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Black Americans Who Leave Church Don’t Go Far

How their disaffiliation stands to have a bigger impact on their communities and why leaders are hopeful they’ll come back.
Black Americans Who Leave Church Don’t Go Far

Black Americans are the most religious non-religious group in the country.

In a new Pew Research Center report on the growing segment of unaffiliated “nones” in the US, they stand out for their faithfulness. Nearly all Black nones believe in a higher power, and a third still believe in the God of the Bible. Barely any consider themselves atheists.

Even among those who no longer label themselves with any faith, they pray more, attend church more, and see religion as more significant than any other unaffiliated demographic.

“Black nones are far more connected to the Black church than white nones are connected to Christianity overall,” said sociologist Jason E. Shelton, a professor and director of the Center for African American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. “These are not qualitatively the same kinds of people.”

Though Black nones make up less than 10 percent of all nones in America, their disaffiliation is particularly significant for a culture historically tied to church and faith. One in five Black Americans are religiously unaffiliated.

Black Americans leave religion for some of the same reasons as others do: They feel the church isn’t open to addressing their questions and doubts; they’ve been hurt by bad experiences; they’ve found a sense of community and identity elsewhere.

Plus, there’s a segment of Black Americans who have left white evangelical churches and ministries as a result of the intense polarization around race and politics in recent years.

“They say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this if this is what Christianity is about and you dehumanize me,’” said Lisa Fields, apologist and founder of the ministry the Jude 3 Project. “When Black people have been in white evangelical or multiethnic churches, I find they use the language of ‘deconstruction’ a little bit more than Black people that came from the Black church.”

As more Americans overall deconstruct or drop their religious affiliations, so have more Black Christians; the proportion of nones who are Black has held steady at 9 percent for at least the past decade of Pew polling.

Across the board, though, Black nones don’t feel as negatively about religion or as adamant about their disaffiliation compared to any other demographic; in Pew’s findings, they stand out by double-digit margins for many questions.

A quarter of Black nones say they feel like they don’t need religion in their lives, compared to 41 percent of nones overall. Thirty percent of Black nones don’t like religious organizations, versus 47 percent of all nones.

More than 80 percent of unaffiliated Black Americans believe in the spiritual world, the soul, and a higher power, and more than half still believe in heaven and hell. For this group, the typical apologetics bent on proving the existence of God isn’t necessary. They already agree.

“We are just so connected to faith as a community, from our families to how many of us were raised,” Fields told CT. “It’s hard for us not to believe there is a God that exists, that God helps us navigate this world and has brought our people out of slavery.”

That sense of history and legacy for Black faith anchors many to their beliefs, though nones may lose ties with the church services, celebrations, and ministries that Black churches continue to put on. While Black nones are four times more likely than white nones to keep going to church, three-quarters have largely stopped attending services.

Research shows that religious disaffiliation—particularly for the “nothing in particular” group that the vast majority of Black nones find themselves in—is correlated with a drop in community involvement and engagement. While that’s true of all nones, Shelton worries that loss will have a disproportionate impact on Black America, which has relied so heavily on the church.

“The church has always been the vessel that we as Black people have used to have community and solidarity,” he said. “It’s the church that connects [Black society], so as the nones fall away from that, what does that mean for community? What does that mean for Black music? What does that mean for Black politics? And what does that mean for the long-standing legacy of racial discrimination in this country?”

“If we who fall away from organized religion aren’t there … to hold our nation to its standard of progress and equality for all of us, then who’s gonna do it?”

Shelton analyzes the implications of the big shifts in Black faith in his upcoming book, The Contemporary Black Church: The New Dynamics of African American Religion, out in August from New York University Press.

He sees the Black church, in some ways, getting stung by its own success. It’s because of the Black church’s role in education, civil rights, entrepreneurship, and community organizing, he says, that today’s African Americans reached a position where they have other options and opportunities outside of it.

And Black churches across denominations see that playing out in their neighborhoods and Sunday sanctuaries. Shelton found that the nones now represent the second-biggest religious group among African American denominations, trailing only the Baptists.

“The future does not look good for organized religion in Black America, especially the historic traditions,” he said. “The Baptists are still the largest, but they’re losing people. The Methodists are really down small. The Pentecostals are losing, but they’re not losing nearly as many since they’ve always been small.”

Even with emptier pews and a next generation that is less tied to the Black church than any other in history, the lingering beliefs among Black nones is also a sign of hope.

Religious statistician Ryan Burge, who authored a book on the growth of religious nones, found that “the data indicates that Black nones have a stronger faith background and are much more likely to embrace religion in the future than nones of other racial groups.”

Shelton said churches should open up to people’s questions rather than shutting them down. In the Pew study, Black nones are less likely than nones overall to leave religion over their skepticism, but just under half say they question “a lot of religious teachings.”

The growing field of urban apologetics has taken up the challenge in Black communities, including addressing misgivings about the faith that come from racism and injustice.

“It is giving Black people a reason for the hope of the gospel despite the cultural, historical, spiritual, and theological barriers Blacks have to the Christian faith,” writes Eric Mason in his 2021 book on the topic. “And at the core of urban apologetics is a restoration of the imago Dei.”

Fields takes the strategy of careful listening to hear and understand the stories of Black Americans who left the church.

A few years ago, Jude 3 hosted a discussion series called “Why I Don’t Go,” engaging and listening to African Americans who have left the church or are on the fence. Some of the areas of hurt, doubt, and disconnect inspired Fields’s latest book, When Faith Disappoints: The Gap Between What We Believe and What We Experience, which comes out this summer.

The book acknowledges “how, for some, Christianity may have failed to meet those very valid needs, so they turned to various counterfeits” like syncretistic beliefs and spiritual practices like crystals or sage.

Fields called it her plea for them to “come back or to stay.”

“I’m very optimistic,” she said. “What people are searching for, Christianity possesses. We have the hope the world is looking for.”

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