Research News

Black church participation up in urban areas; family programs, economics and real-world sermons drive attendance

Churches with predominantly black congregations are thriving in urban and suburban areas, and the most successful churches employ a variety of sophisticated marketing and programming strategies to draw members, a new study by Vanderbilt University researcher Sandra Barnes finds. The research offers insights into what successful black churches have in common today, when parishioners have more choices and expect more from their churches than they have 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 said. “Those churches that market themselves, make sophisticated use of technology, 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 Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development, published the 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,” Barnes said. “As in the retail environment, today’s church goers are savvy shoppers. They are looking for a worship experience that meets their needs 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 very savvy when it comes to marketing. Word of mouth continues to be an important tool, but it is no longer the primary mechanism,” Barnes said. “websites, 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 those churches that focused on and generated excitement about their own future experienced greater participation than those that did not. In addition, those churches with sound financial health experienced higher participation, as did larger churches when compared with smaller churches.

Overall, Barnes found that urban and suburban black churches grew approximately 5 percent from 1995 to 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.

The 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 from the Faith Factor 2000 Project, a joint venture between the Lilly Foundation and the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga. The Gallup Organization conducted the surveys.

Barnes has a joint appointment in the Vanderbilt Divinity School as a professor of sociology and religion. This research was supported by a 2005 Louisville Institute Grant and through the support of the ITC Faith Factor Project.

Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS