The power of the gospel: Can black churches survive turbulent times?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 12:42 a.m. MDT

"The pastor always pushes on education," Otiede said. "It's not just for yourself, he always says, it's for the benefit of our community."

Building community

Despite growing religious disillusionment among the youth, so far, Mamiya believes the black church's community spirit remains intact.

"There are some changes at the edges of black involvement, but the core remains very strong," he said. "More educated blacks with more income tend to have more choices, so they don't always go with a black church, but, on the whole, the core of the black community still tends to stick with its churches."

Scholars aren't all on the same page, though. Harold Dean Trulear, associate professor of applied theology at Howard University, argues that the social stratification of the African American community is taking a toll on the black church as a social hub.

As African Americans have clawed their way to the upper and middle classes, the population has also spread out, he said. More people are commuting. Church members don't want to drive extended distances multiple times per week, so they choose after-school and after-work activities closer to home.

"For so long, so many things were closed to the black community: political clubs, organized sports, going to the library, after school activities," he said. "These things the church provided. You couldn't get them anywhere else. But now the community has choices. Now proximity matters. When everyone is commuting, it makes it difficult to get people together who have competing interests."

While once, the black church was the place people looked for social help, Trulear said, many are now turning to outside sources.

"The black church still holds a powerful role in personal faith and helping people to deal with individual trials, but it's lost some of its ability to speak to the communal and to bring people together in a real sense of being neighbors," Trulear said.

African Americans are still more comfortable with churches taking on a political role than the rest of society, Pew reports, but faith in whether churches are best able to help the needy is declining. Just 35 percent of black Protestants said religious groups can do the best job of lifting the community in 2008, compared to 41 percent in 2001.

The drop in confidence is accompanied by — or perhaps, Trulear suspects, caused by — changes in the messages being given over the pulpit.

Historically, black churches have pushed for improving life as a community. Churches now are beginning to espouse a more "pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" attitude, he said. Rather than addressing the problems from a community standpoint, the focus is on the individual. For example, rather than working with school districts to address the gap in performance between African Americans and their Caucasian classmates, black churches offer individual tutoring programs.

"There used to be a sense of 'Yes, we want to advance, but we want to advance together,'" Trulear said.

"The civil rights movement wasn't about Rosa Parks getting a fair shake on the bus, it was about changing the laws so the whole community benefits."

As a leader, Davis considers the health of all of Utah's minorities — not just African Americans — his business. While he is constantly pounding his followers to do their personal best, Calvary Baptist is also involved in addressing community concerns on a broader scale.

Though the church does invest in tutoring programs for struggling children, the congregation also pitches in to help send the children to private school.

Davis, in the meantime, has joined the Utah State Board of Regents, where he hopes to address disparities in the public education system.

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