Trends in the Black Church: More Faithful, But Not Immune to Decline
Thus far in Barna’s series from our forthcoming Trends in the Black Church release, we’ve examined warmth toward the Black Church (and its pastors) as sources of comfort and the high value placed on religion in the Black experience. Even so, we know the proportion of Black adults who say church involvement is overall “desirable” is on the decline, from 90 percent in 1996 (71% “very” + 19% “somewhat”) to just 74 percent today (44% “very” + 30% “somewhat”).
Here, we’ll zoom out to examine other key markers of Black faith identity and practice today, and how these are positioned in the broader religious context of the U.S.
Spiritual, Religious and In-Between
Overall, Black adults (along with Hispanic adults) include a high proportion of Christians (74%) when compared to the general population—but affiliation has still been on a rapid decline, down from 89 percent as recently as 2011. Fifteen percent of Black Americans are “nones,” claiming they are atheist, agnostic or of no faith.
Young Black adults’ relationship to faith and religion is particularly complex. Black Gen Z (67%) and Millennials (65%) are on par in claiming Christianity, at about two-thirds. This makes them more Christian than their generational peers of other races, but less Christian than older Black adults. Roughly one in four Black Gen Z (26%) and Millennials (22%) are “nones.” Young Black adults also seem to be distancing from faith and spirituality in general, not just affiliation and institutions. Black Gen Z are both the least likely Black generation to call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and the most likely to be “religious but not spiritual,” suggesting a dissociation of belief, practice and identity.
Whatever cracks there are in Christian identity in the U.S. at large and within the Black community, however, Black adults remain—by far—the racial demographic most rooted in church and in scripture.
(Mostly) Steady Church Attendance
Ahead of the pandemic, Black adults’ church attendance was picking up in frequency year over year, especially compared to adults of other races. Forty percent reported having attended a service in the past week, up from 37 percent in 2017. The U.S. average for weekly church attendance, meanwhile, continued to drop, resting at 31 percent in 2019.
Fast forward to 2020. Amid the pandemic, when Barna’s Trends in the Black Church research was conducted, what was the picture of Black Church attendance?
When asked to estimate the average frequency of their attendance over the last year, half of Black Church churchgoers (51%) report attending church weekly. Just 29 percent of the general Black population, though, maintains attendance at this rate, which could reflect both pandemic-era shifts and declining religious commitment. While Boomers hold strong in weekly church engagement, their younger peers in the Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z generations lag behind and are not significantly different from one another.
Overall, signs of the drift from Christianity surface in a notable 18 percent of Black adults who are “dechurched.” One-quarter (25%) has never set foot in any church before.
Moving from the individual to the home, attending church together as a family is becoming less common. In 1996, nearly two-thirds (64%) said they “often” participated in this religious activity; that proportion has been halved over the decades, decreasing to just 30 percent today who “often” attend church as a family. Just about half of the general Black population is in the pews as a family at least “sometimes” (51%).
A High Value on Scripture
Half of Black U.S. adults (49%) say they have read the Bible on their own, outside of church, in the past week, compared to a national average of one-third (33%). By race, Hispanic adults follow, though at a distant 36 percent. This proportion of Black Bible-readers has held relatively steady over recent years, even as other measures of religiosity have dipped.
Black Americans’ regular interaction with scripture continues on a communal context as well. Among Black Church churchgoers, half (51%) typically attend a Bible study at their church at least every other week, with 13 percent reporting this activity as often as a few times a week, under normal circumstances.
Check out more resources from Barna’s Trends in the Black Church study:
- Learn more about the project here.
- Pre-order the report here.
- Read an article on religion and the Black experience.
- Read an article on the Black Church as a source of comfort.
- Subscribe here to receive data release updates from this project.