NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Pastors seem more reluctant to address issues of race in their congregations today than four years ago.
According to a LifeWay Research study, 74 percent of pastors surveyed agree their congregation would welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation, with 32 percent strongly agreeing.
Previous research in 2016 showed 90 percent of pastors believed their congregations would be open to a sermon on the topic, with 57 percent strongly agreeing.
Today, 17 percent of pastors say their church would not want to hear about racial reconciliation, up from 7 percent 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 percent) are more likely than white pastors (73 percent) or pastors of other ethnicities (74 percent) to say their church would be open to a sermon on racial reconciliation.
Pastors of churches with 250 or more in attendance (83 percent) are the most likely church size to say their congregation would welcome such a sermon.
Denominationally, Methodists (83 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (79 percent), Pentecostals (78 percent) and Baptists (74 percent) are more likely than pastors of Lutheran churches (59 percent) to believe their congregation would like to hear a sermon on the topic.
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Positive or negative feedback?
More than 8 in 10 pastors (83 percent) say they’ve preached on racial reconciliation in the past two years, including 70 percent who say they have not received any negative feedback because of those sermons and 12 percent who have been criticized.
Close to 1 in 6 pastors (16 percent) 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 percent said they were criticized for a sermon on racial reconciliation compared to 12 percent today. One in 10 pastors (10 percent) said they had not preached on the topic in the last two years in 2016, while 16 percent say that is the case now.
“The typical pastor is addressing racial reconciliation from the pulpit and without pushback from their congregation,” McConnell said. “However, the noticeable increase in pastors avoiding the topic and receiving criticism could signal there are new dynamics emerging.”
White pastors (17 percent) and pastors of other ethnicities (18 percent) are more than twice as likely as African American pastors (6 percent) to say they have not addressed racial reconciliation from the pulpit in the past two years.
White pastors (14 percent) are also more likely than pastors of other ethnicities (3 percent) to say they have received negative feedback from sermons on the topic.
Pastors 65 and older (20 percent) are more likely than pastors 45 to 54 (13 percent) 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 percent).
Lutheran pastors (27 percent) are twice as likely as Baptist (13 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (13 percent) and Pentecostal pastors (12 percent) to say they have not addressed the issue in a sermon in the past two years.
Encouraged or discouraged to preach on race?
Around 1 in 5 pastors (21 percent) say leaders in their church have directly urged them to preach on racial reconciliation, while 77 percent have not heard such requests.
In 2016, a quarter of pastors (26 percent) said they had been asked for sermons on the topic, and 73 percent said they had not.
“There are many possible reasons fewer churchgoers are asking for sermons on racial reconciliation,” McConnell said. “However, you cannot say that fewer Americans are talking and thinking about race today compared to four years ago.”
White pastors (79 percent) and pastors of other ethnicities (77 percent) are more likely than African American pastors (56 percent) to say they have not heard such requests.
Evangelical pastors (81 percent) are more likely than their mainline counterparts (63 percent) to say no leaders in their church have asked them to preach on racial reconciliation.
Pastors in the South (79 percent) are more likely than pastors in the West (70 percent) to say they haven’t heard such congregational urging.
Lutheran (90 percent) and Baptist pastors (86 percent) are more likely than Pentecostal (77 percent), Restoration movement (70 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (68 percent) and Methodist pastors (63 percent) to say they have not had leaders ask for a sermon on that topic.
The mixed mode survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 2 to Oct. 1, 2020, using both phone and online interviews. Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church.
Analysts weighted responses by region and church size to reflect the population more accurately. The completed sample is 1,007 surveys (502 by phone, 505 online), providing 95 percent confidence the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.4 percent. 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 to Sept. 16, 2016.