In Concord Baptist Church in Boston's South End, the gospel
stills each heart in the packed white-and-oak sanctuary with a
rendition of "Hush, Someone's Calling My Name."
Across town in Greater Victory Temple on Blue Hill Avenue,
worshippers take turns testifying to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Down the road in Mattapan, green-blazered ushers communicate via
headsets as they search for any vacant seat among the singing and
swaying crowd in New Covenant Christian Center's third overflow
service of the day.
The Sabbath is alive and full of praise to God in the city's black
churches - as in similar neighborhoods across America. And whichever
the denomination, worship is not a quick one-hour affair, but a
mindful, joyous sharing of the Word and a celebration of its living
But as polls continue to show African-Americans as more religious
and more active in their practice than other Americans (see chart),
black churches confront new tests that may be as worrisome for them
as rapidly declining memberships are for mainline white churches.
"The black church is at its most crucial stage since its
emergence" in American life, says Forrest Harris Sr., director of
Vanderbilt University's Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black
Church in Nashville, Tenn. "It's struggling with an identity
crisis," insists James Thomas, pastor at Jefferson Avenue Baptist
Church in Nashville.
While it still ministers to enthusiastic congregations, the
church's historical role is threatened, many worry. It has always
been where the whole community came together. Since early slaves
found a religious consciousness of freedom that sustained them under
the direst circumstances, the church has spearheaded African-
liberation and fueled the creation of a unique, vibrant culture that
has left its mark worldwide. Now, not only are large numbers of
urban poor growing up "unchurched," but classism has reared its
and many young people complain the traditional church is too stuck
its ways. Some are opting for other church experiences or none at
Since 1992, the institute has been sponsoring a national dialogue
among ministers and theologians on what it means to be black and
Christian - and how to reenvision the church's message to respond
more profoundly to these challenges as well as the social maladies
that disproportionately affect the black community.
"There will be a generational problem, and there is a growing
class problem," says Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and
African studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The largest
growing segment of the unchurched in black communities is among
young, urban poor males and females. There have been two generations
of young people not raised in the black tradition."
Some churches are working hard to reach out, he says, but the
class divide is not always easy to overcome, even among "very aware
pastors and churches with large social programs." For example,
Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York's Harlem, a large church of
about 8,000, with many members driving in from other areas, "is
having difficulty getting people in the neighborhood to come."
Also, Dr. Mamiya says, "young people are not sticking to the
churches as in the past." While they haven't yet lost large segments
of the population, as have white churches, he says that could happen
in the 21st century. Young blacks are very concerned with spiritual
questions, says Renita Weems, assistant professor at Vanderbilt
Divinity School, but they aren't hung up on denominational
boundaries. The cultural environment makes them ambitious to go
after what they want, she says, and they want transcendence; they
don't want to feel like victims or just survivors.
Music is a key generational issue - what some call the most
divisive issue in churches today, both white and black. "For some
youths, the pipe organ seems otherworldly, out of touch with their
lives," says Sherman Tribble, musicologist and a Baptist pastor in