The Rev. Charles Elliot delivers a sermon at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
The Rev. Charles Elliot delivers a sermon at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Black churches are among the oldest and most influential institutions dedicated to supporting Black Americans. When they were first founded, denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church gave Black Americans a place to worship freely.

Over the years, Black congregations have not only offered a place of prayer for many Black worshippers, but also played a role in the advancement of Black Americans more generally – from supporting colleges to taking the lead in many civil rights causes.

Yet, when it comes to choosing a house of worship, most Black Americans don’t prioritize denominational labels. A welcoming congregation and inspiring sermons are far more important to them, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

Pew Research Center conducted this study to explore the breadth and diversity of Black Americans’ religious experiences. This survey represents the Center’s most comprehensive, in-depth study of the subject, drawing on a nationally representative sample of 8,660 Black adults (ages 18 and older). The sample consists of a wide range of adults who identify as Black or African American, including some who identify as both Black and Hispanic or Black and another race (such as Black and White, or Black and Asian).

Survey respondents were recruited from four nationally representative sources: Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (conducted online), NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel (conducted online or by phone), Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel (conducted online) and a national cross-sectional survey by Pew Research Center (conducted online and by mail). Responses were collected from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020, but most respondents completed the survey between Jan. 21 and Feb. 10, 2020.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Denominational labels much less important than a welcoming congregation and inspiring sermons for most Black Americans

Only 30% of Black adults say that it would be “very important” to find a congregation in their current denomination if they were looking for a new house of worship, according to the survey, conducted Nov. 19, 2019-June 3, 2020. Far larger shares say it is very important to find a congregation that is welcoming (80%) or that has inspiring sermons (77%).

This isn’t to say Black Americans are completely dismissive of denominations. Though only three-in-ten Black Americans say staying in their current denomination would be very important if they were looking for a new congregation, about as many (31%) say it would be “somewhat” important. Fewer say it would be “not too” important (20%), and only 16% of Black Americans say it would be “not at all” important.

One-third of Black Protestants say staying in their denomination is very important

The relatively low priority placed on denominational affiliation, compared with a welcoming congregation and inspiring sermons, holds among a variety of Christian traditions as well as among non-Christian groups, such as Muslims. For example, roughly equal shares of Black Protestants (32%) and Catholics (31%) say the denomination would be a very important consideration if they were looking for a new congregation, as do 31% of members of non-Christian faiths. However, when it comes to Black members of “other” Christian faiths – mostly respondents who identify as Jehovah’s Witness, but also including Orthodox Christians and other groups – 51% say denomination would be a very important consideration.

Meanwhile, vast majorities of each of these groups prioritize welcoming congregations and inspiring sermons. Seven-in-ten or more among Protestants, Catholics and members of “other” Christian and non-Christian faiths say that a welcoming congregation and inspiring sermons would be “very important” when looking for a new congregation.

In addition to examining opinions across these broad religious traditions, the report also looks at responses within Protestant traditions. Among these groups specifically, 34% of Black adults in historically Black Protestant denominations say denomination would be a very important consideration if they were looking for a new congregation, as do 36% of evangelical Protestants and 30% of members of mainline Protestant denominations.

Among Black Protestants who identify only with a more general denominational family, but do not give enough information to be placed in specific religious traditions, it is also the case that about one-third (34%) say denomination would be a very important consideration. As an example, members of this group might include Black Americans who describe themselves as Baptist, but when offered a list of options, they do not specify if they identify with the Southern Baptist Convention (in the evangelical Protestant tradition), American Baptist Churches, USA (a mainline Protestant denomination), the Progressive National Baptist Convention (a historically Black Protestant denomination) or any other specific denomination. Instead, they describe themselves as “just Baptist” or decline to provide further information about the specific Baptist denomination they identify with.

Finally, among Black Protestants who say they are nondenominational or give a vague answer to questions about denominational affiliation – such as saying they are “just a Protestant” – a quarter each say the denomination of a congregation would be important if they were looking for a new church. That is lower than the shares of members of historically Black Protestant denominations, members of evangelical denominations, or Black Protestants who identify only with a general denominational family who say the same. 

Besheer Mohamed  is a senior researcher focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.