The Glass House
Reason 6: Non-Relevance
Once upon a time,
local and even federal government would be careful to engage the
black church on matters of policy. Today, in most cases, the
black church simply isn’t a factor. This is due largely to the
fact many of our pastors don’t discuss civic issues or even
current events from the pulpit. In our tradition, Sunday is
usually the best day to impact the church body with a call to
arms, but that call is rarely made. A church with 500 members
often has 18 people in attendance on Bible Study night. Has less
than that when it’s time to volunteer for neighborhood outreach
or perform unglamorous tasks like church maintenance. For us,
for our tradition, it’s Sunday or nothing, but Sundays are usually reserved for
lots of singing and eloquent homilies about Goin’ Up Yonder and
how Trouble Won’t Last Always. Truthfully, there’s nothing wrong
with that, and I acknowledge Sunday worship was not intended to
be a town hall meeting, but the facts are these: for many of us,
Sunday is the only day we are within earshot of the pastor. The
pastor’s voice carries the most weight in the church. For many
of us, his voice alone is the only one we respond to. It has to
be the pastor, and it has to be Sunday. If the congregation is
not educated on matters of civil and social justice on Sunday
morning, if those seeds are not planted within the congregation,
then the church’s response will continue to be anemic, the
faithful few. To have influence within your city or town, the
church has to march. The only way to get the church to march is to
imbed the seeds of duty and responsibility in their hearts, which won’t happen on Wednesday night
with a fraction of your church members. It must happen on Sunday
That so many important decisions can be made and laws passed without concern for possible objections from the black community is evidence of how powerless we’ve become. That perception of powerlessness becomes reality, taking root within our congregations; most especially among the younger people. The church becomes only about the cross, with the power of that cross diminished as the cross cannot, apparently, fight city hall.
People begin to perceive the Gospel of Jesus Christ as impotent; as an ethereal fairy tale about what happens after you die, rather than the fiery sword determining how we live. Pastors: by narrowing your focus to Noah and The Ark, you rob the Gospel of its transformative power to effect change within society; a society allegedly built upon Christian values and ethics. Lawmakers and power brokers fear, to some extent, the Catholic church and the powerful and rich white evangelicals, but the African American church seems to be listened to for mostly cosmetic purposes. Louis Farrakhan rallied a million men—ironically, with the help of perhaps hundreds of black pastors. But the black church itself either cannot or simply has not come close to mounting a national campaign of that scope.
The black church experience is more about the choir and the hoop-sermon about David and Goliath. The entire experience begins to lack teeth, congregants perceiving the church experience as marginal or even as entertainment. The fire in the belly is extinguished as we grow into increasingly selfish and self-centered consumers rather than focused, disciplined producers. The church itself drifts from the center of African American life into the periphery where, like a great-great grampa still wearing war-era wardrobe styles, it becomes a beloved but out-of-touch anachronism and museum of a cherished pastime. Church attendance, most especially in Bible Study and other weekday areas, becomes thought of increasingly as superfluous. Attendance drops. Your church stops growing.
To grow your church, your church needs to be about something. Needs to have a voice and a purpose. Needs to have a reason to exist beyond your Sunday song and dance. Pastors: make yourselves men to be reckoned with. Men of purpose. Men of valor whose passion for people becomes contagious. Pour yourselves into their lives and lead by example, inspiring—not ordering—them to march. Once your church starts marching, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can move from a quaint anachronism to a vital force within your community. Then watch God move.
I came across this essay by John J. DiIulio, Jr., a Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute and director of The Jeremiah Project: Living Faith: The Black Church Outreach Tradition. He speaks eloquently about the relevance of the black church and examines its purpose within society. Here are a few excerpts:
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 like
those of Lewis, 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? As Trulear has observed, “Simply stated, there has
yet to be a survey of the blessing stations and youth chapels
that do most of the actual work with the worst off kids in black
inner-city neighborhoods.” But the path-breaking research of
scholars such as Eric C. Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya,
combined with recent systematic research by Trulear and others,
should persuade even a dedicated skeptic to take church-based
The Urban Institute published the results of a survey of “faith-based service providers in the nation’s capital” in 1998. The survey found that 95 percent of the congregations performed outreach services. The 226 religious congregations (out of 1,100 surveyed) that responded (67 of them in the District, the rest in Maryland or Virginia) provided a total of over 1,000 community services to over 250,000 individuals in 1996. The services included food, clothing, and financial assistance. The survey was limited to religious congregations. Local faith-based nonprofits like The Fishing School were not surveyed.
In the mid1990's a six-city survey of how over 100 randomly-selected urban churches (and four synagogues) constructed in 1940 or earlier serve their communities was undertaken by Ram A. Cnnan of the University of Pennsylvania. The study was commissioned and published by Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit organization dedicated to the care and good use of older religious properties. Congregations were surveyed in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Mobile, and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Francisco). Each church surveyed participated in a series of in-depth interviews.
