Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Progress is slow on racial reconciliation in this country, particularly given recent events. But why do lingering divisions exist in the Church, the very communities built on the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation? Finding racial unity in a congregation is a complex task that requires a deep recognition of racial differences in how Christians understand and practice their faith. In a recent study that builds upon our research on racial tension and the Black Lives Matter movement, Barna examined the divergent ways in which black and white Christians approach discipleship, individually and collectively, revealing insights that may contribute to the realization of King’s dream of an unsegregated hour of worship.
What Is Spiritual Progress?
The term “spiritual progress” is open to interpretation, and when asked to define it, differences in perspectives begin to emerge between black and white Christian leaders Black Christian leaders are more likely to describe the process of spiritual progress as “spiritual maturation” (31%), while white Christian leaders prefer the phrase “spiritual growth” (21%). The language of “maturation” implies more of an internal transformation and the development of wisdom through life experience, whereas the word “growth” tends to suggest an approach that entails reaching key milestones.
When both groups define “discipleship,” white believers are more likely to refer to it as a “process of learning to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, seeking to observe all that Jesus commanded, by the power of the Holy Spirit and to his glory.” Black Christians instead commonly refer to it as “The process of transformation that changes us to be increasingly more like Christ through the Word, the Spirit, and circumstance.” For black Christians, spiritual progress tends to focus more on life experience rather than achieving goals, about maturing into a Christ-like character as they weather life’s storms.
The greater emphasis on experience is also evident when looking at motivations for spiritual growth. Although both groups share similar desires, black Christians are more likely to say they have been through tough times in life, and that growing spiritually will help them (34% compared to 27%). But negative life experiences don’t always foster deep spiritual growth, they can just as easily hinder it. For instance, black pastors are more likely than white pastors to state that “guilt about things in the past” pose a major obstacle for their congregation’s spiritual maturation (64% compared to 42%).
How Is Discipleship Pursued?
There are plenty of similarities in how both groups define the primary goals of discipleship, but black Christian leaders are more likely to say “deepening one’s faith through education and fellowship” is a goal of discipleship (85% compared to 71%).
Looking at these in more detail, a crucial part of fellowship for black Christians is mentorship. They are more likely to currently be mentored and discipled by another Christian (38% compared to 19%) and to be discipling others themselves (28% compared to 17%). White Christians are more likely than black Christians to prefer being discipled on their own (39% compared to 31%), whereas black Christians show a greater preference for group-based discipleship (32% compared to 22%). Black Christians are also more likely to list large group study or discussion groups (18% compared to 4%) and family members (71% compared to 61%) as “very important” in aiding spiritual development.
Black communities tend toward communal rhythms of spiritual development while white communities prefer a more individualistic setting. It is unsurprising therefore that white Christians are more likely to view their spiritual life as “entirely private” (42% compared to 32%). Black Christians, on the other hand, are much more likely to believe their personal spiritual life has an impact on others—whether they are relatives, friends, community or society at large. For instance, black Christians are much more likely to believe that their personal spiritual lives have an impact on broader society (46% compared to 27%).
This was a strong belief of Martin Luther King, and it appears to have had great staying power. He fundamentally believed that one’s personal spiritual life had implications for societal justice, and he called Christians—on both sides of the debate—to bring their faith to bear on the struggle for civil rights, to which he dedicated his life. This impact is also tied to the approach to evangelism: half of black Christians (50% compared to 34%) believe it is their responsibility to tell others about their religious beliefs, further reinforcing the public / private contrast between both groups.
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