Is the Black Church Dead?: Religious Resilience and the Contemporary Functions of Black Christianity
To understand the power of the Black Church it must first be understood that there is no disjunction between the Black Church and the Black community. The Church is the spiritual face of the Black community, and whether one is a “church member” or not is beside the point in any assessment of the importance and meaning of the Black Church. Because of the peculiar nature of the Black experience and the centrality of institutionalized religion in the development of that experience…the Black Church, then, is in some sense a “universal church,” claiming and representing all Blacks out of a long tradition that looks back to the time when there was only the Black Church to bear witness to “who” or “what” a man was as he stood at the bar of his community”.C. Eric Lincoln
2. Background: Historic Functions of the Black Church
2.1. Socio-Cultural Functions
2.2. Socio-Political Functions
2.3. Socio-Economic Functions
2.4. Socio-Educational Functions
2.5. Church Functions as Social Gospel
3. Racializing Religious Change among Millennials
- What role does attending church play in your life? If you currently have a church home, what do you like about your church?
- In your opinion, what value do you find in attending church?
- What do you think the Black Church should look like today?
5. Black Millennials’ Contemporary Perceptions of the Black Church
5.1. Continuous Functions
In [my city], which is a city that’s mostly white, more than probably 80% white, there are fewer Black Churches. And I kind of really wanted to be in a Black Church because I was around white people all day. I was the only Black person at work. And one of my friends was kind of bragging about her church and how great it was but she mentioned that it was interracial and I was like, ‘no, I gotta be around Black people’, you know? And that has nothing to do with God necessarily, it was just the external environment and feeling like I needed to be around my people at least once a week, you know?
As a Black Christian Millennial, Shuri has cultivated a distinct personal ethos and desires to surround herself with a friend group that understands her lifestyle and thus are able to support and encourage her. In noting that she wants to be able to hang out while not having to worry about things getting too “crazy” she reveals just how significant her religious beliefs are in shaping her social behaviors. She specifically seeks friendship at church because she believes these relationships will align with her religious convictions. This process is consistent with research that suggests most social networks are homophilous in nature as people tend to organize their lives in such a way that they are most often surrounded by people similar to them (McCabe 2015). For many Black Christian Millennials, religious identity is just as salient if not more salient than their racial identity. Using religious beliefs as a factor in organizing one’s social network is a form of value-based homophily (McPherson et al. 2001). In retaining church membership as a tool for maintaining close ties with other Black Christians, Millennial study participants like Shuri engaged in this process.making friends at church– sometimes friends that turn to family. And just having a support system, kind of like a group of like-minded people. Like, you can go hang out with these people and it’s not going to get crazy or anything like that.
Here, Nathan acknowledges the complexity of navigating life as a young Black man who is Christian and married. He admits that making friends has been hard because his lifestyle varies significantly from most of his peers. As a result, Nathan relies on his church family to reconcile the friend deficit he experiences. He found that not only can other church members serve as friends but they also operate as marriage mentors and life coaches as well.So for me, I’ve just seen the value of being in community in terms of enriching my faith experience. Talking with people who I built relationships with and knowing that there’s a sort of mutual investment in each other’s lives. I think for me, that’s kind of what brings the value of church and knowing that there are other people who are hearing the same sorts of things that you’re hearing and you can sort of bounce questions off of– I think just the communal experience still kinda maintains value to me. Especially as an adult, like, yo, making friends as an adult is hard! Like it’s really hard. So to know that there’s like-minded people or to some extent, like-minded people who you’re going to encounter in the church environment [is nice]. Also, for me as someone who got married at a young age, [church has helped with] finding mentor couples who were older than I was. And, people who are just at different stages of life who I felt like could help me as I was trying to navigate life and also navigate faith. I think, for me, that makes the church community experience an irreplaceable one.
