Black Churches in America Battle Another Foe: Inertia

Article excerpt

On a sweltering afternoon in the summer of fire, the Rev. Milton Williams, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a man whose piping baritone stirs cathedrals, finds himself searching for words.

The question he wrestles with is not unfamiliar. On cool nights, often after news of another torching, Mr. Williams has wondered whether America's black churches are in a period of crisis, transition, or renewal.

His silence has more to do with the enormity of the answer. "All of the above," he finally whispers. "All of the above."

In the last 50 years, few institutions have changed America as dramatically as black churches. Since the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., its leaders have faced down bias with a steady moral force.

But a string of arsons in black churches, a changing political climate in Washington, and the fading interest of many young African-American men have tested this resolve. In coming years, black churches must retain their moral underpinnings while attracting a new generation of congregants who never saw the mountains their elders moved.

"We thought that our heritage and our traditions could sustain us alone," Williams says. "But now we find that we have to be more contemporary."

At a summit of black religious leaders this week at Howard University in Washington, conversations about arson inevitably turned to another topic: graying congregations.

Although the vast number of independent churches in the black community makes it difficult to measure trends in participation, most religious leaders say they've noticed a decline in the number of young faces, mostly male, in the pews. While churches of all denominations are confronting this issue, religious leaders say the reason fewer youths are joining black churches is ironically due to the successes of the civil rights movement. As more opportunities for leadership in government and business have opened to African-Americans, the church's appeal has waned.

"Historically, churches were the only institution blacks controlled," says Archbishop Augustus Stallings Jr. of the African American Catholic Congregation. "As more opportunities have become available to blacks, it's not as much of an all-encompassing institution. We need a new youth movement."

This shift, Mr. Stallings says, is typified by the small but highly visible rise of black Muslims. …