- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

Second of a three-part series

The Rev. Leon Lipscombe began to notice "the high energy" and "great mood swing" around 1990.

The Sunday excitement was changing his African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.

"The good thing it did was get people back into church," says Mr. Lipscombe, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington, D.C.

"But the shouting doesn't last," he says. "You have to sustain them with a good theology."

The excitement is called "neo-Pentecostalism," a defining feature of black Christianity today.

It's a middle-class movement that is producing megachurches, combining the vitality and stage presence of black worship with social outreach, educational attainment and business success.

In considering the state of American religion, an observer has to look at the new spiritual seeking and the pluralism brought with immigration. The other force for change, many authorities argue, is rising from within the black religious experience.

Some of the neo-Pentecostal black churches, with the music-concert quality of their worship services and promising social contacts, are bringing men back to the sanctuaries. Still, on a typical Sunday in most of the country's 45,000 predominantly black Christian congregations, the pews are 80 percent filled with women.

The nation's 35 million blacks consistently have exceeded other Americans in putting a high value on faith, the Bible and church attendance, according to polls. Their enthusiastic worship style, according to a study of U.S. congregations, is shaping all modern American churches.

More than ever, however, the black church has to serve two social tracks blacks rapidly on their way to worldly success and those locked in social immobility.

Black high school students graduate at rates equal to whites, a third of black Americans live in suburbs and nearly half say they are treated "the same" as whites.

Less encouraging figures show that black unemployment is twice that of whites, half the nation's 2 million prison inmates are black, and more than half of all black children live in single-mother households.

It is no wonder sermons still include strong images of oppression and liberation, even 135 years after the abolition of slavery, says the Rev. Dorothea Belt Stroman, pastor of Albright United Methodist Church in Washington.

"I think that will always be a part of our preaching," Mrs. Stroman says. "We can't act like it never happened."

She says that the black church, first organized in congregations in 1789 and divided into denominations in the early 1800s, will not be jettisoned in the 21st century.

"Worship is important to the black race," Mrs. Stroman says. "The black church has always been the center of our existence. After work during the week, we look forward to meeting and going to the church."

New challenges

Yet several new realities challenge the faithful who are black, and one cited most often is low attendance rates for men.

Johnie Perry, 21, has not been to church since his upbringing in a small Baptist sanctuary in North Carolina, and he's definitely not interested in the megachurches.

"I don't attend church anymore because I work weekends," says Mr. Perry, a Landover, Md., resident. "The big churches look like they are built for business, not for worship."

C. Eric Lincoln, a Duke University scholar and dean of black church historians, argues that low attendance by men, a problem in most houses of worship, affects churches' ability to play the successful matchmaker and create strong families.

"The young professional woman's problem is, there's nobody there," Mr. Lincoln says. "The females are in the church. The males are outside the church. It's about as acute as a class difference."

Demographic reasons, such as unemployment and imprisonment, contribute to the lower rates of church attendance among black men, scholars of the church say.

Other challenges, Mr. Lincoln and others agree, include a loss of the clergy's exclusive claim to black leadership, alienation of young people from the church, and new burdens on churches' charitable resources as a result of welfare reform.

It used to be that the black clergy's voice was most prominent in speaking for black concerns. But in a more racially open society, that has changed somewhat. For the first time in memory, for example, none of the current 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus was clergy when elected.

The number of black elected officials in the United States who are clergy is unknown, but Ebony magazine's annual "100 Most Influential" tells a story, says Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. "The transition over 20 years is that there are fewer ministers and more politicians."

Those in the younger ranks tend to believe churches are governed too heavily by older folks, Mr. Lincoln says. "Young people don't feel the church is relevant," he says. "The decision making is at the top, the septuagenarian elders."

Mr. Lincoln tells of the Detroit pastor who tried to retire his aging board of deacons by giving them "emeritus" status and a free trip to the Holy Land; none budged. "The only force greater in the black church is the church mother," Mr. Lincoln says.

