This study proposed and tested a model of informal church support networks among African Americans. Consistent with research in family relations, age and gender were significantly associated with the frequency of interaction with church members. In addition, the degree of subjective closeness and the frequency of interaction were both significantly associated with the frequency of receiving support from church members, suggesting that conceptualizations of family solidarity may extend to church networks. Practice implications emphasize the importance of recognizing church members as integral members of the informal networks of African Americans.
Key Words: African Americans, extended family, family solidarity, nonkin network, religion, social support.
Extended family relationships and religion are important aspects of the daily lives of African Americans. Hill's classic monograph (1972) notes that ties with religious and extended kin networks are two major strengths of Black families. In the ensuing 30 years since the publication of Hill's monograph, there has been a tremendous growth in research on extended family relationships, coupled with more limited research on religious participation among Black Americans (Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004). The two bodies of work have intersected in important ways to produce new lines of research investigating the role of church members in informal social support networks (Krause, 2002; Krause, Ellison, & Wulff, 1998; Taylor & Chatters, 1986, 1988). Given the relatively high levels of church attendance among African Americans (Taylor et al.), church networks and their constituent members are likely an important source of informal support on par with family and friendship relationships. Church networks are certainly deserving of serious inquiry, particularly among population groups such as African Americans that evidence high levels of religious involvement.
The purpose of this paper was to investigate a model of the receipt of informal support from church members among African Americans. Informed by the research of Bengtson and colleagues (Bengtson, Olander, & Haddad, 1976; Bengtson & Schraeder, 1982; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997) on family support networks, the present study proposed and tested a model of church member-based informal social support networks using structural equation modeling techniques and data from a national probability sample of Black Americans.
The role of church members in the informal social support networks of Black Americans is important for several principal reasons. First, churches and religious participation have played a particularly important role in addressing various supportive needs in African American communities through their involvement in health and social welfare initiatives, community organizing, educational development, and civic endeavors (Billingsley, 1999; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Taylor et al., 2004). Ethnographic and historical research indicates that because of the exclusion and disenfranchisement of African Americans from mainstream societal establishments, religious institutions play a pivotal supportive role in Black communities and are responsive to the support needs of individuals and families (Billingsley; Lincoln & Mamiya). These supportive functions are particularly important given persistent low levels of education and income, relatively high rates of poverty, and access barriers to formally organized services (e.g., health) that characterize segments of the African American population.
Research among older Blacks (Taylor & Chatters, 1986) and adult Blacks overall (Taylor & Chatters, 1988) indicate that two-thirds of respondents receive some level of assistance from their church members. Church-based support networks provide a variety of types of assistance, and although the majority of respondents report …