Among the Cnnan-Partners survey’s key findings were the following: 93 percent of the churches opened their doors to the larger community; on average, each church provided over 5,300 hours of volunteer support to its community programs (the equivalent of two-and-a-half fulltime volunteers stationed year-round at the church); on average, each church provided about $140,000 a year in community programs, or about 16 times what it received from program beneficiaries; on average, each church supported four major programs, and provided informal and impromptu services as well; and poor children who were not the sons or daughters of church members or otherwise affiliated with the church benefited from church-supported programs more than any other single group.
Typical of the churches behind these heartening statistics is Hyde Park Union Church, located in a Chicago neighborhood where half of recent murder victims have been juveniles. Pastored by Reverend Susan Johnson, the church sponsors Vigil Against Violence, an antiviolence grassroots initiative, and houses the State Attorney General’s Support Group for Victims of Violence program. The church also houses a Parent Support Network and operates an 89-year old daycare center that serves fifty neighborhood children, none of them congregation members. “It’s our mission,” explains Pastor Johnson, “to offer programs that stabilize family welfare.” “We don’t have much money,” she adds, but her church and others like it are the “most durable institutions in the community—more so than many businesses or (even) public schools.”
The best-known and still the most comprehensive survey focusing exclusively on black churches was published in 1990 by Lincoln and Mamiya. In their book The Black Church in the African American Experience, they reported on the results of surveys encompassing nearly 1,900 ministers and over 2,100 churches. Some 71 percent of black clergy reported that their churches engaged in community outreach programs including day care, job search, substance abuse prevention, food and clothing distribution, and many others. Black urban churches, they found, were generally more engaged in outreach than rural ones. While many urban churches also engaged in quasi-political activities and organizing, few received government money, most clergy expressed concerns about receiving government money, and only about 8 percent of all the churches surveyed received any federal government funds.
A number of site-specific and regional surveys of black churches followed the publication of Lincoln and Mamiya’s book. So far, all of them have been broadly consistent with the Lincoln-Mamiya survey results on black church outreach. To cite just two examples, in a survey of 150 black churches in Atlanta, Naomi Ward and her colleagues found that 131 of the churches were “actively engaged in extending themselves into the community.” Likewise, a survey of 635 Northern black churches found that two-thirds of the churches engaged in a wide range of “family-oriented community outreach programs,” including mentoring, drug abuse prevention, teenage pregnancy prevention, and other outreach efforts “directed at children and youth.”
The raw data from the Lincoln-Mamiya surveys were reanalyzed in the course of a 1997 study of black theological education certificate programs (Bible institutes, denominational training programs, and seminary non-degree programs). The study was directed by Trulear in collaboration with Tony Carnes and commissioned by the Ford Foundation. Trulear and Carnes reported no problems with the Lincoln-Mamiya data. Rather, they compared certain of the Lincoln-Mamiya survey results to data gathered in their own survey, 724 students representing 28 theological certificate programs that focused on serving black students. Again, the findings were quite consistent with those of the Lincoln-Mamiya study. For example, three-quarters of those surveyed by Trulear and Carnes reported that their church encouraged them “to be involved in my local community,” more than half said relevance to “my community’s needs” was of major importance to them in choosing a theological certificate program, and about half were already involved in certain types of charitable community work.
New outreach surveys are underway. As Trulear’s colleague, P/PV’s Dine Watson, told Newsweek. “there is a lot of interest in this area now, because secular institutions have failed.”
But, then again, if black church outreach is so potent, then how come inner-city poverty, crime, and other problems remain so severe? That is a fair question, but it can easily be turned around: How much worse would things be in Boston and Jamaica Queens, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and other cities were it not for the until recently largely unsung efforts of faith-based youth and community outreach efforts? How much more would government or other charitable organizations need to expend, and how many volunteers would suddenly need to be mobilized, in the absence of church-anchored outreach? The only defensible answers are “much worse” and “lots,” respectively.
Citizens who for whatever reasons are nervous about religion or enhanced church-state partnerships should focus on the consistent finding that faith-based outreach efforts benefit poor unchurched neighborhood children most of all. If these churches are so willing to support and reach out to “the least of these,” surely they deserve the human and financial support of the rest of U.S. corporations, foundations, and, where appropriate, government agencies.
I agree with Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine when he characterizes one of my earlier writings on black poverty as advancing the view that “religion is the key to anything good happening among the black poor” (well, at least the key to most good things that are happening among them). And I confess to being doubly in agreement with Father Neuhaus when he writes that, rather than turn our heads and harden our hearts to the plight of the black inner-city poor, rather than merely exposing “liberal fatuities about remedying the ‘root causes’ of poverty and crime . . . there must be another way. Just believing that is a prelude to doing something. The something in question is centered in religion that is both motive and means, and extends to public policy tasks that should claim the attention of all Americans.
Christopher J. Priest
20 July 2008