Some white pastors, like megachurch luminary Rick Warren, have been boldly vocalizing support for racial justice from the pulpit for longer. Though criticism from congregants for “politicizing” the sermon is common, the complaint has begun to lose influence. Barna President David Kinnaman, a 25-year veteran of public polling, has noticed more pastors changing their tune while messaging on these issues.
“The degree to which pastors today address it is much higher and more comprehensive than I’ve ever seen it,” said Kinnaman in a phone interview. “America’s clergy are grappling with the current realities and historical, built-in systemic racism that exists.”
It’s not just pastors, but majority-white Christian ministries and organizations making more overt statements, as well. The National Association of Evangelicals produced a packet for churches, intended to “combat attitudes and systems that perpetuate racism.” And last year, The Gospel Coalition and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) held “MLK50,” an event focused on “the future of gospel-shaped racial unity.” The country watched as smiling megachurch pastor Joel Osteen marched in a Black Lives Matter protest just weeks ago saying Floyd’s death “would not be in vain.” And in early June, J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, made headlines for purposefully telling his audience, “We need to say it clearly as a gospel issue, black lives matter. Of course, black lives matter.”
There are some who continue to push back on the phrase because of its association with the Black Lives Matter organization, which has been linked to Marxist leadership and defunding the police. “The slogan and the movement are very much linked,” said Samual Sey, a Black writer, on a recent podcast episode. “The words, of course, are true, but…we know, culturally, it means something else entirely.”
Others agree that the close ties between the two deter them from using the phrase at all. Heather Bridges, a white woman, told me via email that she instead chooses to say “Black lives are important” or “Black lives are just as important as other lives” as a way to distinguish her support.
Regardless of views on the phrase, there haven’t been a large number of visible Christian leaders speaking out on racial issues in the recent past.
“There haven’t been enough at all,” said Giboney of absence of faith leaders. “You’ve had others step up and lead, bringing it to the forefront in the way the Church didn’t.”
Today, it’s as if the community is playing catch up. Christian voices of color are being amplified like never before—on podcasts, in book sales and in artwork, discussion groups and speaking engagements. Millennials and Gen Z responses to the Barna survey questions showed they are noticing like prior generations have not. Kinnaman has studied this demographic of younger, practicing Christians and found them genuine in their efforts to make change within the Church and the world at large.
“They want to see the world change for racial justice,” said Kinnaman. “It’s not just about filling churches, but about seeing whole communities transformed.”
It’s impossible to know how these new numbers will translate into long-term action, but that data shows that in 2020, 94 percent of pastors believe that the Church has a responsibility to publicly denounce racial discrimination—and many of them are taking on that responsibility for the first time.