Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

This morning I was doing some search-engine work on African-American churches for my piece on the long, but totally faith-free, news feature about the Rev. Al Sharpton that ran in The Los Angeles Times. In the middle those searches I hit a link that reminded me of a recent Religion News Service story that I had wanted to bring to the attention of GetReligion readers.

As you would expect, considering the subject material, this piece was written by one of this website's favorite veterans on religion-news beat, Adelle Banks. I do not write about her work as much as I would like, simply because she was a long-time lecturer -- nearly two decades -- in the journalism programs I ran in Washington, D.C., for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In this case, Banks focused in on a newsworthy wrinkle in a recent tsunami of religion "landscape" numbers from the Pew Research Center. This is one of those cases where church decline made the headlines, but she found an positive exception to the rule. Here is the overture for her report, setting the stage for the summary:

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) At Alfred Street Baptist Church, the pews start to fill more than half an hour before the service begins. White-uniformed ushers guide African-Americans of all ages to their seats. Some stand and wave their hands in the air as the large, robed choir begins to sing.
In September, after using a dozen wired overflow rooms, the church will start its fourth weekend service. So many people attend, church leaders are now asking people to limit their attendance to one service.
“Pick your service,” said the Rev. Edward Y. Jackson, an assistant to the pastor, at the start of a recent service. “Come in, come early, get your parking space so we can all enjoy and worship God together.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Christians are losing their share of the U.S. population, dropping to 71 percent in 2014, down from 78 percent in 2007, with young people leading the exodus. But historically black denominations have bucked that trend, holding on to a steady percent of members during that same period.
As significant, the share of millennial-generation African-Americans who affiliate with historically black churches is similar to that of older churchgoers.

The key elements in the success stories reported here are not surprising -- strong worship, community service and strong ties linking faith and "black Protestant identity." As one source notes: “I think black churches do a whole lot more than religion.”

This is also true, of course, among many other churches that are seeing decline -- such as Catholic parishes in ethnic zones. And the patterns of health are not consistent among all African-American churches. Banks notes:

The Rev. David Daniels III, a church history professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, said black churches are not universally successful in holding onto younger members, but in some places, mostly black megachurches are gaining adherents even as smaller, aging congregations have dwindling numbers in their pews.
“In some cities, there are some congregations, often with younger pastors, either millennials or Gen-Xers, who’ve been able to develop ministries that are able to attract in their cohort group,” said Daniels, a minister of the Church of God in Christ.

The word "megachurches" jumped out at me and I wondered if there are similar patterns in black churches that are seen in Anglo congregations, with the smaller, more "mainline" churches aging into decline, while large, thriving churches with diverse programs use growth to fuel more growth, often in suburbs (think Prince George's County, Md.) near megacities.

This made me wonder: Are black Pentecostal churches, in particular, doing better than the old guard?

I also know, from research into the slow decline of the Southern Baptist Convention, that this giant flock would truly be suffering if not for the rapid growth of some of its African-American and Latino congregations. Some of these churches -- especially Pentecostal flocks -- also show quite a bit or racial diversity in the pews.

Maybe that story is the sequel. This report focused on churches offering new services targeting young worshippers, often in weeknight or seasonal formats.

Another change, for those who know something about worship in black churches: Ministers say they are trying to keep their services about an hour in length.

African-American megachurches are also one-stop program zones, like their largely white counterparts. The story notes that, along with the rise of the African-American "nones" and nonbelievers.

But something is keeping large numbers of black churches relevant and on the rise.

The Rev. Kip Banks, interim general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said societal issues such as police brutality as well as efforts to be relevant to millennials -- from live-streamed services to marriage and mentoring ministries -- continue to draw African-Americans to black churches.
“The church has always spoken to these issues and the church is addressing these issues,” he said. “The black church is the place that’s always affirmed African-American life.”

I guess this is my one complaint: More please.

IMAGE: Singing windows at the Tuskegee Chapel (Library of Congress)

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