Trends in the Black Church: A Q&A About the Importance of Scripture
As part of an ongoing Barna Group study on the State of the Black Church, conducted alongside partners including Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker (of Black Millennial Cafe), Gloo, Urban Ministries, Inc., Lead.NYC, American Bible Society and Compassion, researchers sought to learn more about Black churchgoers’ history and relationship with scripture.
In light of this, Barna asked Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin to offer more insight about the importance of scripture in the lives of Black Americans.
The full Q&A, including responses from Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley, will be available in the Trends in the Black Church report. Pre-order the report or subscribe to Barna Access Plus today to be the first to explore these impactful insights.
Barna: How would you describe Black churchgoers’ history and relationship with scripture?
Rev. Dr. Martin: Scripture has always been an important part of the narrative of survival, liberation and overcoming in the Black Church. For generations, Black Christians have found themselves within the pages of scripture to emphasize God’s presence in times of deep despair. We see ourselves in the Exodus story of God setting the people free. We see ourselves in people like Hagar and Joseph and even Simon of Cyrene who may have been overlooked in society but were seen and even elevated by God. Theologically, Black Christian movements have been built upon the promises of scripture that provide the reality of flourishing in this world and in the world to come.
Emotionally, scripture provides comfort and hope for those who feel oppressed and disheartened. Comfort is the number one emotion scripture evokes for all Americans, and that’s true for Black Americans as well. In times of pain and heartache, through slavery, Jim Crow, the murders of Black lives and even the struggle of COVID-19, the Bible has been a source of hope and healing for those most deeply in need. Scripture for the oppressed is more than just a privilege; it’s a necessity. Black churchgoers depend on God’s Word theologically and emotionally as a means of surviving and thriving when nothing else seems to help.
Barna: What do you see as the strengths or weaknesses of the Black Church’s relationship with scripture today? Does this relationship today differ from what it has been historically?
Rev. Dr. Martin: The Black Church has been and still is one of the most Bible-engaged demographics in America. When compared with other church traditions, historically Black Churches score in the very top tier for scripture engagement, as American Bible Society defines it. When compared with other ethnicities, Black people in America have the highest average scripture engagement score. This is a strength that has been sustained for many generations.
At the same time, one general weakness about the Church’s relationship with scripture today is the fact that broad engagement does not always mean deep engagement. While churches may preach and teach the Bible, that does not always equal deeper levels of engagement that shape people’s choices or influence their decisions. The Black Church is not exempt from this weakness. Fortunately, it presents an opportunity to encourage people from general engagement with scripture to deeper knowledge of God’s Word that transforms lives in meaningful ways.
Throughout slavery, Black Church leaders had to rely on orality as the main means of engaging in God’s Word. Stories of scripture were memorized by preachers and lay people who were often kept from learning to read or write. When access to education increased, some Black Church networks required leaders to have formal training, while others did not. Today, Black preachers and pastors have greater access to institutional training as well as technology to deepen theological thought and practice. This may have changed the way that Black Church leaders prepare for ministry, but both approaches point to the strength and primacy of scripture as the ultimate guide for ministry.
Barna: Barna research shows that overall church health is deeply tied to biblical grounding and knowledge within the congregation, and that 45 percent of Black Church churchgoers agree strongly that the Bible has authority over what they say and do. What is one practical way that pastors can encourage and promote this kind of maturity in the spiritual lives of their congregants?
Rev. Dr. Martin: Like most Americans, many Black Americans still have room to grow in their relationship with God through the Bible. On an average Sunday, more than one in four Black Christians in church won’t have a strong relationship with the Bible.
In some cases, people who don’t engage with the Bible struggle to understand it. Pastors can encourage and promote Bible engagement by simply introducing people to a modern language translation that will help them understand the parts of the Bible they’re not familiar with and even see old stories in a new light.
In other cases, people don’t believe the Bible or its authority because of pain and trauma. Generational and individual trauma can cause people to see the Bible as a driver of the world’s oppression or God as the source of their pain. However, pastors can participate in God’s healing by introducing programs like Trauma Healing and others to help people experience God’s healing and reconciliation amid spiritual distance and pain.
Barna: Tell us about your favorite verse. What would you share about this verse to challenge or encourage other Black Church leaders?
Rev. Dr. Martin: It’s hard to pick favorites with scripture, but I do find that certain passages stand out to me at unique times. Most recently, I’ve been drawn to Jeremiah 1:8: “‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord” (NIV).
In this passage, God encourages young Jeremiah at the start of what will prove to be an extremely trying and challenging prophetic ministry. God does not promise that the prophet will not experience rejection. He does not promise that Jeremiah’s ministry will be immediately fruitful or that he will feel good about every message he proclaims. God simply promises his presence and reminds Jeremiah that he will be rescued when the attackers come.
I believe this is one key message of encouragement that God delivers to every Black Church leader. While ministry in this age will be filled with challenges, hardships and obstacles, our God has promised to be with us and to rescue us from the grip of the enemy. No matter what you face, keep preaching God’s Word. No matter how hard the ministry appears, never stop proclaiming the message that God has given you through scripture. As God was with Jeremiah, so God will be with each of us. And God will rescue us out of it all.