Tensions around the black megachurch

ebenezerbcI spent most of the day on the move from Wheaton, Ill., to downtown Chicago and then on to Grand Rapids, Mich. Thus, I am only now -- late at night -- getting to some of the major stories of the day. Thus, I want to call attention to some interesting tensions in the Washington Post story by reporter Darryl Fears (with input from Hamil Harris) about the church that hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The service was held in a 10,000-seat suburban megachurch called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County. It was not held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (pictured) that has been so closely connected with the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

The story focuses, as it should, on the contrasts between the urban poor and the new suburban world of the black middle and upper classes. But there are other themes and, sadly, they are so predictable.

... (The) decision by the King children -- Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice -- to hold their mother's funeral service outside Atlanta rankled a few members of the civil rights establishment for several reasons. Coretta King recently spoke out for gay rights, at the very time that the pastor of New Birth, Bishop Eddie L. Long, was marching against same-sex marriage and benefits to gay partners.

It was easy to see that theme coming and it leads immediately to the next tension in the world of black faith and politics -- the pew gap. The megachurch is where the growth is, it is where the numbers are when it comes time to count the numbers in the pews. This has long been true in white suburbia. Now, as in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and some other urban areas, the rise of the modern black megachurch is creating some interesting dynamics in politics and culture.

Long, a political independent, has also been one of a number of black ministers who have been actively courted by Republicans. He has met with President Bush, who will be among those attending the funeral Tuesday. Bernice King, the youngest King sibling, who rested on her mother's lap as she mourned her slain father, drove the decision to hold the service at New Birth. She is a co-pastor there, and in the last years of her life Coretta King attended the church more and more, occasionally speaking there.

In other words, what happens if growing African American churches continue to defend the faith and values of the generations that came before them? Who will modernize? Who will rise in numbers? Who will decline? These questions have haunted many American denominations and religious groups. Now we are seeing these questions asked in new settings.

Watch for these themes in the funeral coverage tomorrow.

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