Researchers Study and Discuss Differences in the Black Church

I’m not trying to be argumentative, but there are obvious differences,” says Jason Shelton, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington. He repeats his concern: “I don’t want to be provocative.”

Shelton, 42, grew up in the black church in the 1980s and ’90s. Now he’s quickly becoming one of its most prominent researchers. In 2012 he wrote (with Michael O. Emerson) a widely praised book on how black and white American Christians differ from each other. Now he’s reshaping the way American Christianity is studied and discussed by turning his attention to significant differences within the black church itself.

“As a kid who grew up in the black Methodist tradition and also went to a large Pentecostal church, I can say there’s a lot of distinctiveness between these traditions,” he says. At the same time, he says, shared experiences as black Christians in America unite black Methodists, black Pentecostals, and other black Christians in a special way. As he argued in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion last summer, “For blacks, the legacy of racial discrimination and inequality in America overshadows consequences of contrasting denominational affiliations.”

In that journal article, Shelton (with his UT–Arlington colleague Ryon Cobb) proposed a coding scheme for dividing African Americans into nine religious streams. Half a decade ago, it might have been received as a helpful nuance to the dominant way that sociologists, political scientists, pollsters, and others study American religion. But questions of unity, diversity, and division in the American church are not merely academic at the moment. Asking whether black Christians are on the same page with each other—let alone the same page as white Christians—seems more challenging. What unites black Christians with each other? What separates them? What unites and divides American Christians, or Christians globally? To what degree is Christian diversity division? To what degree are terms like “the black church,” “evangelicals,” or “mainline Protestants” helpful labels that identify real traditions?

To put it another way: How do we identify ourselves? Whom do we think of as our closest family members? As Paul asked the Corinthians, is Christ divided? Or in our attempts at unity, have we papered over real differences?

These are significant questions among Christians right now. It’s hard to find a major Christian conference not wrestling with them; they’re also at the center of church board discussions about congregational makeup and evangelism efforts.

Likewise, it’s hard to find an academic conference on religion not wrestling with them. In November, a panel on “Who Gets to Define Evangelicalism?” at the American Academy of Religion in Denver focused in large part on questions of whether whites and ethnic minorities could be considered part of the same movement. At the same time, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion was publishing a series of articles debating whether the most common way of quantifying American religious identification had distorted Americans’ understanding of evangelicals and black Christians specifically and Christians more broadly. One of the key respondents in that series: Jason Shelton.

Do black and white Christians differ?

Shelton’s 2012 book, Blacks and Whites in Christian America, had its origins in the hiring of an administrative assistant when he was a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University. He was working with Michael O. Emerson, the leading sociologist studying multiracial congregations. (Emerson is now provost at North Park University.) An African American candidate for the position, a woman we’ll call Sharon, talked openly about how she “had to talk to the Lord” before her interview—just as she does several times a day, whenever she “needed some extra strength.” She even ended the interview asking for the Lord’s mercy as she drove home in the rain. After she left, Shelton remarked that her open religiosity and her frequent prayer were not unusual among churchgoing African Americans. But he didn’t know the white experience well.

“How many white Sharons are out there?” he asked Emerson.

“Probably not too many,” Emerson replied. “Perhaps a few evangelicals.” Soon they set out to find out: Do black Christians really pray more often than white Christians? If so, why? What other differences in faith and practice might there be? And what would that say about Christianity?

The answers came from two of the most respected academic surveys, the Portraits of American Lives Survey (PALS) and the General Social Survey (GSS), along with focus groups and in-depth interviews with black clergy. (Shelton and Emerson could not get white pastors to participate in the in-depth interviews.) In short, yes: Black Christians pray more than other Christians. In fact, controlling for other background factors, Shelton and Emerson found that black Protestants pray nearly three times more often than white evangelicals do. And they are twice as likely as white evangelicals to read their Bible away from worship services and more likely to attend Bible study groups. (The Bible engagement gap evens out when controlling for church attendance and age.)

Shelton argues that past and present oppression has been the driving factor in shaping these differences. As one black focus group member told him, “We’ve had to pray more and worship more and read the Bible more to survive in an oppressive situation. … If you have had to overcome, if you’ve had to make a way out of no way, if you didn’t have any food for your children and God provided food on your table, then you’re gonna go to church and praise and worship Him because He’s worthy.”

