Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Please read the headline a second time and think about it.

The Religion Guy asserts the obvious answer to this question is Baptists in “historically” or “predominantly” African-American denominations. By out-of-date estimates, their cumulative membership exceeds 12 million. That’s not so far behind the 15 million members in the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, whose Dallas meeting June 12-13 will grab the usual media coverage.

No reporters are likely to staff the June 26-28 Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the Atlanta-based Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Admittedly, with only 800 congregations it’s small compared with the mighty SBC, but there’s an angle: It’s the youngest black Baptist denomination, formed in 1994 by  those leaving the older groups to emphasize Pentecostal-charismatic style “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.  

It can be argued that publications neglect black religion when the majority of their reporters are white.

No question, the “mainstream media” mostly have a narrow interest in black churches as political players, ignoring their central mission as a powerful religious force.

Meanwhile, black churches have a history of expending little energy cultivating visibility. For example, those Full Gospel Baptists don’t provide information for the standard online church listings at  www.yearbookofchurches.org. Nor does the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal body that equals the Baptists in neglect though it claims to be the single largest U.S. black denomination, with 6.5 million members. Datebook note: Its annual convocation is Nov. 5-13 in St. Louis.

Reporters should also be familiar with groups founded two centuries ago, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (headquarters in Nashville) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (headquarters in Charlotte). Neither  provides membership estimates to that online church data base.

Back to the Baptists. Pew Research reports that 40 percent of the African-American population identifies as Baptist, vastly outranking other categories. At large gatherings (see below), speakers and attendees showcase grass-roots reactions to current issues, alongside feature potential in rousing sermons and song. No important doctrinal differences separate the major branches as follows, and many churchgoers are unaware of which one they’re affiliated with.  

* Black Baptist associations founded in 1880, 1886, and 1893 consolidated in 1895 into the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Incorporated, now based in Nashville. It has overcome past schisms and financial scandal and remains the largest branch, reporting 5,197,512 members in 10,358 congregations as of 2010. Notably, NBC Inc. directs military chaplains to avoid action that “implies or condones same sex marriage or same sex unions.” The annual session occurs Sept. 3-7 in Minneapolis.  

* A century ago, organizational disputes involving the National Baptist Publishing Board (now R.H. Boyd Publishing Corp.), provoked a breakaway to create what’s today named the National Baptist Convention of America International. Long known as the “unincorporated” group, it eventually incorporated. With offices in Louisville and Baton Rouge, NBCAI  reported 3.5 million members as of 2000. The annual meeting is September 10-14 in Lombard, Ill.

* Further organizational disruption led to a 1988 “restoration” that established the Los Angeles-based National Missionary Baptist Convention. It is aligned with the Boyd corporation’s annual National Baptist Congress for educators (occurring June 20-22 in Memphis). As of 1992, the Missionary Baptists reported 2.5 million members. The denomination’s annual business meeting is in Dallas, Sept. 2-6. 

* A significant socio-political split was provoked by NBC Inc.’s imperial president from 1953 till 1982, Chicago Pastor Joseph H. Jackson, who opposed civil rights protests and civil disobedience. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies broke away in 1961 to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, based in Washington, D.C., with an estimated 1 million members as of 2009. Its annual meeting is in Philadelphia Aug. 6-10.  

Recommended for background reading: “The Black Church in the African American Experience” by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya (Duke University Press).

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