Is The Black Church Dead?

I am currently without church. Well, actually, I belong to a church, but I am not feeling like I have found my soul-mate place of worship. And thus, I am having a difficult time showing up. I grew up in the black Catholic church. I have belonged and/or attended lots of churches across this country—predominantly black, predominantly White, Catholic, Baptist and non-denominational. The non-denominational church I attended in Northern California was pastored by a very charismatic man from Philadelphia. It really was essentially a black church, from the black church model, only it was by far the most diverse church I have ever encountered. I enjoyed it immensely. Since I am somewhat in the searching-for-a-church mode, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s recent article an interesting contemplation. This Princeton University professor, who teaches both in the religion department and the Center for African American, proclaims on his Huffington Post blog that The Black Church is Dead. In his article, he states:

The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church…But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.

Wow! That is quite a statement considering how alive and well Black churches appear to be, at least in my neck of the woods. Here, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, the black church seems to be doing just fine—bigger than ever and growing. Even during these very challenging economic times, when congregants are struggling like never before with spiraling unemployment, foreclosure and epic health concerns, the black church carries on. Perhaps it carries on best during these difficult times.

Once you get past the title, though, what Professor Glaude is saying does resonate. He is not saying folks aren’t going to church. He is not saying folks are not still quite religious. Nothing could be further from the truth.[see Pew study– 87% of Black folks say they identify with a religious group and 79% regard religion as important] What he is saying is that the church is no longer at the center of the Black community nor reflective of our social and moral conscience. He posits the idea that our perception of the black church is out of line with how it actually serves us right now. He says we tend to hold onto the past. We think of our churches in the old prophetic and progressive models, when most continue to be quite conservative. He, in essence, is saying that we continue to think of ourselves in the tradition of the Progressive Baptist Convention, when our attachment to prosperity theology and conservative stances like right-to-life and anti-gay sentiment often run very deep (these are my examples). As Glaude points out, our churches have “always been complicate spaces.”

Glaude also points out that our communities are much more differentiated. Pretty much everyone agrees that the Black church was once the center of our community. But this can no longer be said, for many reasons. For one, is it harder to define the “Black community.” We are a more diverse people, socially and economically. And we are expressing our diversity of interests by the churches we choose to attend (or not attend). I used to live near Joel Osteen’s mega-church. The number of black folks entering and exiting that building before and after service is an impressive number. Many black folks choose non-black led churches and denominations, many of which (as Glaude observes) are quite similar to the Black church model. Still, we can really no longer say, Glaude argues, that the black church serves as a refuge within the American community.

Finally, he claims that we in the Black church have witnessed the “routinization of black prophetic witness”. He says:

Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…,” “The black church was our rock…,” Without the black church, we would have not…,” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the churches stance in the present—justifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice.

He asks what place the church has in this moment in time. He asserts that we rely on what has already been said and done to justify ourselves now, when we should be called to be our best selves, “not just slaves to doctrine or mere puppets for profit.”

I agree that the Black church must step up and out of its own shadow. I agree that we must stop looking back at the role the churches played in the past and we must redefine ourselves as an institution that matters now, that takes real socio-political positions, seeks to be a political force. And that we need to find our own connection with God, our own revelation in today’s context. As Uppity Negro says in his response to Professor Glaude’s article, we must decide to be relevant again. Instead of focusing on conferences (Megafests, to use Glaude’s example), we must begin to create a “viable intellectual community” that addresses issues with a mind to make a difference. Uppity says:

What black church groups know how to do is call in a whole bunch of preachers and ask them to expound on some random hot-button topics—as if they’re going to give an answer that we’ve never heard before. And when discussions on The Lexi Show probably are classified as intellectual discussion to the average black churchgoer, then we indeed have a problem—if you ask me.

But that means that any given church can no longer be everything to everybody. How is it that these mega churches attract so many and yet are arguably irrelevant and impotent. In times like these, you have to take some difficult stands and bring your group to some real solutions. Like Pastor Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church [http://www.11alive.com/rss/rss_story.aspx?storyid=141761] did when he took an AIDS test during his Sunday service last month. And can I just suggest for the record that outspoken preachers like the now somewhat silenced Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., was saying some things about the soci-political state of black America that we black folks needed to hear, however controversial his delivery.

I agree that we are an even more complicated bunch. When we reference the Black community, who are we talking about? As my colleagues often remind me, the Black community is no longer (if it ever was) a homogenous and monolithic thing. So how do we achieve relevance again in this complicate and diversified landscape?

Pastor Rudy Rasmus, of St. John’s Church in Houston addressed Glaude’s article this weekend in the Houston Chronicle. He said:

My addendum to his declaration [that the black church is dead]…it will dead if black church leaders don’t stop pimping and hustling for personal gain, leaving the communities around their churches in shambles and the people on their pews uninformed, economically crippled, and politically powerless.

Ironically, the accompanying photo to Rasmus’ article is a church deaconess, with a big collection basket in each hand outstretched to her right and to her left. Still, if Rasmus has figured out how to empower and inform and lift up his congregation effectively, given that his church is located near Downtown’s skid row, I just may have to pay his church a visit.

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Comments

  1. I believe that it may seem the black church is dead because throughout American history, black leaders/churches had common goals..anti-slavery, the great depression, voting rights, desegregation, etc. while today there are a myriad of issues that not only affect african americans, but the entire nation and the world. So, there appears to be no centralized cause I'm not negating the issues of AIDS, education, poverty and violence. But because of desegration, black people are now sprinkled in with the rest of society so we have to a certain extent shifted our focus off of the black community to our own personal progression and success. This, to a large extent leave the black church ineffective. I attend a church of over 25,000 members and to some, Sunday morning worship may seem like a dog and pony show. If we aren't entertained for the 2-3 hours we are there, then the collection plate is left empty. If the preacher isn't speaking on topics that directly relates to an audience members, then church attendance will begin to decrease. People have become selfish today because we “have overcome” and now share the same rights and priveledges as all of society. So why do we need God? We show up for church just for the roll call, then cut out early to make it to the restaurant before the crowd arrives. Thus, making the black church ineffective.

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