Despite all the race-related conversations Americans are having lately, more pastors say they’re reluctant to address the topic in sermons compared to four years ago. In a new study from LifeWay Research, 74 percent of pastors agree their congregation would welcome a sermon about racial reconciliation. That’s down from 90 percent in a similar 2016 study.
According to the new research, 16 percent of pastors haven’t preached about racial reconciliation in the past two years. Back in 2016, 7 percent of pastors said their church members wouldn’t want to hear about racial reconciliation; now that number is up to 17 percent.
Responses were tallied by ethnicity, church size, and denomination. Ninety-three percent of African-American pastors indicate a willingness to give a sermon about race, compared to 73 percent of white pastors. Church leaders with worship attendance of 250 or more are the most likely to say a race-related sermon would be welcomed. And based on denomination, Methodists (83 percent are most likely to say such a message would be welcomed; they’re followed by Presbyterians/Reformed (79percent), Pentecostals (78 percent), Baptists (74 percent), and Lutherans (59 percent)).
Negative Feedback May Play a Role
Of the 8 in 10 pastors who’ve preached about racial reconciliation in the past two years, 70 percent report no negative feedback. But 12 percent of them say such sermons have sparked criticism. (Only five percent reported criticism in the 2016 study.) Compared to non-white pastors (three percent), white pastors are almost five times as likely (14 percent) to indicate receiving negative feedback about race-related sermons.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, says, “The typical pastor is addressing racial reconciliation from the pulpit and without pushback from their congregation. However, the noticeable increase in pastors avoiding the topic and receiving criticism could signal there are new dynamics emerging.”
Protests about racial injustice occurred throughout America last summer, and the coronavirus pandemic has been disproportionately impacting communities of color. Denominations and institutions also are engaging in vigorous discussions about systemic racism and critical race theory.
“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,” says McConnell. “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.”
What Congregants Are Requesting
Interestingly, only 21 percent of respondents in the new LifeWay study say their church leaders have directly asked them to give sermons about racial reconciliation. That’s down from 26 percent four years ago.
When the results are broken down by categories, white pastors, pastors of evangelical churches, and pastors in the South are more likely to say they haven’t fielded such requests, compared to African-American pastors, pastors of mainline churches, and pastors in the West. By denomination, 90 percent of Lutheran pastors, 86 percent of Baptist pastors, and 63 percent of Methodist pastors say they haven’t been asked to preach about racial reconciliation.
“There are many possible reasons fewer churchgoers are asking for sermons on racial reconciliation,” McConnell says. “However, you cannot say that fewer Americans are talking and thinking about race today compared to four years ago.”