Tradition is not always prologue, and the plural of inspiring anecdote is not hard data. Black church history and present-day examples aside, just how common are black-led outreach ministries, how much of what The Reverend Eugene Rivers terms “high-octane faith” is in the black church tank, and what, if any, more systematic evidence is there to suggest that the extent of youth and community outreach by black churches is nontrivial? Part of the reason many black churches do not grow is they are simply not relevant. At which point the church becomes only about the cross, with the power of that cross diminished as the cross cannot, apparently, fight city hall.
A refined and empirically well-grounded
perspective on variations in the extent of black church outreach
is provided by sociologist Harold Dean Trulear, an ordained
black minister who did outreach work in New Jersey, taught for
eight years at the New York Theological Seminary, has conducted
extensive research on black clergy training, and is presently
Vice President for research on religion and at-risk youth at
Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia.
“When it comes to youth and community outreach in the inner
city,” Trulear cautions, “not all black urban churches are created
equal . . . Naturally, it’s in part a function of high
resident membership. Inner-city churches with high resident
membership cater more to high-risk neighborhood youth than . . .
black churches with inner-city addresses, but increasingly or
predominantly suburbanized or commuting congregations . . . [The
high resident membership black churches] tend to cluster by size
and evangelical orientation . . . It’s the small and
medium-sized churches . . . [especially] the so-called . . .
blessing stations and specialized youth chapels with their
charismatic leader and their small, dedicated staff of adult
volunteers [that] . . . do a disproportionate amount of the up
close and personal outreach work with the worst-off inner-city
When it comes to social action against urban problems and the plight of the black inner-city poor, the reality is that black churches cannot do it all (or do it alone) and that not all black churches do it. But that reality should obscure neither the black church outreach tradition nor its many and powerful contemporary manifestations from Boston to Austin, from New York to Los Angeles. —John J. DiIulio, Jr., Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute, Director, The Jeremiah Project: Living Faith: The Black Church Outreach Tradition.
The African American church likes to pride itself
in the achievements of the civil rights movement, when the
church took point in the struggle to force America to take
notice of the plight of African Americans. Through that
struggle, the African American church earned its reputation as a
powerful and fearsome machine of social change, a reputation the
church clings to today in spite of being functionally
toothless. Far too many African American churches have been resting on
celebrating itself and rewarding itself, patting itself on the
back for things you and I had nothing to do with; things that
happened thirty and forty years before. But we wear that crown
and reward ourselves, when a quick inventory of many of our
churches today would yield a fairly empty report.
As I said in an earlier essay, in 1965 the loudest and most prolific voice in the African American community, the African American voice that inspired the most fear and ultimately the most hatred from the white majority, was that of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, the loudest and most prolific voice in the African American community, the African American voice that inspires the most fear and ultimately the most hatred, is that of The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. Of the thousands of thunderous, poetic, prolific speakers among our churches, none can move or shake or frighten America the way Louis Farrakhan’s voice does. So much so that black Christians—whose moral imperative is to reject Islam as Jesus said “I am the way, no man cometh unto the Father but by me,” nonetheless rally to Farrakhan’s cause and salute the social significance of his ministry.
Today, the African American church has no voice. No face. It is splintered into thousands of factions. There are numerous tremendous leaders among the church, but only the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton are household names among white families. Not even Bishop T.D. Jakes, heir apparent to the stratospheric, universal recognition of a Billy Graham, is as well known among non-blacks as Jackson and Sharpton. Both men have done and are doing important work and remain important national voices, but their own peccadilloes have allowed the media to paint them both as opportunists, and the African American church hardly rallies around them they way they once might. Bishop Jakes, for his part, rarely appears at the forefront of socioeconomic warfare; his vast personal wealth and unparalleled influence—as powerful as cruise missiles—rarely brought to bear. I assume Jakes' posture serves some strategic purpose and greater good, but as an icon of the black community Jakes' apparent caution disappoints in the context of other icons like Harry Belafonte, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Bill Cosby who are routinely bloodied for speaking out and leading.
Part of the reason many black churches do not grow is they are simply not relevant. People in the community have a head-scratching notion of what the church’s mission and purpose is. A lot of our churches are “commuter churches,” where the congregants drive from disparate parts of town, have church, then get back into their cars and drive home. In the civil rights era, many of our churches were lighthouses: embedded within the communities they served. Poor blacks couldn’t afford cars (or gas for cars), but mass transit was inconvenient but affordable. I would imagine a lot of blacks simply walked to church. When I was a kid, several of the churches I attended were within walking distance of where we lived. Today, hardly anyone I know walks to church or attends a church within walking distance of their homes. The churches are placed wherever the congregation could find a good deal on real estate. The congregants flock in and flock out, having no imprint on and no footprint within the actual community in which the building resides. This practice directly contradicts the intent and purpose of Christ's church, which was created to dynamically propagate His love for all people, not just the specific members of a specific organization.