Churches with predominantly black congregations are thriving in urban and suburban areas, and the most successful among them employ a variety of sophisticated marketing and programming strategies to draw members, a study by researcher Sandra Barnes finds. Her findings offer insights into what successful black churches have in common today, when parishioners have more choices and expect more from their churches than in the past.
“Contrary to expectations, I found that the black church is still a very important part of the lives of many African Americans,” Barnes says. “Churches that market themselves, make sophisticated use of technology, and offer practical sermons and programs for families and children over and above typical Bible studies are most likely to draw and keep new parishioners.”
Barnes, professor of human and organizational development at Peabody College, published her report, “Enter into His Gates: An Analysis of Black Church Participation Patterns,” in the March issue of the journal Sociological Spectrum. The report examines changes in adult church participation rates from 1995 to 2000 based on a national survey of 1,863 predominantly black churches across seven Christian denominations. It is the first study to use a national sample of black congregations to examine this issue.
Barnes found that today’s parishioners are “religiously savvy” and expect more from their church service, such as sermons and Bible studies relevant to everyday life, activities for individuals and families, and innovative worship services that incorporate dance and music.
“The broader societal change we have seen in consumerism is also manifesting in the religious arena. We expect more, bigger and better,” says Barnes. “As in the retail environment, today’s churchgoers are savvy shoppers. They are looking for a worship experience and programs that meet their needs, and they’re willing to shop around to find it.”
This consumerism has led churches to use sophisticated marketing tools, specifically the Internet. “Successful churches are savvy when it comes to marketing. Word of mouth continues to be an important tool, but it is no longer the primary mechanism,” Barnes says. “Web sites, television ads and prime-time exposure all play a role. Churches are using very intentional marketing strategies, and much of it relies on technology.”
Barnes also found that churches that focused on and generated excitement about their own future experienced greater participation. Churches with sound financial health experienced higher participation, as did larger churches.
Overall, Barnes found that urban and suburban black churches grew approximately 5 percent between 1995 and 2000, while participation in rural black churches dropped. Baptist churches had the highest participation growth; however, there were not statistically significant differences among denominations overall.
“What a congregation does, in terms of worship and programs, appears to be more salient than what it is, in terms of denominational ties,” Barnes wrote.
Denominations included in the survey were Church of God in Christ, Baptist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Black Presbyterian and United Methodist. The report was based on data drawn from a national database maintained by the Faith Factor 2000 Project, a joint venture between the Lilly Foundation and the Interdenominational Theological Center. The Gallup Organization conducted the surveys.
Barnes has a joint appointment in the Vanderbilt Divinity School as a professor of sociology of religion. This research was supported by a 2005 Louisville Institute Grant and through the support of the ITC Faith Factor Project.