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Is the Black Church Dead? Debate Flares Among African-American Christians

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LITHONIA, Ga. -- Under a sparkling blue sky, thousands of worshipers in cars and SUVs streamed into the mall-like parking lots at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a sprawling campus just off I-20 in this suburb of Atlanta.

It was Sunday morning, and for the African-American families flocking to services that meant it was time for church, just as it had for generations of black Christians who had found in the pews not only a sanctuary from a hostile world, but also a platform for communal action to make their lives better.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation commemorates on Monday, was a product of the black church, and the black church has arguably done as much as any Christian community to inspire the soul and culture of modern American society. It has supplied the prophetic language that has driven the nation's ongoing reconciliation with the original sin of slavery, and it helped form the character of Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president and an orator with the delivery of a black preacher.

Yet New Birth Missionary Baptist -- with 25,000 members who generously bankroll high-living pastors and high-tech services -- is also emblematic of what many in the African-American community see as a profound crisis in black Christianity, or even the "death" of the black church.

One objection is that this prominent Georgia megachurch preaches a money-centered "prosperity gospel" that traditional African-American clergy consider a betrayal of their faith's legacy of sacrifice and social justice. This focus on personal financial gain represents a kind of cultural conservatism that is spreading among black churches, critics say, and signals a concern for the success of each individual congregation rather than the national community.

In addition, New Birth's charismatic leader, Bishop Eddie Long, is under intense scrutiny for allegations that he used his position as a spiritual counselor to coerce at least four men into sexual relationships while they were teens, giving them cars and cash in return. Long and his representatives have denied the charges, saying only that Long -- who said he takes pride in being called "Daddy" by the congregants -- was just serving as a mentor to the teenagers and did not engage in sex with them.

Long, who is 57 and married (and an opponent of gay rights) freely admits that he is "not perfect." But he is also not about to step aside from his pulpit, and, more importantly, his congregation has rallied to his side.

"Of course we support him," a congregant who gave his name only as Roger said after a nearly three-hour service of rollicking music and praise for Long, and insistent appeals for donations -- appeals that were repeatedly answered as thousands streamed up to the pulpit to lay wads of cash in a growing pile on the stage.

"We're just men. We have no right to judge," Roger said. "Whatever happens is between you and God."

"He's doing what God anointed him to do," agreed his wife, Eleanor, as they pushed a stroller with their 1-year-old grandson. "This is a little thing," she said of the charges. "There are so many big things to worry about."

That's not how a lot of other voices in the black church see clergy like Eddie Long.

"They're pastors, but they're really in the Halloween costume of a Fortune 500 CEO. And in the process they're trick-or-treating the people," Jonathan L. Walton, an assistant professor of African-American religion at Harvard Divinity School, told an appreciative audience three days earlier at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta.

Ebenezer Baptist is 20 miles away from New Birth Missionary Baptist, and light years distant in terms of black history and a lot of contemporary black Christianity.

Founded in 1886 during the brutal post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, Ebenezer Baptist was the church of Martin Luther King, Jr., (and his father), the seat of "pastoral royalty" in the church, and the icon of what the black church hoped to be, and what it became. The event where Walton and others spoke opened with the black gospel standard, "We've Come This Far By Faith," and concluded with "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," known since the civil rights era as the black national anthem.

Yet for all that poignant history, the Ebenezer Baptist panel focused on what the black church needs to do today in order stay relevant, and above all to help a community struggling more than ever.

During the discussion, participants lamented the growing conservatism and anti-intellectualism that they often found in the black church. They also cited the community's broad antagonism toward homosexuals, a phenomenon that has been widely noted as black voters have been crucial blocs in voting against gay marriage ballots.

The panelists also ripped what they see as the accommodation of black churches like New Birth to the kind of winner-take-all, capitalist mentality that Dr. King struggled against in the name of social justice -- a gospel concept that has become anathema to believers like Glenn Beck and his Tea Party followers.

"We're baptizing a lot of this crap in the name of Jesus," Walton protested, sparking more applause.

These vastly disparate views of contemporary African-American Christianity -- and the fact that the differences are roiling the black church to such a degree -- can come as a surprise to outsiders who tend to see "the black church" as a monolithic entity, a community of like-minded liberals walking arm in arm like those grainy newsreel images from the civil rights era.

But in fact the problems are real, the arguments are passionate, and it has all spilled in to the open over the past year.

