Survey Shows American Pastors Open to Preaching on Racial Reconciliation

April 20, 2017
White man and black man talk at microphone

According to a new survey conducted by evangelical research firm LifeWay, American Protestants support preaching on racial reconciliation but are hesitant to get involved in other work toward that goal.

The study, released at the end of March, surveyed 1,000 Protestant pastors about how their congregations are addressing issues of race. 90 percent of pastors agreed that their congregation would likely “welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation.” Despite anticipating members’ overwhelming support, however, only 45 percent of pastors surveyed had preached on the topic in the last three months.

While respondents guessed that their congregations would be open to hearing a sermon on racial reconciliation, few had actually been urged to speak on the issue by a church member. Only 26 percent of pastors surveyed had been explicitly asked to preach on the topic of race.

Most pastors said that they engaged in racial reconciliation in the form of socializing. 72 percent of respondents had shared a meal with “a small diverse group of people” in the past month. White pastors, however, were the least likely to have recently shared a meal with someone of another race. Addressing systemic racism was even more uncommon among respondents, with less than a third of pastors surveyed having “led a public lament over racial unrest” or invested church funds in “changing local economic inequalities.”

Overall, LifeWay Research concluded, Protestant pastors “seem to prefer personal relationships and prayer when it comes to addressing matters of race.”

“It seems like most congregations are eager for somebody else to do the work of reconciliation, rather than embrace it for themselves,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

White evangelical pastor and speaker Daniel Darling wrote for LifeWay that he was unsurprised by white pastors’ lack of involvement in anti-racism work. Citing white Christians’ ignorance of and distance from the lived experiences of racial prejudice, Darling wrote that white Christians often “aren’t forced to empathize with our minority brothers and sisters.”

Plus, Darling said, “It could be that pastors might view racial reconciliation as a worthy goal, but not a gospel issue.”

Darling encouraged white pastors to take responsibility for preaching about racial reconciliation, even if they might face pushback from their congregants. “This is about more than merely adding some diversity to the message,” Darling wrote. “It’s about serving your people by cultivating a growing, learning, changing mind. You, as the pastor, will model for them what it looks like to work for racial reconciliation.”

For Baptist pastor Juan Sanchez, the key to promoting anti-racism work in Protestant churches is to bring in diverse voices.

“Read various authors on the topic of race/ethnicity AND on other topics as well,” Sanchez said. “Read African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and others; and read authors who disagree with you. If you’re only reading authors who agree with you, you’ll be stuck in an echo chamber and you’ll never grow.”

Whether anti-racism efforts will change the demographics of American churches remains to be seen. A 2015 LifeWay survey found that 67 percent of American churchgoers thought their church was already “doing enough” to be ethnically diverse. 33 percent of respondents “strongly disagreed” that their church needed to become more ethnically diverse.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: RCC Baptism Celebration. Photo by River City Church, Flickr Creative Commons: http://bit.ly/2pIphUt