African-American Christians and other believers are facing a new pluralism, both with new religious movements emerging and in practices that are causing new divisions.
That was one of the conclusions of a conference on “The Spiritual State of Black America” which drew hundreds of church leaders, activists, scholars, and laity to Atlanta in May. In the online newsletter Sightings (May 16 and 17) Robert Franklin reports that the gathering dealt with such trends as the growing appeal of Islam in the African-American community; the emergence of independent megachurches; the federal government’s expectation that local congregations expand their role in providing needed social services; the exodus of men and young people from traditional congregations; and the womanist (black feminist) demands for equal opportunities in ministry.
Franklin notes that the most unusual news during the conference was the emergence of a movement of Baptist pastors designating themselves as bishops. Most of these Baptist bishops are “dynamic, entrepreneurial, neo-Pentecostal ministers who have developed megachurches and understand themselves to be reappropriating the clerical titles and styles of the New Testament.” This practice has criticized by traditional Baptists who eschew such episcopal trappings of authority.
The concern that black churches are losing their social role was sounded by John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who declared that since the post-civil rights movement period, African Americans have been “damaged by excessive assimilation” into the spiritually corrupting core values — individualism, materialism, and ethical relativism — of late capitalist culture. Franklin adds that the self-help theme prominent in black churches was evident in a symposium on how congregations could become more involved and skillful in sponsoring housing development projects for low income people.
A session on the continuing growth of Islam in black communities also dealt with the changing nature of the Nation of Islam . Both Muslim leaders affirmed the recent moves in Chicago by Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan to reconcile a decades-old spat between the competing heirs to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. But a debate broke out between Muhammad, a mainstream Muslim leader and son of the late Elijah Muhammad who founded the Nation of Islam, and Minister Ava Muhammad, who serves as the regional representative of Louis Farrakhan.
She is also the first woman to be appointed head of a local mosque. Tension grew in the audience as Muhammad respectfully indicated that he could not contravene the core teachings and practices of Sunni Islam by acknowledging Minister Ava as a full-fledged imam. Black church specialist Lawrence Mamiya asked whether or not Farrakhan’s bold move in appointing the first and only female imam in the Islamic world would be rebuffed by more orthodox Muslims as he seeks to be embraced by the global Muslim community.
Franklin adds that “a listener at the conference could conclude that the spiritual state of black America is, like the rest of the nation, a mixed bag. There is enduring vitality in the traditional black churches and, as the Baptist bishops illustrate, there is plenty of exciting innovation. A growing number of people are exploring alternatives to Christianity and others are voting against organized religion in favor of sampling personalized spirituality and self-help rituals.
But the bad news is that a growing percentage of youth have disengaged from the bedrock practices and institutions of the family, church, school, and workplace” and have embraced risky and criminal behavior. Blacks from Britain in attendance affirmed that this diagnosis is hauntingly familiar and accurately describes (maybe predicts) where blacks in England and Europe seem to be headed.
While black Catholics were not mentioned in Franklin’s report, new research suggests that they are strongly involved in social activism. With the leadership of black Protestant churches in social justice, community development and family health programs well documented in current research, Prof. James C. Cavendish finds significant differences in the contributions to those programs by black Catholic parishes. Writing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March), Cavendish finds that within black Catholic churches, the social outreach programs are much more widespread than those of white Catholic congregations.
He adds that those black Catholic churches that have parish councils and leadership training programs involved with congregational activism, are more effective in community ministry than those with less organized leadership. Those black Catholic parishes with visibly stronger lay leadership in outreach programs are more effective than those which stay with traditional hierarchical governance. From this Cavendish concludes that a black Catholic denominational affiliation “may be less significant than the particular congregation’s own internal structure.”
Those congregations with strong lay participation are the ones on the front end of community outreach.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 872 SWKT, Sociology Dept., Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-5388)
— Erling Jorstad contributed to this report