The Vital Black Church African-American Churches Confront Cultural Changes That May Be as Worrisome for Them as Rapidly Declining Memberships Are for Mainline White Churches

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In Concord Baptist Church in Boston's South End, the gospel chorus 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 power. 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- American 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 head, and many young people complain the traditional church is too stuck in its ways. Some are opting for other church experiences or none at all. 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 Nashville. …