5.2. Evolving Functions
Shannon, like many other respondents, was disappointed in the Church’s limited political reach. She perceived that contemporary Black Churches are not willing to take risks but instead are playing it “safe” and are “afraid to speak up”. Shannon was particularly critical of many churches’ 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, which allows them to receive charitable donations from individuals and entities wanting (and needing) additional tax deductions. These donations often result in a transference of power to the donors, allowing them a particular type of influence over the organization. Additionally, this status comes with particular political restrictions, such as the inability to endorse political candidates or participate in certain political activities. Aware of this matrix of power, Shannon recognizes how contemporary Black churches with 501(c)(3) status have their hands tied in such a way that limits their political impact, which starkly differs from the political role that early Black churches played. Shannon draws attention to how this difference is in part due to the fact that contemporary Black churches are no longer economically independent and therefore are not protected from external influence as they were historically.The Black Church has been non-existent with Black Lives Matter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there might be a sermon or two when it comes to that, but the majority of the sermons are talking against what the younger generation is doing, or [how we] are reacting. I feel like [the church has] been non-existent and I feel that the churches today hide under the umbrella of the fact that they have 501(c)(3) [status] and I feel that they’re afraid to speak up…And if a church is getting donations from somewhere, they’re afraid of ruining that, you know? I feel like it’s a money thing, like more so like a business [than a church]…if you’re going to be radical and you really want to invoke change, you can’t be safe.
Dubois’ comments echo Shannon’s point about the differences in political ideologies across generations. Dubois draws attention to two points of distinction between older Christians and Black Christian Millennials: (1) politics surrounding race and ethnic relations and (2) politics surrounding gender and sexuality. First, in mentioning that older Black Christians just want to “survive” while Black Christian Millennials want to “flourish,” Dubois insinuates that younger generations have embraced a more radical and transformative politic. More specifically, he suggests that in order for Black people to not just survive but also thrive, major changes are needed in the social structure and racial hierarchy so that Black communities can have access to the opportunities and resources necessary to be successful.What I realized, too, is that it’s a generational gap. So a lot of the older people who be in church, who a lot of times be the religious leaders, have this mindset like ‘we just trying to survive.’ While Millennials, I would say, have this mindset– most of us have this mindset like, ‘yo, we trying to do more than survive. We trying to flourish’… the church be like, ‘we just trying to make it’ and just tell you stuff to keep you going. And Black Millennials are like ‘we need more than that from a church. I need more than just something to keep me going’ and Black Lives Matter was doing the [work]. Also [the church’s lack of engagement] is probably based on who [the BLM movement] is led by- women and LGBTQ people which goes against a lot of the stuff from Black Churches because they have a terrible history with those affinity groups.
Jerome similarly acknowledges the generational divide within the Black Christian community while also reflecting on the ways in which he sees the Church showing support for the movement. In drawing attention to “church hurt,” or the adverse experiences one has within a church environment and/or by people affiliated with church organizations, Jerome identifies one reason individuals have grown apart from the church. His comments also suggest that Black church leadership do not know how to adequately respond to their lesser dominant role in the community as they tend to “take over” with their own “agenda” assuming they “have it all figured out” rather than working collaboratively with other community organizers and Black voluntary associations. Jerome believes that one way for Black churches to rebuild trust is for them to “come humbly as a servant” as his church did when they offered housing to BLM protestors. While this is certainly a different role than the central one Black churches played historically, this does demonstrate that they are still political organizations, even if those politics differ across generations.I think folk in our generation, because of church hurt or whatever, are very hesitant to let the church sort of be involved. Cause let’s be honest, sometimes when the church gets involved with stuff, it just takes over [with] its agenda. I’ve seen it happen…Sometimes we got to learn how there are different roles that can [and] need to be played. So, for example, the [church] that I’m at, it served as a housing center for folks when the protests happened. And that was just a space. There was no forum, there was no speaker to come through to pray over the people. It was just like, ‘our doors are open. It’s safe here. No one’s really gonna mess with it cause it’s a church. So you’re welcome to come here.’ And so, I think the church should definitely be involved and I think if it is, it should look to come humbly as a servant and not say, ‘yo, we have it all figured out and we are the ones who are going to make it happen.’
In categorizing her pastors as teachers rather than preachers, Lanae signifies that learning is a primary component of the culture of her church. She describes how the church leaders take their time to break down the religious lessons “scripture by scripture” because they are passionate about ensuring their church members are able to “connect the dots” between the Bible and their everyday lives on their own. This experience was particularly impactful for Lanae who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and had only recently switched to identifying as non-Denominational and thus engaging with a new translation of the Bible.12 As such, she was not confident in her ability to study and understand the Word of God and sought out a church that could help strengthen that component of her faith journey.The pastors at my church are teachers. They don’t talk at you, they teach you the Word. And one of the things that I really admire is that we have Bible series. So right now we’re in [the book of] John and we will spend 15–20 weeks in John and we will go literally, you know, scripture by scripture and the pastors will dissect each word. They explain what’s happening currently and how it relates to what’s going on so you’re able to connect the dots. Especially for somebody like me who, I don’t know the Word like that. I want to but I just kind of came in [to the faith.]
