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Research explores ethnic responsiveness

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–African Americans are more open than other ethnic groups to receiving information about local congregations, according to research relating to African American and four other ethnic groupings: Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites, Asians and mixed/other ethnicities.

A survey conducted by LifeWay Research asked more than 15,000 Americans about their willingness to receive information about local congregations through various channels.

The survey was conducted on behalf of the North American Mission Board for the launch Southern Baptists’ “God’s Plan For Sharing” (GPS) evangelism initiative throughout North America in 2010.

Exploring 13 different methods churches might use to communicate with prospective attendees, the survey found that African Americans, regardless of the communication channel, are at least 12 percentage points more open to receiving information than any of the other groups. The responses from other ethnic groups are within three points of each other in most categories.

For example, every ethnic group expresses its greatest openness to receiving information through a family member, but 80 percent of African Americans say they are “willing” or “very willing” regarding that interaction. The next largest response is from Hispanics, who register 64 percent openness. Non-Hispanic whites, Asians and mixed/other Americans trail Hispanic openness by only two or three points.

“The church has been the only institution we African Americans have had throughout our history that we could trust and depend on,” said Tyrone Barnette, pastor of Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga. “The church educated our children, fed our families, listened to our pain, married and buried our loved ones, and provided leadership and insight for our political views. Throughout the years the positive perception of the church has been passed from generation to generation.”

Another portion of the study revealed that Americans are more open to conversations with friends, neighbors and family members than any other method of communication. This is true regardless of ethnic background. Among African Americans, 73 percent say they are “willing” or “very willing” to listen to a friend or neighbor, and positive responses from other groups ranged from 57 percent among Hispanics to 51 percent among Asians.


Not every method of communication ranks so highly, but even when a church provides information using less popular methods, African Americans are much more willing to receive that information. The four lowest-scoring methods were:

— E-mail messages: 53 percent of African Americans would respond favorably, while only 31-38 percent of respondents from other groups are “willing” or “very willing” to receive information this way.

— Door hangers left by a church representative: 55 percent of African Americans would respond favorably, compared to 28-37 percent of respondents from other groups.

— Social networking websites: 50 percent of African Americans are open to receiving information this way, while 32-38 percent of respondents from other groups would respond favorably.

— A visit at their doors by a congregation member: 39 percent of African Americans would respond positively, while 21-25 percent of respondents from other groups are “willing” or “very willing” to receive information this way.

“A few weeks ago, I went with our evangelism team into our community passing out tracts and doorknockers,” Barnette said. “When I sought to hand information to one 25-year-old African American male, he said, ‘I’ve got to take this paper from you … ’cause to not take it means I am not taking something from Christ.’

“In the African American community there is a clearer understanding that Christ is not detached from His church,” Barnette said.

Survey participants also were queried about more specific methods of communication:

— Video about a local church’s services and beliefs: 66 percent of African Americans in contrast to 43 percent of Asians and non-Hispanic whites are “willing” or “very willing” to watch.

— Postcard from a church advertising interesting talks: 69 percent of African Americans, 53 percent of Hispanics and a smaller percentage of respondents from other groups would respond positively.

— Interesting ad about matters of faith that lists a website: 64 percent of African Americans, but only 42 percent of non-Hispanic whites, would respond favorably.


Americans’ response to how the denomination of the inviting church affects their openness also varies by ethnic group. Twenty-eight percent of African Americans say they are more open if the invitation comes from a Southern Baptist church, but 32 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of Asians say invitations are more effective if they come from Roman Catholic congregations.

For non-Hispanic whites and those identifying with mixed/other ethnicities, invitations from nondenominational churches have the most positive impact. Nineteen percent of non-Hispanic whites and 23 percent of mixed/other ethnicities are more open to invitations from such churches.

Jason Kim, Asian and multiethnic evangelism coordinator for NAMB, noted that responses from individual ethnic groups still combine diverse opinions and experiences. “Catholic influences are very strong in some Asian countries, but remain weak in most,” Kim noted.

“Asians who reside in the U.S. are from 24-plus different countries,” Kim said. “They speak different languages and each has a distinctive cultural heritage. Also, Asian generation gaps between first-, second- and third-generation immigrants are enormously larger than those of European or African descent largely due to their [Asians’] shorter immigration history.”


The survey also found:

— When asked where they turn if they want to find out more about God, the first response for all ethnic groups — ranging from 50 percent among African Americans to 24 percent among Asians — was “Read a Bible.” The next most frequently selected response for most ethnic groups was “Attend a church.” Though other options were listed — including talking to a Christian friend or family member and doing an Internet search -– the third most selected response was “None of the above.”

— Asked what life events made them more open to considering matters of faith, the most common response among all ethnic groups was the Christmas holiday season (between 37 percent and 50 percent). Overall, the Easter holiday season was second, but among ethnic groups this was true only for non-Hispanic whites (39 percent). Rather than Easter, Hispanics (41 percent), African Americans (46 percent) and mixed/other ethnicities (35 percent) are more open to considering matters of faith after a major national crisis such as 9/11. Asians’ second most common response was after a natural disaster (39 percent).

The research findings can be viewed in more detail at www.lifewayresearch.com. The sample for the study was a national, random, stratified sample of Americans using a demographically balanced online panel. The survey was administered via an Internet survey interface from Dec. 12-22, 2008. With a total of more than 15,000 responses, the sample provides 99 percent confidence that the total sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 1 percent.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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