Monday, September 27, 2010

Ethnicity, Belief about Jesus, and the Makeup of Churches

Consider the following two statements:
  1. Jesus died and came back to life.
  2. Believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in a person’s life.
Now, consider this:
[20-29 year old] African-Americans have stronger agreement with both statements about Jesus than any other racial or ethnic group. Almost all African-American young adults (98 percent) agree that Jesus died and came back to life, and eight out of nine agree that believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in a person’s life. [My note: That’s over 20 points higher than the average.] On the other hand, only 59 percent of Anglos believe in the resurrection. Hispanics were similar to the total group, as 70 percent agreed that Jesus returned to life. Agreement that believing in Jesus made a positive difference in a person’s life was 75 percent for each of the non-African-American groups (Ed Stetzer, Lost and Found, pp. 28-29).

Here’s my question: Since 98 percent of young African-Americans say that they agree with us on these two very basic and foundational premises of Christianity, why are churches so seemingly underrepresented by young African-Americans?

It would seem that these would be right “in our wheelhouse” so to speak because we do not have to convince them of the truth of the resurrection or the impact of Jesus on a person’s life.

I think there are several reasons for consideration (anecdotal and observational, rather than scientific).

First, there is the influence of culture. African-Americans are typically brought in a more religious setting than non-African-Americans. It is part of their culture. They know the religious terminology. Most of them have grandmothers who took them to church, and talked to them about God. It’s particularly interesting to me to think of the number of people that I have talked to personally who claim to go to church, but don’t know the name of it, or where it is (aside from “that church over there”).

In my experience in my community, most African-Americans that I talk to claim to go to church and can actually identify the church that they claim to go to. Non-African-Americans are less likely to claim to attend church, and much less likely to be able to identify the church that they attend. Nonetheless, African-American culture seems more religiously knowledgeable and inclined than other cultures. 

Second, there is the influence of education. Stetzer reports that among young adult with college experience, “belief in the resurrection drops from 92 percent among the less educated (high school or less) to 63 percent among those with some college or a degree” (p. 31).

If it is true that African-Americans are less likely to have some college experience, it stands to reason that fewer of them have been talked out their received traditions. That is to say that they claim belief, but perhaps only because no one has talked them out of it yet. That’s not intended as any kind of slight. Remember, the percentages of all ethnic groups go down after some college experience. So those who have attended college are more likely to abandon belief in the resurrection, no matter their ethnicity.

It would be interesting to know the numbers broken down by ethnicity and education.

Whatever the case, it strikes me that perhaps at least some of this is our church culture. Before the “progressives” cheer and the “conservatives” tune out, let me say, I am not sure how important that is to worry about.

I think our church culture needs to reflect the gospel in our community. We do not necessarily need to reflect the community in our gospel. We need to understand our community culture, and minister inside of that culture as much as possible.

Of course we should not adapt the sinful elements of culture. But we should remember that we have no cultural mandate. We have a gospel mandate. And therefore, our entire community is our mandate.


Ben said...

Since I haven't read the book, I don't know if this is addressed in the surrounding context. But I think one of the reasons we don't see more young African-Americans in church is that these two statements don't provide any necessity for being involved in church. I can believe Jesus died and rose again and that my belief will make my life better, but think that I can do all of that outside of church. So, there would need to be a third statement that they agreed to, something like "Church is an important part of believing in Jesus."

In regards to the issue of the culture of our churches, I think one of the problems is our church culture tends to see church as an event rather than as a community, and that seems to be very prevalent in the African-American culture as well.

Larry said...

Thanks, Ben. Good comments, particularly the second. The "event vs. community" is a prevalent idea and a bad one. Just thinking through my own experience, I wonder if modernity actually increases that by filling our lives with so much business that church just becomes one of many other groups that we attend, equal to kid's ball teams, school plays and concerts, dance lessons, or whatever else.

The first comment is intriguing as well. I hadn't thought of that.