The Vital Black Church

African-American churches confront cultural changes that may be as worrisome for them as rapidly declining memberships are for mainline white churches.

In Concord Baptist Church in Boston's South End, the gospel chorus stills each heart in the packed white-and-oak sanctuary with a rendition of "Hush, Someone's Calling My Name."

Across town in Greater Victory Temple on Blue Hill Avenue, worshippers take turns testifying to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Down the road in Mattapan, green-blazered ushers communicate via headsets as they search for any vacant seat among the singing and swaying crowd in New Covenant Christian Center's third overflow service of the day.

The Sabbath is alive and full of praise to God in the city's black churches - as in similar neighborhoods across America. And whichever the denomination, worship is not a quick one-hour affair, but a mindful, joyous sharing of the Word and a celebration of its living power.

But as polls continue to show African-Americans as more religious and more active in their practice than other Americans (see chart), black churches confront new tests that may be as worrisome for them as rapidly declining memberships are for mainline white churches.

"The black church is at its most crucial stage since its emergence" in American life, says Forrest Harris Sr., director of Vanderbilt University's Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black Church in Nashville, Tenn. "It's struggling with an identity crisis," insists James Thomas, pastor at Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville.

While it still ministers to enthusiastic congregations, the church's historical role is threatened, many worry. It has always been where the whole community came together. Since early slaves found a religious consciousness of freedom that sustained them under the direst circumstances, the church has spearheaded African-American liberation and fueled the creation of a unique, vibrant culture that has left its mark worldwide. Now, not only are large numbers of urban poor growing up "unchurched," but classism has reared its head, and many young people complain the traditional church is too stuck in its ways. Some are opting for other church experiences or none at all.

Since 1992, the institute has been sponsoring a national dialogue among ministers and theologians on what it means to be black and Christian - and how to reenvision the church's message to respond more profoundly to these challenges as well as the social maladies that disproportionately affect the black community.

"There will be a generational problem, and there is a growing class problem," says Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and African studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The largest growing segment of the unchurched in black communities is among young, urban poor males and females. There have been two generations of young people not raised in the black tradition."

Some churches are working hard to reach out, he says, but the class divide is not always easy to overcome, even among "very aware pastors and churches with large social programs." For example, Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York's Harlem, a large church of about 8,000, with many members driving in from other areas, "is having difficulty getting people in the neighborhood to come."

Also, Dr. Mamiya says, "young people are not sticking to the churches as in the past." While they haven't yet lost large segments of the population, as have white churches, he says that could happen in the 21st century. Young blacks are very concerned with spiritual questions, says Renita Weems, assistant professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, but they aren't hung up on denominational boundaries. The cultural environment makes them ambitious to go after what they want, she says, and they want transcendence; they don't want to feel like victims or just survivors.

Music is a key generational issue - what some call the most divisive issue in churches today, both white and black. "For some youths, the pipe organ seems otherworldly, out of touch with their lives," says Sherman Tribble, musicologist and a Baptist pastor in Nashville. Music is so essential to the black church - a close second to preaching - that it can be a survival issue.

Another trend unsettling some churches is the sign, as in the society as a whole, of shifting allegiances. The traditional Methodist and Baptist churches have begun to lose out to more conservative sects - Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of God in Christ and other Pentecostals - and to nondenominational megachurches, says Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Vanderbilt. The number of black megachurches is growing, Mamiya says. Many are part of the neo-Pentecostal movement, and the deep spirituality and more contemporary music appeal to young people.

Two preachers about 25 years into their ministries here exemplify the leadership role the church has long played and how it is responding to the challenges. One pastors an 80-year-old Baptist church; the other, a new megachurch with a multicultural clientele. Both base their ministries on the Bible and are committed to community outreach that has a spiritual foundation.

The Rev. Conley Hughes Jr., in his 11th year as pastor at Concord Baptist Church, is working to prepare his congregation for the future. "The challenge for traditional churches is to seek renewal in terms of our methods. Our principles remain the same, because they are divine principles, but our methods must change."

"The younger generation is interested more in teaching than in traditional preaching, and they are used to consumer choices. They look for what you offer in addition to the worship service and one-hour Friday prayer. People want focus groups and seminars - spiritual resources to help in their vocation. 'You're teaching us biblical principles about stewardship,' they say, 'now we want to see how those relate to the management of our financial plans.' "

Concord's active membership of about 1,000 is "upwardly mobile but inclusive," Pastor Hughes says. And on any given Sunday, they may have visitors from several countries. "Some don't always look kindly on new immigrants - from the Caribbean, for example. But the black church has to prepare itself for the 21st century - to be multilingual and multicultural," he says. He makes it a regular theme for his congregation - the need to embrace those who are different. Hughes has also tackled head-on the issue of music. "I've insisted on a variety of musical genres in every church I've served - contemporary and old hymns and spirituals."

Yet the young need to appreciate the old songs - and the history they represent. Hughes remembers vividly the church of his childhood in Jacksonville, Fla. - old hymns with syncopation (some from Africa) and the narrative preaching that made the Bible come alive. "That is what drew me.... I don't want young blacks to abandon the rich cultural heritage of the black church.... My hope is that they hold onto our heritage as a people but transcend that, so they will have both roots and wings."

Concord has 28 ministries and each develops a partnership with a community institution to serve people's needs, such as those of single parents. They have a Saturday church school for kids from preschool to 17, and a housing and economic-development corporation to develop affordable housing and spur entrepreneurial growth.

"Jesus said, 'I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.' This is what our faith teaches us," Hughes says. "How can we make this practical in our communities?"

The Rev. Gilbert Thompson is senior pastor of New Covenant Christian Center, a 3,500-member megachurch he and his wife started 16 years ago. The church holds its Sunday services, 5 a.m. weekday prayer meetings, and other activities in a remodeled supermarket.

Pastor Thompson comes from a conservative theological background, but he has built his thriving church on what some call the "social gospel." He resigned from his previous post when that church felt it was wrong to become involved in the community.

"While praying in the fall of 1982, I heard the words, 'a church without walls.' I had never heard or read that before, so I began to pray about what that meant," he says. What he learned became the vision for New Covenant: the people of God banding together as a building of "living stones" to create the kingdom of God in the inner city.

"The social gospel involves empowering the community spiritually, economically, socially, politically, culturally. But you can't establish the kingdom of God by fleshly means." So Thompson has concentrated first on teaching the Word and building up a community of "mature believers." Then, "we can do something in the community that could not be done by each of us alone," he says.

That vision is what drew Betsy Stewart, a public-health nurse, to New Covenant more than a decade ago. The huge congregation sustains a sense of involvement and purpose through the church's "cell structure," she says. Every member belongs to a small group of up to 12 that meets weekly in homes. Ms. Stewart herself has become a district pastor, helping minister to a number of the small groups.

Thompson concentrates on the spiritual work, and others on the staff "apply the truths we learn in the Scriptures" in political, economic, and social strategies, he says. They range from the Boys' Action Ministry (all the youths in the program have graduated from high school) to working with gangs and in prisons, to the development of properties they've bought around the city.

"We try to mix up the worship and styles of what we do so that it appeals to a variety of people.... I believe that the church is not black or white, and that in a world where division reigns, only the church or the redeemed community can mirror unity.

"There is no organization that can act more powerfully to bring about change than the church," Thompson says. "The church must see itself not in a demonstrating, protesting role, but as people called of God to preach the good news that He has promised abundant life to all of us."

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