Are Black Churches, Once a Civil Rights Vanguard, Losing Importance?

February 27, 2023 By Mike Mather, Mike Mather,

Jason Oliver Evans, a University of Virginia doctoral student in Religious Studies, recently wrote in “The Conversation” about whether the “Black Church” is losing influence as more and more people shed religion as a centerpiece of their lives.

That could have ramifications that extend beyond religion, Evans argued, because the “Black Church” has also been a bulwark behind generations of civil rights struggles and triumphs, and social change. UVA Today asked Evans his views on the role of the current church in the lives of African Americans, and what this trend of declining church attendance means.

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Q: When you or scholars talk about the “Black Church,” what does that mean to you?

A. The short answer is, “it’s complicated.” For some scholars of African American religion, the term “Black Church” conventionally refers to those members of seven historic independent African American Protestant denominations, including National Baptist Convention USA, National Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Baptist Convention, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Church of God in Christ. However, scholars like religious historians Josef Sorett and Anthea Butler suggest that the term “Black Church” lacks precision because it excludes other Black Christians, specifically those Blacks who belong to so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations, the three million African American members of the Roman Catholic Church, and those who belong to Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Moreover, with this framing, the Black Church would also exclude Black members of majority white conservative evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic churches, and many predominantly Black independent or “non-denominational” churches. Therefore, Sorett, Butler, and others call for a more expansive understanding of the Black Church that includes not only those previously mentioned but also members of religious movements that fall outside of mainstream Christianity, including the International Peace Mission Movement, the United House of Prayer for All People, Black Hebrew Israelite religions, the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Nation of Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and other religious traditions.

So, for me, when I use the term “Black Church,” I use it to refer to those African Americans who travel under the sign of “Christian,” regardless of denominational affiliation, while keeping in mind these other uses.

Q: In your essay in “The Conversation,” you quote some scholars as saying the “Black Church” is defunct while others say it is remains vibrant. What’s your conclusion?

A. I believe that the Black Church remains an influential religious and cultural institution despite its declining membership. It continues to shape the lives of many African Americans. At best, it provides a sense a belonging, community, power and significance in the face of personal hardships and enduring systemic challenges. It is not only a site for the cultivation of Black religious expression, but also has contributed to both African American cultural expressions and American culture at large.

Despite its remaining influence, it remains to be seen how African American Christian churches will come to terms with growing distrust of religion among younger people. One of the longstanding critiques of Christianity by Black critics is that it is the “white man’s religion.” Alongside this, many Black LGBTQ youth and women call out pervasive patriarchy, queer-antagonism and trans-antagonism in many Black churches. Given the challenges to advances of women’s and LGBTQ rights in the United States from religious and political conservatives, these groups perceive conservative Black churches as colluding with these forces.

Q: During the civil rights movement, Black churches and congregants rallied for racial equality. Yet according to the Pew Research Center in 2021, most Black congregants attend Black churches while white worshipers go to white churches. Why are churches still so segregated?

A. Churches are segregated, in part, because of the enduring racism and white supremacy in the United States of America, including American Christianity. In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour. Unfortunately, this continues even into the 21st century because this nation has yet to reckon with the full impact that racism has upon every institution, including Christianity. Of course, some evangelical Christian churches have attempted to integrate their communities across racial differences. However, many of these multiracial congregations haven’t been successful in dismantling racism. For one, it is more often the case that these communities are predominantly white and led by white pastors. Rarely are these congregations led by nonwhite pastors without some white person (often male) being on staff as the senior pastor. Another issue is the tendency of white evangelical Christians to perceive racism to be an individual attitude or behavior rather than a structural problem.

I wager that the majority of African American Christians are not particularly interested in joining these efforts because they have established churches, fellowships, and denominations since the 18th century. As I previously stated, African American Christian communities, at their best, provide African American Christians a sense of belonging, community, power, and significance. Therefore, as long as white evangelical Christians continue to align themselves with political interests that reinforce racial and economic inequality, African American Christians will remain within the house of the Black Church. This is not to say that whites and other people of color are excluded from joining Black churches. Some, in fact, have joined and participate in the leadership of these communities. But until American Christianity and the nation at large fully reckons with racism and white supremacy, segregated churches will continue to be a reality.

Q: Across all religions, the number of people regularly attending church is dropping. How has that affected Black churches and the social justice causes many still fight for? Are Black churches losing their influence?

A. According to the Pew Research Center, Black churches are declining at a slower pace than other religious groups. Despite this decline, African Americans are the most religious racial group in the United States. So, yes, while Afro-Christianity is losing relevance among younger millennials and Gen-Zers, Black churches continue to have influence. Furthermore, as I indicated in my article, not all Black churches participate in social justice efforts. For those who do participate, however, they’ve had to find more creative ways to engage in the pursuit of justice considering not only this decline in membership but also the pandemic.

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Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

Q: As more and more young people eschew religion, are all churches, including Black churches, heading towards extinction? Do you see any way to reverse the trend?

A. I find this question to be very interesting because, despite the decline in religious affiliation in the United States, the global landscape portrays an increase of religious fervor, specifically in Africa, Asia and South America. Also, I am neither a sociologist nor a prognosticator, and so for me to say that Black churches are heading towards extinction would be presumptuous.

However, I realize that the trend is significant and reflects a larger tendency within the American population to eschew religion for multiple reasons. Most significantly, I think that Black churches, if they desire to reverse this trend, must first be willing to actually listen to what younger Black people are saying about the meaning of religion, specifically Christian faith, and its role in contemporary society. Then they must take this information and think critically about the central message of their faith and whether or not they are actually practicing what they proclaim, considering these concerns.

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