“Pockets of Vitality”?: Black Churches, Decline, and the Need for Reform

empty church

“Negative numbers: The decline narrative reaches evangelicals,” a featured article written by David Roozen and published today at christiancentury.org, avers that conservative Evangelicals churches, once experiencing general positive growth, are now catching up with liberal mainline Protestant churches with rates of decline.

One of the major factors being tossed around by many prognosticators for this gloomy picture is the ways in which Millennials are negotiating their faith, with many of the so-called “Nones” leaving institutionalized churches in favor of a more vaporous spirituality. This exodus, once thought of as a just liberal mainline phenomenon, is now at epidemic proportions for groups like the Southern Baptists, so one story goes. However, Roozen proffers that the decline began much earlier. Citing data from Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, he writes that “a steady slowing of growth […] goes back to at least 1955. Growth fell from over 3 percent annually during the 1950s to about 1 percent through 1980s to less than a half percent through 2005, at which point Southern Baptist declines pushed the entire family into negative growth for the first time.”

Many conservative Evangelical denominations must’ve seen the tide changing long ago. The Southern Baptists, for instance, have invested much time, talent, and treasure in church planting initiatives, wrestled with changing its name to reach a larger population, and even recently elected their first black convention president. Much from them is being written about the need to intentionally address church growth, church decline, and empowering younger clergy for new Gospel missions.

What’s intriguing is that over the same amount of time that mainline and conservative Evangelical churches have been experiencing negative growth, Pentecostal and Holiness churches and movements have grown. Though there is insufficient data for the growth and decline of historically black church denominations, there is also evidence that black churches and other ethnic churches are faring better than their white ecclesial counterparts. Roozen writes

Setting aside questions about historically black churches, it appears that racial, ethnic and immigrant communities are, along with Pentecostal/holiness and independent churches, the pockets of vitality within the overall decline. The Faith Communities Today report A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000–2010 shows that the percent of congregations with a majority of racial/ethnic members increased from just over 20 percent in 2000 to just over 30 percent in 2010 (the report is available at faithcommunitiestoday.org).

The decline trends for mainliners and white Evangelicals causes me to interrogate whether or not this decline will soon reach historic black churches. I’m convinced that it not only will, but already has for a number of such churches. For three years I pastored a church that experienced more than twenty years of steady decline. And according to credible sources historic denominations like the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation’s largest black religious body, is presently experiencing acute decline. I aver that it won’t be long before historically black denominations and local churches will have to intentionally address this crisis through church planting, leadership development, and even more radical interventions. Unregenerated congregations, spiritual lethargy, aging memberships, declining financial health, and missional drift are all parts of a really big problem. Of particular note, the more conservative denominations will have to seriously contend with the pentecostalization of global Evangelical Christianity, shifts in ethical orientations around sexuality and liberatve praxes, etc. To date, many of these groups seem unwilling or incapable of dealing with these matters with deep reflection and moral courage.

As I talk to younger black pastors, especially of Baptist churches, many of them are grumbling about the lack of immediate attentiveness to these matters. As many of them are continualist in their approach to spiritual gifts, they are attracted to movements like Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, which will soon be under the direction of International Presiding Bishop-elect Joseph Walker, himself a relatively young denominational leader. Others are duly aligning or fully vesting themselves in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is aggressively evangelizing black and brown communities. Still others are becoming unaffiliated, preferring the freedom of isolation to the stultification of archaic hyper-denominationalism. Historic black mainlines can no longer think oldest means best. In this day, oldest may actually mean antiquated and near death.

My hope is that revitalization can happen in these so-called pockets of vitality in a largely declining ecclesial culture. May the black churches remain awake during this great revolution and be ready to respond accordingly when decline comes a’knocking.

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