The precipitating event was an essay posted last February on the Huffington Post by Eddie Glaude, Jr., a young African-American religion professor at Princeton who gave his column the eye-catching title, "The Black Church Is Dead," and continued that with an equally arresting lead:

"Of course, many African-Americans still go to church," Glaude began, noting surveys that track the higher-than-average religiosity of American blacks. "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," he said.

In his obituary, Glaude cited a number of official causes of death, including the fact that black churches are -- like houses of worship in other communities -- increasingly just another facet of people's lives rather than the central organizing principle: "I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs."

Also, upwardly mobile blacks are continuing the process of assimilation and are therefore attending traditionally white churches, while African-Americans of all classes are drawn to megachurches led by white pastors such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Entrepreneurial black clergy, including Bishop Long and Creflo Dollar, are also trying to create their own megachurch phenomena, and are building on the legacy of flash-and-cash African-American pastors of the past like Reverend Ike and Prophet Jones.

Above all, however, Glaude in his essay was hoping to expose the "myth" of the black church as a unified, progressive entity that served as both central rallying point for the African-American community and its engine for social and economic uplift.

That view never really reflected the reality on the ground, Glaude notes. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his activist allies were sharply criticized by some fellow black clergy for being too liberal, for example, and split from the more conservative black church establishment of the day to establish the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

If anything, that myth of a large, liberal and influential black church is less viable today than ever, and that has profound political ramifications. Resurgent conservatism like the Tea Party movement, for example, seems to have channeled the grass roots energy that the black churches once had, and the black churches -- representing as many as 30 million people in 50,000 congregations -- have not been able to marshal the votes to respond in kind.

Just look at exit polls from the 2010 mid-term elections, which indicated that only 10 percent of African-American voters went to the polls, a dismal turnout of what is by far the most reliably Democratic bloc and in a campaign in which every sign of support was critical for the political prospects of Obama, the first African-American president.

"If the 2010 election is a preliminary tea-leaf-reading to 2012, then President Obama has a lot to think about in terms of re-mobilizing the strong African-American voter base that he enjoyed in 2008," Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and a prominent African-American voice, wrote in a post-mortem. "Part of that base -- the old guard 'black church' coalition -- is not as strong as it could be. Republicans have learned to mobilize their 'affinity groups,' but black churches do not have the same strong community and 'affinity' links that existed in the past."

But whatever the realities, the black churches occupy such a sacred space in the African-American imagination, as well as the national consciousness, that Glaude's obituary was bound to spark intense debate. And did it ever.

The website ReligionDispatches.com called Glaude's essay "the Digital-Age equivalent of nailing a set of theses to a church door" when it hosted a series of often pointed responses a month later, in March 2010. Glaude and one of those respondents, Josef Sorett, an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, engaged in a bloggingheads.tv debate on the topic.

Then just last month, leaders representing the nine largest traditionally black denominations gathered in Washington to try to re-launch a national entity to "fill the void for a unified voice of faith" -- an implicit acknowledgment of aspects of Glaude's critique. The newly constituted Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) aims to affect public policy on issues like health care, education and the economy, all areas where the black churches have had nothing like the impact they had during the civil rights era.

"[T]he absence of voice has allowed more conservative voices to come in and say they speak for the black church," the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, head of the CNBC, told NPR. "They may speak for some aspect of it, but that's not the whole story. What we want to make sure is that the whole story of prophetic social engagement, public policy challenge is a part what it is that we do."

While Richardson acknowledged the truth in some of Glaude's critique, others were not so open to his jeremiad.

Some sharply criticized Glaude for airing the community's dirty laundry -- allowing the broader public, as Samuel Freedman put it in a New York Times column, "to eavesdrop on the theological equivalent of a black barbershop, a place of glorious disputation that is usually kept out of white earshot."

Others objected that Glaude's own connection to the historic black churches was too tenuous to give him standing to criticize the community (Glaude was raised a Catholic and considers himself a Christian but rarely attends church) while a few protested that he was an intellectual, not a minister with experience in the pews.

"Theologians and philosophers like Eddie Glaude don't go to black churches," Lawrence H. Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar and co-author of the "The Black Church in the African American Experience," told Freedman. "They haven't been out in the field. And unless you're in the field, you can't see what's happening."

But in the end, many seem to accept that the debate has been healthy, even if uncomfortable, including Glaude.

