Abstract: Health Communication and the Black Church: A Closer Look

◆ Jeannette H. Porter, University of Missouri

The growing understanding of health disparities has led to the search for effective means of reaching individual populations in order to combat those disparities. There have been several recent papers exploring the Black Church as an effective outreach site for communicating with African Americans on health topics (e.g., Brewer & Williams, 2019; Harmon, Chock, Brantley, Wirth & Hébert, 2016). Most of these papers treat “the Black Church” as a black box of community influence and African American church leaders as a uniform body of influencers. The proposed interdisciplinary paper/poster suggests that different denominations and congregations have different characteristics which must 1) be elicited and 2) be woven into the design of a health communication campaign through a Black church, for maximum effectiveness.
The proposed paper draws on the author’s dissertation and subsequent qualitative research, a thematic analysis of a body of 42 interviews. Key initial findings include:
1) Among Black Baptists, who are the plurality of African Americans affiliated with religious institutions, each church is nominally led solely by its pastor. However, in reality, each church can be pastor-led, deacon-led or congregation-led. It is important both to respect the absolute leadership role of the pastor and to defer to the actual leadership structure of each church in order to achieve maximum impact from a health communication campaign.
2) The Black Baptist church operates in in the Biblical, Institutional and Social/Cultural dimensions. Different dimensions are determinative to different target groups within the church. When designing health messages, it is important to understand from which dimension each message emanates and which portion of a congregation is targeted in order to achieve maximum impact from a health communication campaign.
3) Other Black denominations have different leadership realities, based on their histories and their paths to ordination. This partially explains why caucuses of Black clergy are historically so difficult to maintain and why the same health communication campaign based in the same geographic location can have considerably different impacts at different churches.
Some of the findings above will be examined through a case study of a health ministry at a leading Black Baptist church in a southeastern U.S. city. A draft of an instrument for eliciting various characteristics of a church relevant to health campaigns will be suggested for future testing.