A Q&A By Y Bonesteele
Churches around the country have suffered this past year because of the pandemic—the Black church more than others. Mark Croston, national director of Black church ministries at Lifeway Christian Resources, talked more in depth with Lifeway Research about the impact of COVID-19 on the Black church in the U.S.
Why do you think Black Americans have suffered more during COVID-19 than white Americans?
Croston: When it comes to COVID-19 the USA is truly a world leader. As of March 5, 2021, according to an article in Medical Press, the United States had reported 28,780,950 cases and 519,064 deaths from COVID-19, leading the world in these two areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world, but especially in the United States. We have roughly one-fourth the population of India, but roughly three times the numbers of cases and deaths.
We have the best scientists, physicians, hospitals, technology, communication, finances, system of government, you name it, and yet we find ourselves at the top of this hill which puts us at the bottom of the barrel.
So, you might be asking, what all this has to do with answering the question. It has everything to do with it. It suggests to me that there’s something additional going on here: That is, we’ve lacked the will, as a nation, to lower these numbers and squash the pandemic. Social distancing, quarantine and mask wearing are being seen through the optics of politics rather than the public good. So, when the public good gets pushed off the table, who always gets hurt most? The poor and minority populations.When the public good gets pushed off the table, who always gets hurt most? The poor and minority populations. — @crostonmin Click To Tweet
An article from Inequality.org reports:
According to the APM Research Lab, Black Americans have mortality rates that are more than twice as high as other races, and Indigenous people have significantly higher mortality rates as well. For each 100,000 Americans (of their respective group), about 211 Indigenous people and 155 Black people, 150 Pacific Islanders and 120 Latinx people have died from the coronavirus, compared to 121 Whites and 76 Asians, as of February 2, 2021.
Initially, pundits have pointed to minorities and claimed it was because of pre-existing conditions, as if they were in some way inferior. But over time we’ve seen and heard of case after case where the victim who died of COVID-19 was young, in good health, with no underlying conditions and not a minority.
The answer to why the mortality rates have fallen the way they have will not be fully known until the postmortem examination of the COVID-19 pandemic is complete. One thing we do know is economics and politics play a large role in our super surging numbers of cases and deaths.
According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Center for Disease Control, minority populations have less access to health care, live in more densely populated circumstances, work in jobs that come in contact with more people, are less likely to drive alone in a car to work and more likely to use public transportation, are less able to work virtually, and are financially less able to opt not to work.
Science News reports:
For instance, almost 30% of employed African-Americans work in the education and health services industry and 10% in retail, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. African-Americans are less likely than employed people in general to work in professional and business services—the sorts of jobs more amenable to telecommuting.
Because of these setbacks, how has that negatively impacted the Black church in the U.S.?
Croston: Lifeway Research conducted a study on Protestant churchgoers’ views of church participation in February 2021. When asked, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, which of the following best describes the in-person worship services your church has offered?” the research reported:
- Whites (38%) are more likely to select “In-person services stopped for a short-period of time and then resumed” than African Americans (13%) and Hispanics (23%).
- African Americans are the most likely to select “In-person services stopped many months ago and have not resumed” (40%).
This is not surprising given the impact of COVID-19 on this community. This impact of the increased numbers of sicknesses, hospitalizations, and deaths often lands in arms of local churches and their pastors. One pastor told me that by September 2020 he had done over 200 funerals himself.One pastor told me that by September 2020 he had done over 200 funerals himself. — @crostonmin Click To Tweet
The churches have had to learn new technology, often purchase new tech, and introduce to their members new ways of connecting, teaching, serving, and giving. I recently talked with a staff member at a prominent white church and was told how certain members were able to give more so the church did not have any lack in its offerings or services. Minority churches typically do not have endowments or wealthy members to prop up the church when the offerings decrease.
By September 2020, similar research on COVID-19 impact reported that African American pastors are more likely to have:
- deleted a staff position (18%)
- reduced giving to the denomination (17%)
- reduced pay or benefits to staff (21%)
- delayed planned construction (24%)
These are some despairing statistics. Can we glean anything positive for the Black church during this time?
Croston: Behind every cloud there is a silver lining. Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” There have been a lot of great things that have happened for the church.
Many churches tend to be late adopters of new technology. For too long, many of our churches were content to keep all the gospel in the sanctuary. The pandemic has forced churches to learn and adapt to new technology that will help in advancing the kingdom of God in the long run.The pandemic has forced churches to learn and adapt to new technology that will help in advancing the kingdom of God in the long run. — @crostonmin Click To Tweet
Churches are now gathering via video conferencing and sharing through social media apps. This gives the gospel a much broader platform, reaching some who have never heard and seasoning the lives of those who have ignored it. I’ve had many conversations with pastors who are now reaching the unreached in their communities, connecting people around the country, and converting some around the world.
Lifeway Research reports other positives. For example, African American (44%) and Hispanic (38%) Protestant churchgoers were more likely to select that they “became much closer to God.” African American churchgoers were the most likely of other ethnicities to select, “I have had the opportunity to share the gospel with someone” (23%) during the pandemic. And African American churchgoers (14%) were more likely to select that “People in my church have helped me with tangible needs.” From this report, African Americans (42%) and Hispanics (46%) are more likely to select “My church offered, and I participated” in online Bible studies for adults since the outbreak of COVID.
Those are some great silver linings. How, then, do you see the Black church moving forward now?
Croston: Church attendance was in decline prior to the pandemic. For Blacks in the U.S., it is down 11% according to the Pew Research Center. The good news is the church is clarifying. The bad news is the church cannot grow without new sinners, so the church is shrinking. “Nones,” those who don’t claim any church affiliation, in the U.S. are now as big as the two largest U.S. religious groupings—Catholics and evangelicals. “Cultural Christians” are leaving, while the “saints” are remaining.
As we glance at all these statistics, I see five practical things churches need to do:
- Drive towards community missions. Churches in pandemic and post-pandemic times have an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their community, helping with material, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs.
- Concentrate on evangelism. Focusing on re-opening reduces focus on growing which makes every church like a new church plant. Re-opening focus instills a more evangelistic calling. This is a great season for fishers of men!
- Care for your marginal members. The old 80/20 rule applies. In many churches 20% of the people do 80% of the work, which sometimes mean only the 20% are being cared for. Churches need to make sure they’re reaching out to care for the 80%, not just the 20%.
- Re-calculate for the future. Rethink choirs, pews, facilities, staffing, ministry, missions, small groups, and evangelism. Churches will need to decide what are essential to Kingdom growth.
- Communicate by every means necessary, including social media. Technology is here to stay. Let’s use it for God’s glory.
What last encouraging words would you like to say to Black pastors navigating these times?
Croston: In all this remember Jesus said, “… on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18b). This is an offensive posture for the church, not a maintenance or defensive one. This is about the church moving forward, unable to be stopped by anything, not COVID-19, not even the gates of hell. This should be a great encouragement for us all as we continue the advancement of the kingdom.This is about the church moving forward, unable to be stopped by anything, not COVID-19, not even the gates of hell. — @crostonmin Click To Tweet
Y is an editorial coordinator at Lifeway and has her M.Div from Talbot School of Theology.