But Shelton is also quick to argue—contrary to doubts he and Emerson heard from both white and black Christians—that black and whites indeed worship the same God. “On [survey] measures largely drawn from the orthodox Apostles’ Creed and on the centrality of faith, black and white Protestants look like identical twins,” he wrote. It’s easy to lose sight of that theological unity when you document all the ways that they differ in practicing and thinking about those core beliefs, he says. Black Protestants and white evangelicals practice their Christianity in very different ways at very different levels. But they’re both practicing Christianity.

“Efforts aimed at improving race relations will have limited success until social scientists, religious leaders, and the wider American public recognize that there are profound similarities—and most especially differences—among blacks and whites with respect to how they think about and practice their religious faith,” he wrote.

Do Methodists and Baptists differ?

Shelton still firmly believes that black Christians have more in common with other black Christians across denominations than they do with white Christians in their own denomination. That claim is a sociological truism at this point. Where Shelton is getting attention is in his proposal to measure the diversity among the multiple streams in the “Greater Black Church.”

For the last two decades, social scientists studying American Christianity have almost universally rallied to one tool in particular: a database code, abbreviated as reltrad, that uses survey respondents’ denominational “religious preference” to sort them into “religious tradition” buckets. For example, Wesleyans are coded as evangelical, United Methodists are coded as mainline, and African Methodist Episcopal Church attendees are coded as black Protestants. The other traditions in the reltrad schema are Catholic, Jewish, “other faith,” and “nonaffiliated.”

Race doesn’t usually factor into the count: If you’re white but attend an African Methodist Episcopal church, you’d get classified as “black Protestant.” But race matters in reltrad when respondents say things like they’re Methodist, but they don’t know which kind. And African American Baptists are counted as black Protestants even if they say they’re Southern Baptists or American Baptists. “Most blacks who belong to these denominations attend predominantly black Baptist churches,” argued the reltrad sociologists, led by Brian Steensland. “And most black Baptist churches in the American and Southern Baptist Conventions have a dual affiliation status with other black Baptist denominations.”

There are other ways to divide American Christians into groups. Many public opinion polls break out evangelical Protestants by asking, “Do you consider yourself an evangelical or born-again Christian?” then omit any Catholics or African Americans from those who said yes. Other surveys (like those from Barna and LifeWay) ask a series of questions about theology and religious practices. But when scholars talk about religious data today, they almost always separate black and white Protestants in some form. And reltrad has become, in many researchers’ words, the gold standard.

“Reltrad itself is the greatest thing since sliced bread for a nerdy academic like me,” Shelton says. But as an African American, he says, reltrad’s lumping together all black Protestants is its “biggest limitation.” Just as old surveys might only indicate whether a respondent was a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew and miss the complexity in various traditions, when you split Protestants into evangelical, mainline, and black, “you’re missing a lot of the unique traditions and distinctions,” he says.

So he and Cobb created a “black reltrad” that identifies nine categories for identifying African Americans: Baptists, Methodists, Holiness/Pentecostals, historically white mainline Protestant denominations, historically white evangelical Protestant denominations, nondenominational Protestants, Catholics, other faiths (including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), and respondents with no religious affiliation.

To work, “black reltrad” needs big datasets with a large number of black respondents. That will limit some of its adoption, says Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. But there are plenty of large-scale studies like the GSS ready to be mined. The real test for black reltrad, Grant says, will be in its explanatory power and in its ability to find real differences between those categories.

“If black reltrad just said historically these are different groups, but empirically I couldn’t find any differences, I probably wouldn’t use it in a study,” he said. And the differences matter. “If you tell me that the Pentecostals are more likely to believe miracles happen today, or that the Baptists believe in adult baptism, you’re not telling us much.”

But Shelton and Cobb are already finding significant differences, including a kind of mirroring of the evangelical-mainline split among historically white churches. Nondenominational Protestants, Holiness/Pentecostals, and members of historically white evangelical denominations are far more likely to have conservative views on sexual morality than Baptists, Methodists, and blacks in historically white mainline Protestant denominations. In fact, the Baptists, Methodists, and blacks in white mainline churches seem not to differ in their sexual ethics from African Americans who don’t have a religious preference. Shelton and Cobb found a similar split on abortion.

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Source: Christianity Today