Young Adults and the Appearance of Religion

Article excerpt

Religion is alive and well in the homes, worship houses and hearts of many African-American young adults. As a working definition, I take religion to mean: a system of belief in, and worship of, a Supreme Being (or Beings). This system produces communities, institutions, and organizations that seek to shape the life of the individuals and groups within it.

The title of this article is metaphorical. "Appearance" alludes to Ralph Ellison's metaphor of the invisibility of black people in this society. Religion, as a mode of acquiring personal and collective power, has the ability to make its adherents "appear, " i.e. be seen or even become more real, to themselves, and to those who would make them invisible. The metaphor of "appearance" also means that this attempt to give both an overview without claiming to be definitive or exhaustive. Other interpretations are possible. I do hope however, to facilitate an understanding of religion as it attracts young black adults, ages 2535.

The Dominant Expressions: Christianity

Currently, the dominant religion in the African-American community is Christianity; taken together, its seven major black denominations-the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal, the Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention, USA, the National Baptist Convention, Inc., and the Progressive National Baptist Convention-claim a membership of more than 25 million members. To these, one could also add several other smaller denominations, as well as black constituencies in white denominations; and, at the cutting edge of the black Church movement," the mega ministries movement.

Mega ministries are rooted in megachurches, the large congregations of three thousand and more members which have developed since the 1970s. One point of difference between these new megachurches and older megachurches is that much of the latter's membership comes from the new African-American middle class which rushed through the new doors of opportunity opened by the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s.

Another is these newer megachurches' focus on the concept of "ministry."

Although I can't pinpoint the emergence of this term, I personally associate it with the rise of the ministry of Reverend Fred Price, pastor of the Crenshaw Christian Center, in Los Angeles In the 1980s. Rev. Price spurred a revolution in African-American Christianity with his emphasis on the "Word," (i.e., the Bible) in his own "word ministry"-which included a popular TV show, evangelistic tours, and national conferences. Although ministries emphasizing spiritual and material prosperity were not new, the demographic character of the majority of Price's congregants was a new element: They were a new black middle class seeking religious understandings and undergirdings of the prosperity which stemmed from their inclusion in the mainstream corporate and government worlds. Many of those deeply influenced by Price's "Word" revolution were black adults, ages 25-35.

This concept of ministry was part of a doctrine of truth grounded in Protestant evangelical Christianity, which holds the Bible as the ultimate authority for both group and individual life. This concept of ministry said that for every human need there is a foundation of effective, applicable truth in the Bible. Out of this doctrine, "singles," "couples," "men's," and "women's," ministries began to emerge. The combination of new doctrinal interpretations and emphases, national media and effective examples that converged in ministries like Rev. Price's have had a powerful appeal to young adults grappling with the stresses of life in the post-technological era. Many, if not most of these newer mega churches are Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal. This is an important feature because Pentecostalism promotes a relationship with God and an expression of one's religious fervor that is both intensely individualistic and simultaneously communal. …