Is the Black Church Dead?

Eddie Glaude

 Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, believes the Black Church is dead.  Glaude wrote the obituary for a Huffpost article and it has created quite a stir.   (Dr. Glaude’s remarks are at the bottom of this post.) 

You can read several reactions to Dr. Glaude’s obituary from black intellectuals at Religious Dispatches.  Perhaps the most arresting response came from Ronald Neal of Claflin University.   Neal questions the notion that the black church has ever been the bastion of progressivism that black civil rights leaders and university professors have made it out to be.  Here’s the heart of Neal’s critique. 

“Most Americans are largely unaware of the diverse Christian congregations and denominational structures that comprise what is called the Black Church. For many Americans, the oratory, quasi-liberal politics, and charismatic swagger of Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, Jesse L. Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Tavis Smiley are the primary windows into Christianity in black America. Beyond these living caricatures of black and Christian America, PBS specials, black-and-white footage of the Civil Rights era, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, have informed what many Americans know about black Christians, especially the Black Church.” 

“Unfortunately, these narrow and misleading representations of Christianity in black America, including the iconic legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., have contributed to a view that is deceptive and mythical. In significant respects, American mass media is responsible for this myth.” 

“However, part of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of highly educated black religious elites: seminary trained clergy and professors at theological schools, divinity schools, colleges, and universities. These elites are responsible for shaping and perpetuating a view of the Black Church: the Black Church as socially progressive and liberation oriented. Overall, the prophetic and progressive view of the Black Church is a myth that bamboozles too many Americans, including black Americans.” 

Neal is certainly right that most black churches are conservative theologically.  If you are a big fan of homophobia, sexism, escapism and cults of the personality, you can certainly find what you’re looking for in the black church.  

But just when you are inclined to believe that black evangelicals are cut from the same bolt of ecclesiastical cloth as their white counterparts, a black man strolls into the White House.  

Black evangelicals are thrilled.  

White evangelicals wring their hands and ask what happened to their country. 

White conservatism (and that includes most white evangelicals) remains wedded (perhaps unconsciously) to the tenets of white supremacy; black conservatism is not. 

But enough of that . . . you want to read Eddie Glaude’s obituary.  Here it is. 

The Black Church is Dead

Dr. Eddie Glaude 

The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared. 

Several reasons immediately come to mind for this state of affairs. First, black churches have always been complicated spaces. Our traditional stories about them — as necessarily prophetic and progressive institutions — run up against the reality that all too often black churches and those who pastor them have been and continue to be quite conservative. Black televangelists who preach a prosperity gospel aren’t new. We need only remember Prophet Jones and Reverend Ike. Conservative black congregations have always been a part of the African American religious landscape. After all, the very existence of the Progressive Baptist Convention is tied up with a trenchant critique of the conservatism of the National Baptist Convention, USA. But our stories about black churches too often bury this conservative dimension of black Christian life. 

Second, African American communities are much more differentiated. The idea of a black church standing at the center of all that takes place in a community has long since passed away. Instead, different areas of black life have become more distinct and specialized — flourishing outside of the bounds and gaze of black churches. I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs. 

Moreover, we are witnessing an increase in the numbers of African Americans attending churches pastored by the likes of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Jentzen Franklin. These non-denominational congregations often “sound” a lot like black churches. Such a development, as Dr. Jonathan Walton reminded me, conjures up E. Franklin Frazier’s important line in The Negro Church in America: “In a word, the Negroes have been forced into competition with whites in most areas of social life and their church can no longer serve as a refuge within the American community.” And this goes for evangelical worship as well. 

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, we have witnessed the routinization of black prophetic witness. Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…” “The black church was our rock…” “Without the black church, we would have not…” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the church’s stance in the present — justifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice. Its task, because it has become alienated from the moment in which it lives, is to make us venerate and conform to it. 

But such a church loses it power. Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God. 

Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families. Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows. Of course, countless local black churches around the country are working diligently to address these problems. 

The question becomes: what will be the role of prophetic black churches on the national stage under these conditions? Any church as an institution ought to call us to be our best selves — not to be slaves to doctrine or mere puppets for profit. Within its walls, our faith should be renewed and refreshed. We should be open to experiencing God’s revelation anew. But too often we are told that all has been said and done. Revelation is closed to us and we should only approximate the voices of old. 

Or, we are invited to a Financial Empowerment Conference, Megafest, or some such gathering. Rare are those occasions when black churches mobilize in public and together to call attention to the pressing issues of our day. We see organization and protests against same-sex marriage and abortion; even billboards in Atlanta to make the anti-abortion case. But where are the press conferences and impassioned efforts around black children living in poverty, and commercials and organizing around jobs and healthcare reform? Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, appears to be a lonely voice in the wilderness when he announced COGIC’s support of healthcare reform with the public option. 

Prophetic energies are not an inherent part of black churches, but instances of men and women who grasp the fullness of meaning to be one with God. This can’t be passed down, but must be embraced in the moment in which one finds one’s feet. This ensures that prophetic energies can be expressed again and again. 

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most. 

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is currently the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.

3 thoughts on “Is the Black Church Dead?

  1. One very progressive-prophetic black pastor that I know laments the fact that most of his black Baptist preacher brethren are neither progressive nor prophetic.

  2. I should have added that most of my white Baptist preacher brethren are neither prophetic nor progressive. That goes for white Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans–you name it.

  3. good morning: dr. glaude makes a poignant statement in saying that so many churches promote services that entertain but lack a spirit to transform.
    there are so many different churches with so many different doctrines. instead of the nation seeking health-care reform we might have been better off seeking a great church reformation. people are perishing from lack of knowledge. we have to be taught that each of us must work out our own soul’s salvation.
    i was, recently, reading a book by annalee skarin entitled, “ye are gods”. she endeavors to reveal “truths” that prophets of old testament attempted to do for the 12 churches.
    we are badly in need of ‘spiritual enrichment centers’ all over this world. it is, afterall GOD’S SPIRIT and GOD’S WISDOM that redeems and sets the CAPTIVES FREE. we are ALL imprisoned by something. it’s time we recognize that churches can’t save us, only GOD can.
    we must RUN, run for our lives. we must REPENT and keep repenting of our sins. scripture teaches us that the SPIRIT knocks. no one can open the door for us, BUT US. i’m seeking GOD’S face. i’ve run after and sought the pleasures of the world for half a century and nothing worked out. i’ve sorta figured out WHY it didn’t work out. i was traveling the wide road instead of the straight and narrow.

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