The Rev. Jemar Tisby describes himself as a “theological mutt.” He was baptized in a Southern Baptist church, joined a White nondenominational congregation and spent much of his time attending Catholic schools.
But once he attended a small Black Baptist church in the Mississippi Delta, he found a home. Located in a former warehouse, the church had concrete floors, metal folding chairs for pews and an elderly congregation of only about 12 people.
What they lacked in size, though, they made up for in spiritual fervor. When members of the congregation began to “feel the spirit,” they cried, moaned and swayed while singing spirituals like “Wade in the Water.”
“It was if you were hearing the echoes of the ancestors,” says Tisby, author of “How To Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice.” “It was almost like you were transported back in time. There was a dignity and ancestral strength that they tapped into.”
The Black church rituals that Tisby celebrates are in the national spotlight this week. For over 400 years, the Black church has been the central institution in the African American community, but many of its customs remain a mystery to outsiders. New research and a new documentary film could help change that.
The Pew Research Center on Tuesday is publishing a major study, “Faith Among Black Americans,” that takes a sweeping look at African Americans’ religious beliefs and practices. On Tuesday night PBS will premiere “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” a two-part documentary series produced and hosted by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Featuring interviews from such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, singer John Legend and social critic Cornel West, the series examines “the world within a world” of the Black church’s distinctive style of preaching, gospel music and blending of African faith traditions with Christianity.
“The Black church gave people a sense of value, belonging and worthiness,” Winfrey says in the special. “I don’t know how we could have survived as a people without it.”
The Pew study and the PBS special arrive as the Black church is helping transform American politics. Black churchgoers played a critical role in President Biden’s victory and helped Democrats win control of the US Senate with the election of Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor who preaches in the same Atlanta pulpit that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once occupied.
After four years of White evangelicals grabbing headlines, the Black church is getting its due.
What the Pew study says
The phrase “the Black Church” has long been used by Black scholars and clergy as an umbrella term for all historically Black Protestant denominations as well as nondenominational churches with predominantly Black congregations, Pew says.
The new study, Pew’s most comprehensive look at the religious practices of Black Americans, is based on interviews with at least 8,660 Black adults. For comparative purposes, researchers also posed some of the same questions to 4,574 Americans of other races.
It found that Black people are more religious than other groups in the US. While 90% of Americans overall in believe in God or a higher power, 97% of Black adults believe in the same, Pew says. And while 54% of Americans surveyed believe “evil spirits can harm,” 73% of Black adults say the same.
Black Americans are also more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives, and to believe prayers to ancestors have protective power, the survey found. Most Black adults regularly engage in personal prayer, with 63% saying they pray at least once a day.
The Black church is also known for its unique culture. The study found that Black Protestants are far more likely than Black adults of other faiths to go to a church that features highly expressive worship: dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues and shouts of “amen!”
The study also explores an integral facet of the Black church: Its stance on social justice. As Pew discovered, that activism remains essential to many African Americans.
At least 44% of Protestant Black churchgoers said they heard a sermon, lecture or discussion on race relations or racial inequality in the last year while 29% of all adults heard a sermon on the same topics during the same time period.
“Most Black Christians say that opposing racism is essential to being a Christian,” says Besheer Mohamed, who co-authored the report along with Kiana Cox, Jeff Diamant and Claire Gecewicz.
The PBS special tells the story behind those numbers, describing the Black church as an “engine for social justice.” Many of the country’s best-known civil rights leaders — King, Frederick Douglass, the activist Fannie Lou Hamer — were motivated primarily by their Christian faith and the Black church’s tradition of speaking truth to power.
“This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us,” says Gates, host of the PBS special. “No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church.”
Why ‘getting political’ is so important in the Black church
The Black church’s emphasis on social justice may seem baffling to outsiders who think churches shouldn’t get involved in politics. But the Black church was forged during the crucible of slavery.
Enslaved Africans drew hope from stories like Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage. For them, Christianity was about liberation from injustice, not just personal sin.
For decades the Black church was the only independent institution in the Black community that had the sufficient numbers and resources to push for social change, says Tisby, the pastor and author. Today groups like Black Lives Matter aren’t as dependent on the Black church and can mobilize people on social media, he says.
That may explain some trends in the Pew survey. Despite the Black church’s key place in Black life, almost half (47%) of African Americans believe that predominately Black churches are less influential today than they were 50 years ago. Only 30% think they are more influential.
The study also found that that younger Black adults are less religious and less involved in Black churches than older generations. About half of Black adults born after 1996 attend a Black church, compared to two-thirds of Black Baby Boomers.
Still, the Black church still wields tremendous power and resources. The church’s ability to influence the 2020 election is evidence of that, Tisby says.
“The Black church isn’t the only outlet for organizing and protest, but it remains the central outlet,” he says.
Tisby says he is not worried about the long-term mission of the Black church. All he has to do is look at the headlines. He cites how many White evangelical churches threw their support behind former President Trump.
“I don’t worry too much about the Black church,” he says. “As long as there is racism within the White church, there will always be a Black church.”