WASHINGTON — On a sweltering afternoon in the summer of fire, the Rev. Milton Williams, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a man whose piping baritone stirs cathedrals, finds himself searching for words.
The question he wrestles with is not unfamiliar. On cool nights, often after news of another torching, Mr. Williams has wondered whether America's black churches are in a period of crisis, transition, or renewal.
His silence has more to do with the enormity of the answer. "All of the above," he finally whispers. "All of the above."
In the last 50 years, few institutions have changed America as dramatically as black churches. Since the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., its leaders have faced down bias with a steady moral force.
But a string of arsons in black churches, a changing political climate in Washington, and the fading interest of many young African-American men have tested this resolve. In coming years, black churches must retain their moral underpinnings while attracting a new generation of congregants who never saw the mountains their elders moved.
"We thought that our heritage and our traditions could sustain us alone," Williams says. "But now we find that we have to be more contemporary."
At a summit of black religious leaders this week at Howard University in Washington, conversations about arson inevitably turned to another topic: graying congregations.
Although the vast number of independent churches in the black community makes it difficult to measure trends in participation, most religious leaders say they've noticed a decline in the number of young faces, mostly male, in the pews. While churches of all denominations are confronting this issue, religious leaders say the reason fewer youths are joining black churches is ironically due to the successes of the civil rights movement. As more opportunities for leadership in government and business have opened to African-Americans, the church's appeal has waned.
"Historically, churches were the only institution blacks controlled," says Archbishop Augustus Stallings Jr. of the African American Catholic Congregation. "As more opportunities have become available to blacks, it's not as much of an all-encompassing institution. We need a new youth movement."
This shift, Mr. Stallings says, is typified by the small but highly visible rise of black Muslims. This movement, often associated with its most powerful leader, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, has targeted young black men.
The Muslims, leaders say, are winning converts with a strict code of behavior, a more-militant outlook, and an eagerness to proselytize. "The Nation of Islam has demonstrated that discipline is attractive," Williams says.
In response, many Christian churches have emphasized discipline, he says, and have turned an ear to the problems of youth, offering such services as financial assistance, college advice, tutoring, and groups for newlyweds.
But Stallings and other leaders say black churches suffer from a perception among young people that they have lost their activist fire, a view that is largely justified. "The black church got apathetic after the civil rights movement," he says. "It's beginning to lose its edge in effecting change."
To religious scholars, the declining political efficacy of black churches reflects a larger trend in American religious life: increasing political diversity. Since the Vietnam War, many congregations have made a point of avoiding topics that might divide members, even dropping political and social advocacy altogether.
Although most black churches are far more politically active than their white counterparts, says Dow Chamberlain of the Interfaith Center for Public Policy, they now contain far more middle-class blacks "who do not have an antipoverty agenda and may have a derogatory view of those who are still in poverty."
This political dispersion, he says, makes it more difficult for churches to find common ground on issues such as welfare reform and affordable housing.
Yet many urge ministers to redouble their efforts. "Early civil rights battles were fought over the right to vote and to buy a suit in a department store," says former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder. "Now, churches must take a leadership role in promoting issues like race-based redistricting and affirmative action."
"Today's civil rights issues don't have the same drama," adds Theodore Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, "but they're just as significant. We once thought these problems could be solved by politicians, but now it's apparent that the problems run deeper."