Black Americans remain more religious than other Americans, according to a massive new survey. Yet fewer are attending or seeking out predominantly black churches.
Among black worshipers:
- 4 in 10 now attend a non-black congregation—including half of millennials and Gen Z.
- About half say it’s essential for churches to offer “racial affirmation or pride,” while only a quarter say sermons on political topics are essential.
- 6 in 10 say black congregations should diversify.
- 6 in 10 say when church shopping, finding a congregation where most attendees share their race is unimportant.
Two-thirds of black Americans identify as Protestants, but only 1 in 4 of these identify with historic black denominations.
Yet retention is strong: 3 in 4 black adults have the same religious affiliation as when they were raised (significantly higher than the rate for Americans at large), while 1 in 4 black Americans who were raised as unaffiliated or as Catholic now identify as Protestant.
Note: Pew defined black churches as “those where the respondent said that all or most attendees are Black and the senior religious leaders are Black.”
These are among the findings of “Faith Among Black Americans,” released today by the Pew Research Center. The study is Pew’s “most comprehensive, in-depth attempt to explore religion among Black Americans” ever, comprising both a national survey of 8,660 adults who identify as black or African American as well as guided small-group discussions and interviews with clergy.
“Many findings in this survey highlight the distinctiveness and vibrancy of Black congregations, demonstrating that the collective entity some observers and participants have called ‘the Black Church’ is alive and well in America today,” stated Pew researchers.
“But there also are some signs of decline, such as the gap between the shares of young adults and those in older generations who attend predominantly Black houses of worship.”
Most respondents were surveyed between January 21 and February 10, 2020, before COVID-19 disrupted church life and before protests against police brutality became widespread after the death of George Floyd.
Pew also surveyed 4,574 adults who do not identify as black or African American, in order to draw comparisons.
Overall, Pew found that black Americans are more likely than Americans at large to believe in God, attend religious services, say religion is “very important” in their lives, and affiliate with a religion.
Black Americans are:
- More likely to say God talks to them (48% vs. 30%)
- More likely to say they have a duty to convert others (51% vs. 34%)
- More likely to say opposing racism is essential to their faith (75% vs. 68%)
Pew found that 60 percent of black churchgoers attend predominantly black congregations, while 25 percent attend a multiracial congregation and 13 percent attend a predominantly white (or Hispanic or Asian) congregation. Churchgoers who are Protestant were most likely to attend black congregations (67%), vs. those who were Catholic (17%) or of other faiths (29%).
Younger worshipers are less likely to attend black churches than older worshipers. Only half of Gen Z and millennial black worshipers (53%) attend black congregations, vs two-thirds of boomer and older black worshipers (66%). And a full 25 percent of Gen Z black worshipers attend a white (or other) congregation, while only 9 percent of boomers and older black worshipers do likewise.
Only 1 in 4 black Protestants identify with one of the eight historic denominations that compose the Conference of National Black Churches. Larger shares identify with evangelical or mainline denominations (30%) or offered a vague descriptor such as “just Baptist” or “just Pentecostal” (32%). The remainder said they were nondenominational (15%).
Among churchgoers, black Republicans are less likely than black Democrats to attend a black congregation (43% vs. 64%) and more likely to attend a white congregation (22% vs. 11%).
And while black “nones” are growing—now comprising almost 1 in 5 black adults (18%)—most of the unaffiliated still credit black churches with improving racial equality (66%) and more say that black churches have too little influence in society (35%) than too much influence (19%).
However, 6 in 10 of all black adults agree that “historically Black congregations should diversify” (61%). And those who worship at black (61%), white/other (66%), or multiracial (62%) congregations agree slightly more than those who seldom or never attend (60%).
Meanwhile, 6 in 10 of all black adults agree that when church shopping, finding a new congregation where most attendees share their race would be “not too important” or “not at all important” (63%). A majority of those who worship at black congregations agree (58%), though they are less likely to do so than those who attend white/other (75%) or multiracial (69%) congregations or those who seldom or never attend (65%).
“If most Black Americans say these congregations should diversify and the race of other attendees isn’t a top priority to them, what leads so many Black Americans to attend predominantly Black congregations?” stated Pew researchers. “The survey indicates that Black congregations are distinctive in numerous ways beyond just their racial makeup.
“Sermons are a prime example: Black Americans who attend Black Protestant churches are more likely to say they hear messages from the pulpit about certain topics—such as race relations and criminal justice reform—than are Black Protestant churchgoers who attend multiracial, White or other race churches. And Protestants who go to Black congregations are somewhat less likely than others to have recently heard a sermon, lecture or group discussion about abortion.”
Pew noted the “distinctive atmosphere for worship” at black churches. A full 9 in 10 black Americans who attend services at least yearly say their congregation includes “calling out Amen or approval” (89%). Then 6 in 10 say there is dancing, jumping, or shouting; 5 in 10 say there is speaking in tongues; and 4 in 10 say all three take place.
“Taken as a whole, about half of congregants who attend Black Protestant churches [51%] report that the services they attend feature all three of these practices at least some of the time, compared with roughly a quarter of Black Protestants in White or other race churches [27%] and 18% of Black Catholics,” stated researchers.
According to Pew’s small-group discussions, researchers noted, “Black Americans suggest that these distinctive characteristics may be more important than the churches’ racial makeup itself for explaining the continued appeal of these congregations.”
This report will be updated.