"I was somewhat shocked by the initial reaction," Glaude told PoliticsDaily last week. "But I think the subsequent conversation was really good, despite the passions of some of the exchanges."

He said the essay helped to show that black churches "are not inherently progressive or somehow necessarily places where prophetic energies emerge," and to push the black church "to insist that progressive black Christians insert their voices more powerfully into the national conversation."

"This is really about turning over the soil so we can think about what it means to be black and Christian in the 21st century."

"In Christianity death never has the last word," Glaude said. "So to declare the death of the black church is actually to declare the precondition for its resurrection."

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suebrett5

The traditional black church was also a place of refuge. The racism left them very few outlets or support systems. Many of the earlier pastors were truly called by God to preach. In my opinion, the majority of the current pastors are entering the profession for the monetary gain. As your congregation becomes more educated, so must the pastor. This is why the older, traditional churches are failing. Younger congregations expect proper pronounciation of words, lesson plan based message and a connection between prosperity and religion. The BEGGING has put off many members. The lack of financial planning; expanding buildings and expensive remodeling have put off members. The members as a whole are never consulted about expansions, improvements. However, they are expected to pay for it through additional donations. The economy has hurt them the most. Many people have ceased tithing or cut back. Several churches I know of have approached the members insisting they must continue to tithe at the same rate. Others have gone so far as to ask you to put donatons on credit cards! This is a take off from Creflo Dollar. Pastors who live above the means of their congregation are dying dinosaurs. People want their church to give back to them at their time of need instead of being badgered to continue their giving. Nonetheless, I do believe Glaude is biased in his criticism. We all know the history of the catholic church. They have a history of acceptimng donations from illegal and unethically sources. Corruption exists in every denomination. Most who can combine the tradition with modern day needs of their congregation will survive. I now attend a multicultural, nondenominaitonal church. They are more focused on what they do for others and members of the congregation. Never any begging for money. people give what they can and they manage to raise the money needed. In addition, every Sunday, the amount of money taken in from the week before is published in the bulletin. Most Black churches today have eliminated this procedure. You're lucky if you can receive a statment of your donations from the previous year for your taxes.

January 16 2011 at 1:09 PM
lobo7606

The church had brought about ethnic identity and Christianity, but this is no longer needed. MLK would not have wanted the continuation of separating Blacks from everyone--and in their worship of Christ. Separatism today is not necessary, and I think that Blacks need to take a look at their need to do this.

January 16 2011 at 1:07 PM
catuscrud

Just like the greek god zeus and roman god jupiter the jesus and allah gods are myths. These denominations have many different gods all named jesus.

January 16 2011 at 1:07 PM
maggiemoe1950

Although I've mentioned several areas of science
where the Bible has been vindicated, the Bible
is not primarily a science book. It is not written
to tell us how the heavens go; it is written to tell
us how to get to Heaven. Similarly, although the
Bible contains accurate historical information,
it is not primarily a history book. It is " His
story, " the story of God.

January 16 2011 at 1:07 PM
cwmktng

is the white Church dead too?

January 16 2011 at 1:06 PM
dvw747

If you didnot encounter a missionary and got saved prior to becomming a slave and being shipped over, then I'm curious to know, what god did you pray to while in the bowels of those ships? Please someone, anyone hit me back on this, this question has dogged me all my life, dvw747@aol.com

January 16 2011 at 1:06 PM
ROBERT CASTAGNA

David Gjibson's report on the black church has undetones of political motivations rather than religious beliefs.

January 16 2011 at 1:05 PM
maggiemoe1950

I hope one day, we will all realize God's Church is not about color. My understanding of the word 'Church' in the Bible is that it is refering to the disciples of Christ. We should all be seeking the will of Our Father in Heaven, and doing the things our Lord Jesus Christ would want us to do. One day Jesus will come for His Church. I can assure you it won't be for a building, a domination, or a color.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. EPHESIANS 2:19-22 May our Lord Jesus bless you and give you Peace.

January 16 2011 at 1:05 PM
jaguar6cy

It is a sign of growth, maturity and real progress when churches choose to promote achievement and accomplishment over the dead end of "social justice" give me dogma.

January 16 2011 at 1:02 PM
jpjgamas

Do Black churches still vow alliegence to Africa rather than their existence in the U.S.? That's a very interesting difference in white, black, pink or purple churches. So called white churches only alliegence is to God not a far away continent!

January 16 2011 at 1:02 PM

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