By Aaron Earls
Pastors seem more reluctant to address issues of race in their congregations today than four years ago.
According to a Lifeway Research study, 74% of pastors agree their congregation would welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation, with 32% strongly agreeing. In 2016, however, 90% of pastors believed their congregation would be open to a sermon on the topic, with 57% strongly agreeing.
Today, 17% of pastors say their church would not want to hear about racial reconciliation, up from 7% in 2016.
“While most pastors’ teaching is not limited to things their congregation wants to hear, it is helpful to know the reaction pastors anticipate from their congregation,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Instead of a majority strongly agreeing, now only a third of pastors have no hesitation that their congregation would welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation.”
African American pastors (93%) are more likely than white pastors (73%) or pastors of other ethnicities (74%) to say their church would be open to a sermon on racial reconciliation.
Pastors of churches with 250 or more in attendance (83%) are the most likely church size to say their congregation would welcome such a sermon.
Denominationally, Methodists (83%), Presbyterian/Reformed (79%), Pentecostals (78%) and Baptists (74%) are more likely than pastors of Lutheran churches (59%) to believe their congregation would like to hear a sermon on the topic.
Close to 1 in 6 pastors (16%) admit they have not addressed racial reconciliation from the pulpit in the past two years.
Compared to 2016, however, more pastors say they have received negative feedback, and more have ignored the topic in their sermons.
Four years ago, 5% said they were criticized for a sermon on racial reconciliation compared to 12% today. One in 10 pastors (10%) said they had not preached on the topic in the last two years in 2016, while 16% say that is the case now.
“The typical pastor is addressing racial reconciliation from the pulpit and without pushback from their congregation,” said McConnell. “However, the noticeable increase in pastors avoiding the topic and receiving criticism could signal there are new dynamics emerging.”
White pastors (17%) and pastors of other ethnicities (18%) are more than twice as likely as African American pastors (6%) to say they have not addressed racial reconciliation from the pulpit in the past two years.
White pastors (14%) are also more likely than pastors of other ethnicities (3%) to say they have received negative feedback from sermons on the topic.
Pastors 65 and older (20%) are more likely than pastors 45 to 54 (13%) to say they’ve not talked about the topic from the pulpit in the past two years. Younger pastors (18 to 44) are the most likely to say they’ve had negative feedback from preaching a sermon related to race (21%).
Lutheran pastors (27%) are twice as likely as Baptist (13%), Presbyterian/Reformed (13%) and Pentecostal pastors (12%) to say they have not addressed the issue in a sermon in the past two years.
Around 1 in 5 pastors (21%) say leaders in their church have directly urged them to preach on racial reconciliation, while 77% have not heard such requests.
In 2016, a quarter of pastors (26%) said they had been asked for sermons on the topic, and 73% said they had not.
“There are many possible reasons fewer churchgoers are asking for sermons on racial reconciliation,” said McConnell. “However, you cannot say that fewer Americans are talking and thinking about race today compared to four years ago.”
White pastors (79%) and pastors of other ethnicities (77%) are more likely than African American pastors (56%) to say they have not heard such requests.
Evangelical pastors (81%) are more likely than their mainline counterparts (63%) to say no leaders in their church have asked them to preach on racial reconciliation.
Pastors in the South (79%) are more likely than pastors in the West (70%) to say they haven’t heard such congregational urging.
Lutheran (90%) and Baptist pastors (86%) are more likely than Pentecostal (77%), Restoration movement (70%), Presbyterian/Reformed (68%) and Methodist pastors (63%) to say they have not had leaders ask for a sermon on that topic.
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.
The mixed mode survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 2 – Oct. 1, 2020 using both phone and online interviews. For the phone surveys, the calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. For the online surveys, invitations were emailed to the Lifeway Research Pastor Panel followed by three reminders. This probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by Lifeway Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this Lifeway Research Pastor Panel.
Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,007 surveys (502 by phone, 505 online). The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.4%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Comparisons are also made to a telephone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors using random sampling conducted Aug. 22 – Sept. 16, 2016.