Religion: Strains On the Heart

U.S. black churches battle apathy and threats to their relevance but also revel in renewal

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"Tell the story! Tell the story!" worshipers cry out as the Rev. Cecil L. Murray preaches beneath the spectacular murals and stained glass of Los Angeles' First African Methodist Episcopal Church. The exclamations from the standing-room-only congregation of 2,000 come with each oratorical high note. It is a hymn of health, bespeaking the prosperity of the city's oldest (1872) black congregation, where every service is a vibrant demonstration of fervor and passion.

At the cavernous Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, the air throbs to the beat of drums and tambourines punctuating a Sunday-morning service. Parishioners sing out the Gospel hymn Victory! I've Got It. Victory! I've Got It. As impulse moves them, some of the worshipers dance across the aisles, while white-clad deaconesses stand ready to aid those overcome by emotion. "God is still in the miracle business," intones Bishop James O. Patterson Jr. during an hourlong sermon. The Church of God in Christ, with 3.7 million members, is the fastest growing black denomination -- in fact probably the fastest growing major denomination of any kind -- in America.

In contrast to such vibrancy, only a dozen graying worshipers attend the Silver Bluff Missionary Baptist Church in Beech Island, S.C., for a Wednesday night service. Founded in 1750, Silver Bluff is the oldest surviving black congregation in the U.S. Noting the total absence of younger Baptists at the service, head deacon Willie Sims utters an earnest prayer: "Father, come back to Silver Bluff one more time."

Throughout black history in the U.S., the church has been the central institution in the African-American community, a fact still true in a country with 65,000 black congregations. As Baptist Pastor J. Alfred Smithing Sr. of Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church puts it, "The black church is the heart of black life." Today, as never before, that heart is enduring strains and challenges brought on by apathy, social ills and new directions in the black religious experience. Urban congregations are surrounded by neighborhoods demoralized by spiraling drug use, crime and family disintegration; the churches face a looming shortage of qualified clergy; and the very relevance of many congregations is being challenged. But in the midst of its tribulations, black religion shows healthy signs of change and renewal.

The problems and the promise are both given rare examination in the first full-scale survey of America's black congregations since 1933, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Duke University Press; 519 pages; $47.50, $18.95 paper). The painstaking examination, which has just been published, is the work of C. Eric Lincoln, the eminent black scholar of religion at Duke, and Lawrence H. Mamiya, a Japanese-American professor of religion and African studies at Vassar. The authors' team interviewed 1,895 members of the clergy in the 10-year effort and emerged with cautious optimism. "Unlike white main-line Protestantism, which is in serious trouble, the black church is at least holding its own," summarizes Lincoln. "But whether that will continue is anybody's guess."

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