.
“I’ve presented these findings to folks who didn’t start off with a real understanding of the deep history of the Black church and the role that the Black church has played in American society,” he said. “Here in concrete terms, in sort of percentage terms, is the impact, as seen through the eyes of Black Americans.”
Adelle M. Banks is a national reporter for Religion News Service; this is her first article for Trust.