Close your eyes and imagine you're attending an African-American church service. You're likely picturing a preacher so eloquent, passionate and inspired that you're belting out "amens" every two seconds.
And chances are you're imagining music so good you want to jump up and join the clapping, swaying choir.
But the reality is, that isn't necessarily the reality.
"I can't name names, but yes, there are some boring African-American pastors and you're like, I won't be going back there any more," said Andrea Morgan, a member of King Solomon United Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
Morgan and some pastors of historically-black churches say it's a stereotype to assume all African-American pastors preach like Martin Luther King Jr. and all their choirs carry a heavenly tune.
Contributing to such images are beliefs that African-Americans are somehow more spiritual than other Americans. But that attitude was likely strengthened by a recent survey that found blacks are more religious in key ways - including frequency of church attendance, daily prayer life and certainty of belief - than the U.S. population as a whole.
An author of the study told The Times-Union the poll isn't meant to paint all individuals with the same brush, but to illuminate religious tendencies among American ethnic groups.
Still, some worry its release contributes to the notion that there is a "black church" whose members are in lock step socially, politically and theologically. Rather than tying religion to race, one local minister said it may be more beneficial to consider social and economic status in such surveys.
'Center of community'
The key findings of "A Religious Portrait of African-Americans" is that blacks are far more likely to belong to a religious organization, attend church weekly, pray daily and express absolute certainty in the existence of God than the overall population.
Neal Krause, a University of Michigan professor who studies and writes about the connection between religious affiliation and health, gender, race and age, said he wasn't surprised by the results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll released last month.
The church traditionally has been a place where African-Americans could receive social services, find solace during decades of discrimination as well as worship, Krause said.
"The black church historically has been the center of the black community," Krause said. "It's no accident that many black [civic and political] leaders have had religious connections."
But the term "black church" makes some nervous, said the Rev. Torin T. Dailey, pastor at Jacksonville's First Baptist Church of Oakland.
Dailey acknowledged the special role faith has in many African-Americans' lives, but added that such terminology - and using the survey to draw conclusions about blacks' spirituality - can be misleading.
"It makes it sound like we are all of one mind on theology and politics," Dailey said.
The Pew survey did find that African-Americans who attend church regularly are more likely to describe themselves as conservative on issues like abortion and homosexuality. But that was also true for all Americans.
Dailey said there are politically liberal and conservative black Christians and congregations, just as there are in predominantly white religious traditions.
"I don't think we are monolithic whatsoever," he said.
Historically black denominations and congregations differ on a range of issues, from infant baptism to the ordination of women and other theological issues, said the Rev. Tony Hansberry, pastor of Greater Grant Memorial AME Church in Jacksonville.
Just as there are "monotone black preachers who will put you to sleep," Hansberry said, there are African-Americans who prefer the praise-and-worship and more traditional worship styles associated with Caucasian churches.
"There are people who don't want that," Hansberry said of the animated preaching style some black pastors use. "They feel it's a put-on, that it's not biblically based."
The research project was not intended to be a statement that African-Americans are uniform in belief or behavior, said Greg Smith, a Pew research fellow who worked on the study, which was released last month.
The poll even identifies areas where African-Americans diverge on outlook, Smith said.
Like Americans as a whole, 32 percent describe their political ideology as conservative, 36 percent as moderate and 23 percent as liberal.
Even in cases where African-Americans outstrip the general population, it's important to remember the other side of the percentages, Smith said.
"It's worth keeping in mind there are lots of African-Americans ... who are not particularly religious," Smith said. "Half of African-Americans attend service once a week, but that means half don't; half of all African-Americans believe in life after death, but half don't."
Not necessarily about race
But whatever the category, Hansberry said sectioning statistics off by race overlooks other factors, such as poverty and social status.
Naturally any group that has been persecuted - as African-Americans were by slavery and subsequent centuries of discrimination - or experiences high levels of social and economic challenge is likely to turn to faith in higher numbers.
In that case, poor whites and Hispanics could have similarly high rates of church attendance, Hansberry said.
"Isn't it possible that all of those who have been through some struggle look for something beyond the norm to draw strength from?"
He also pooh-poohed popular notions that African-Americans are more lively in their worship style than other ethnic groups. Some white charismatics and Pentecostals worship with as much emotion as some blacks do, he said.
And as for African-American choirs: The fact is, Morgan said, "some of them can't hold a tune."
Source: Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville