Black Churches Buck Trends

While American churches overall have declined in attendance, Black churches thrive and encourage entrepreneurship, outreach, and profit-making.

Racial and Ethnic Congregations Grow

Racial and ethnic congregations are bucking a trend toward decreasing vitality in American congregations, according to a new study published by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations: 2000-2010,” was presented along with the latest Baylor Religion Survey at the Religion Newswriters Assocation annual conference in Durham, North Carolina, last weekend.

Congregations with 50 percent or more minority participants grew from about one-fourth of all U.S. congregations in 2000 to nearly one-third in 2010, the study revealed, but overall, there was a steep decline in the financial health of American congregations, as well as continuing high levels of conflict, aging memberships, and declining numbers.

Injecting Vitality into American Religious Life

The contrast between the growth of racial/ethnic congregations and the weakening of others was presented in light of census projections that show people of color becoming a majority of the U.S. population by 2050 and the number of non-white children born in the United States exceeding 50 percent by 2023.

Non-white Americans are, “by and large,” creating their own congregations rather than participating in historically White ones, the report said. Nonetheless, racial/ethnic congregations are injecting a “strong dose of growth and vitality into America’s religious life.”

These congregations are disproportionately Evangelical Protestant or non-Christian, urban and Southern. Their worship is more likely to be contemporary and innovative, which is significant because the study found that innovative, contemporary worship correlates with high spiritual vitality and numerical growth.

Racial/ethnic congregations are more likely to hold to a theology that is moderate or liberal than majority White congregations, but their use of technology tends to be modest to marginal. On average, they count less college graduates amongst their numbers, but they benefit from retention of their young adults.

Poor Financial Health, but Encouragement for Entrepreneurship

Black churches may be in better shape spiritually than White ones, but they lag behind in financial health, Hartford found. And yet, they are unique in their encouragement of entrepreneurship and profit-making.

Baylor University’s “Values and Beliefs of the American Public” study found that Black Protestants (98%) were more likely than any other group to agree that “anything is possible for those who work hard.”

Baylor’s researchers also found that more African American working adults attach religious significance to their work than do Whites or Hispanics. Half said they view their work as “a mission from God” and pursue excellence in their work because of faith, as compared to approximately one-third or less of Whites and Hispanics.

Work as a Calling

“The idea of work as a religious calling is most prominent in the Black church tradition of American Protestantism,” said Kevin D. Dougherty, associate professor of Sociology and a research fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. “It’s in these churches where adherents are making stronger connections between work and faith.”

Black Protestant respondents are more than two-and-a-half times more likely than the religiously unaffiliated or adherents of other religious traditions to say that their faith community encourages them to start a business. Likewise, they’re more likely to feel encouragement from their church to make a profit in business, Dougherty explained.

Responding to Economic Reality

“There are both pragmatic and theological reasons why this might be so,” said Dougherty. “The black church has played an instrumental role in the African American community on a whole range of issues, including economic issues.”

He suggested that the emphasis on entrepreneurship and profits can also be understood as a response to high rates of unemployment and underemployment in the African American community.

“A second reason though is theological, the belief that God rewards faithful believers with financial prosperity and good health. The ‘health and wealth’ gospel is a popular message within African American congregations,” he speculated.

Afterlife Beliefs Lead to Good Work Habits

The study additionally revealed that 75 percent of Black Protestants believe in Heaven and 73 percent, more than any other group, believe in Hell. These beliefs were overwhelmingly associated with a commitment to job satisfaction.

“Persons who absolutely believe in Heaven and Hell overwhelmingly agree that the organization for which they work has a great deal of meaning to them,” the report said. These believers are also “always” or “often” motivated by their faith to pursue excellence in their work.

Dougherty noted, however, that among people affiliated with a religious group, there’s no difference in whether or not people pursue excellence because of faith.

“Catholic, Jew, and Protestants answered about equally in this regard. It’s only on the issue of calling that we find these differences of religious tradition,” he said.

What do you think?

Are racial and ethnic churches healthier than majority White churches?
Does your church encourage entrepreneurship and profit-making?
Do Black churches embrace the prosperity gospel message more than other churches, or does the researcher need to stick to the numbers?

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
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