For many Black Christian Millennials, it is important that they see their politics reflected in the religious educational content they consume at church. Stokely had given up on attending church regularly because he was uninterested in being exposed to intolerant interpretations of Christian theology that he considered inconsistent with his understanding of the faith. It was not until he found a church that (1) was open and affirming of gender and sexual minorities and (2) had pastors equipped to wrestle with the Biblical inconsistencies he perceived, could he commit to church membership again.Not only are we a Black church, we are an open and affirming Black church, which kind of blew my mind…And so, I came back to the faith or came back to going to church regularly, around the idea that there’s actually a church that aligns with how I think intellectually. I think it has everything to do with the co-pastors—it’s a man and woman and they’re trained! They’re trained to do preaching…and [one has] a PhD in the Hebrew Bible…They can talk about the Bible being a book that’s not right about everything. (laughs) They can talk about the culture that informs the writing of the Bible, they can teach it in ways that still help us hold up in the faith. So I came [to this church] based off of this kind of socio-political understanding of the world that I wanted to see reflected in theology.
5.3. Defunct Functions
From Raven’s perspective, churches today are not prioritizing the need to economically support their members. While Black churches of the past served as the first Black banks and mutual aid societies, Raven sees that contemporary churches only want to make money by taking it from their members for events that should be free. Raven describes the economic culture as “corporate” and business-like rather than community focused.One thing that bothers me a lot is when events happen in a church, I guess I understand that things cost, but sometimes I think some churches are becoming more corporate-based and having different events but then charging for them or other different things. I feel like it’s becoming more corporate-based than anything.
As a pastor who is intimately familiar with the church finances, M.T. knows that many churches, like his, are barely staying afloat financially. He discloses that older congregants tithe consistently whereas Millennials do not, thus drawing attention to the fact that the generational difference among Black Christians extends beyond politics and into the realm of economics as well. Many Black Christian Millennials, such as Raven, perceive that churches are too focused on making money. They have witnessed megachurch pastors promote prosperity gospel theology for their own personal profit and as a result have become highly critical of churches’ propensity to be money hungry. When they perceive this to be the case, Millennial congregants often withhold their tithes and offering as a form of resistance. M.T. notes how this creates an “interesting tension” because churches are businesses with “bills to pay”. Ultimately, it is not surprising that, according to study participants, the socio-economic function has become defunct in the contemporary moment considering only a fraction of the church membership pays their tithes which in turn is used to primarily cover operational costs. Under these conditions, there is not much left over in the church budget to offer free events or other economic resources to the community that would represent the social gospel that many Millennials want to see from religious organizations.I have heard that, statistically, those older generations, not only do they come to church, they give! They give to church, they give money. It’s just part of who they are. Our generation, not so much. (laughs) So it’s interesting being a Millennial who’s a pastor in an established denomination with an older congregation. It’s pretty clear to me who pays the bills, you know, and stuff like that. And people say, ‘Oh, it’s not about money.’ Well, yes it is ‘cause we’re a business and we got bills to pay. And I have a commercial insurance policy that I have to pay for just like you have an insurance policy on your car that you gotta pay for it. So it also is complicated by that. And some of us will say, ‘Oh, we don’t need that to have God,’ which is true. And that sort of creates a interesting tension at times.
5.4. Emergent Functions
When I think of my religion, my Christianity, it’s really about how to be the best version of myself. And so I see church almost like a workshop where I can go and workshop myself. And so I can go to church and think about the different ways I can negotiate difficult relationships, how I can negotiate my personal life, my work life. How I can negotiate feelings of anxiety. Like it doesn’t replace therapy and I think the pastor at my church now would even say you still need to go to therapy, but hearing other people relate and tell you stories about how they’ve dealt with stuff and how they’re still dealing with stuff and the strategies they use is never not helpful.
[Attending church offers] a chance to hang around young adults, discuss young adult issues concerning Christianity, and Christians in the world. And then we’d go to service and I get spiritually replenished. Like if it’s been a draining week, [church] is my refill station. When I would get to church [I’d be] like, ‘ahh, I needed this message,’ even if I didn’t know I needed it. ‘Cause sometimes I walk in, I’m like, okay God, I need you to tell me how to fix this problem’… it’s such a replenishing feeling before going back into the work week. And I remember there was a time that I did disengage from the church, not because the church was doing anything bad, it was more of a personal issue…But in that six weeks of me waiting to get my new car, not having that weekly refilling was incredibly draining. I remember, it was literally one point in like week four or week five, where I was just sitting in my bed, I was crying. I was like, I just want to go back to my church.
6. Conceptualizing Religious Resilience
7. Critical but Engaged: Conclusion and Implications
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
I align my racial capitalization practices with that of Du Bois who considered “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult” (Tharps 2014). More specifically, I follow in the tradition of Kimberlé Crenshaw who stated, “I capitalize “Black” because Black people, like Asians, Latinos, and other ‘minorities,’ constitute a specific cultural group and, as such, require denotation as a proper noun. By the same token, I do not capitalize “white,” which is not a proper noun, since whites do not constitute a specific cultural group” (Crenshaw 1991, p. 1244).
Some portions of the Black community, namely Black women and Black LGBTQ folx have, and remain, critical of the cis-heteropatriarchal ideologies perpetuated through the church (Higginbotham 1993; Gilkes 2001; Barnes 2013).
Throughout this article, I draw on frameworks prevalent in extant sociology of religion literature and use “Black Church” and “Black Community” to “reflect the collective nature of these predominantly Black institutions” (Du Bois  2003, p. xvii). However, these terms should not be interpreted as if there is no heterogeneity across Black America, and within Black Christianity specifically. In this regard, I similarly use “Black church” when referencing a specific institution and “Black Christianity” as an umbrella term to encompass the denominational and theological pluralism reflected among the many Black Christians across time and space in America.
Du Bois ( 1995,  2003) argues that the Black Church, as a social institution, actually predates the Black family because the Black family was subjected to white influence, and more pointedly white disruption, as a result of the racial capitalistic politics of U.S. chattel slavery. Black religion, though, was permitted and therefore provided Black America its first institutional space to cultivate a distinct identity and culture.
Scholars have complicated the Black American Christian tradition by noting that enslaved Africans were spiritual people prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While they eventually came to embrace white protestant Christianity by infusing many of their native African spiritual practices into it, the Black community was nonetheless forced to convert to the Christian faith within the coercive political conditions of U.S. chattel slavery (Raboteau  2004).
See Mansbridge and Morris (2001) for more on oppositional consciousness.
To further elucidate how Black Church culture proved useful for the movement, Morris (1984, p. 4) notes, “The Black Church supplied the civil rights movement with a collective enthusiasm generated through a rich culture consisting of songs, testimonies, oratory, and prayers that spoke directly to the needs of an oppressed group”.
This-worldly ideologies contend that Christians have a responsibility to address social issues as part of their religious praxis, while other-worldly ideologies suggest that Christians should see their time on earth as temporary and focus more on preparing for eternal life in Heaven.
Jehovah’s Witnesses use the New World Translation Bible which greatly differs from prominent translations, such as the King James Version, New King James Version, and the New Living Translation, which have lots of overlap.
Some scholars have linked the contemporary practice of spiritual in-dwelling to native forms of African spirituality that were carried through the middle-passage and infused into Black Christian religious expression during slavery (Costens 1993; Raboteau  2004).
A prominent Bible verse within Black Christian communities is Matthew 18:20 which states, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (New King James Version). This verse is often cited as evidence that corporate worship (worship performed with community) is distinctly more powerful than individual worship experiences because one can see and learn more about the character of God through observing how He moves in the lives of other people.
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Allen, S.E. Is the Black Church Dead?: Religious Resilience and the Contemporary Functions of Black Christianity. Religions 2023, 14, 460. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040460
Allen SE. Is the Black Church Dead?: Religious Resilience and the Contemporary Functions of Black Christianity. Religions. 2023; 14(4):460. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040460Chicago/Turabian Style
Allen, Shaonta’ E. 2023. "Is the Black Church Dead?: Religious Resilience and the Contemporary Functions of Black Christianity" Religions 14, no. 4: 460. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040460