She, not the Detroit pastor, changed the board.

Making changes

Another challenge to the church is Islam, which is managing to attract black men faster than any other religion.

"The Muslims have been more active on the streets than black churches have been, and by the streets, I mean the prisons, too," says Lawrence Mamiya of the African studies department at Vassar College. He estimates that 1 million black men and women in the United States are Muslims.

Islam also has played on Christianity's complicity in the Atlantic slave trade. (Mr. Mamiya notes that Islam had a vigorous slave trade on the East Coast of Africa, too, but that it is little known by most American blacks.) And Islam can point to the Bible as an instrument used to justify slavery.

Dennis Dickerson, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, agrees that the Bible though revered in opinion polls by American blacks has a taint from history.

Among black youth, he says, "There is this sense that the Bible is for white people."

So to get black Americans excited about Scripture, Mr. Dickerson, as historian for the AME Church, has inaugurated the "Jubilee Bible" project with the American Bible Society.

The Bible Society, famous for its low-cost distribution, will make the Jubilee version the centerpiece of a series of "city-by-city celebrations" that begin in Atlanta in December. They expect to sell 200,000 copies this year.

But Bible literacy, long the bedrock of the black preacher, no longer may be all that the modern minister will need, theological educators say.

"We have the tradition of the pastor-scholar, but today the ideal is the pastor who can bring about social change on the basis of spiritual growth," says the Rev. Clarence G. Newsome, dean of Howard Divinity School.

"Over the past 20 years there has been more emphasis on growth of the congregation in relationship to the nurture of the community," he says.

Indeed, 71 percent of black churches are now active in social services such as child care or substance-abuse prevention.

To make community ties, Howard Divinity School has transformed its introduction to ministry into a course where students study beyond seminary walls.

"They might study the New Testament in a homeless shelter," Mr. Newsome says.

More such clergy are being produced for the future, according to the Association of Theological Schools, which has 237 accredited members.

Black enrollment in theology school has reached 6,300 men and women, a 60 percent jump over the past decade that is attributed to new scholarships and economic opportunity. Fewer than 25 percent of the black students, however, go to the eight historically black seminaries.

In the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, many clergy study at Bible institutes or are "called" and ordained at the altar. Most black churches have fewer than 100 members, in fact, and one study found that half of the clergy must hold second jobs.

The Washington region has plenty of these small congregations, and even some of the nation's trend-setting superchurches, especially in Prince George's County, Md. But what sets the D.C. area apart, Mr. Newsome says, is its church work in economic development.

One such project is the Collective Banking Group, in which five banks work with constituents of 200 member churches to assist in home loans and debt management. The banks also give small incentives for churchgoers to deposit there.

Howard Divinity School, meanwhile, has received a two-year grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the new "charitable choice" law. In a project called "Bridges Over Troubled Waters," the seminary is building a national network of local partnerships to improve the quality of life in housing projects.

Reaching out

Networking is not new to national black clergy, and especially Baptists, says Mr. Newsome, who cites the 85-year-old Hampton Ministers Conference in Hampton, Va., each year.

"But the cooperation is more intentional now, and involves the new development strategies," he says. "That's a significant change."

Through this year, Morehouse College in Atlanta will be hub to a 13-city study by 20 researchers to assess "the public influence of the black church." The data is expected to fill a great information vacuum on black churches and measure their influence in cities and on broader public policy.

"Blacks are still more politically organized and represented through their churches than any other ethnic or religious group," says political scientist James Reichley of the Brookings Institution.

Yet politics isn't everything, says the Rev. Carl Tilghman of New Hope Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md. "To save souls is the primary work of the church. It is not a social organization. A lot of institutions can feed you food."

Mr. Tilghman, a supporter of the historic traditions of ebullient preaching and singing, nevertheless wants to see reforms in independent black church life. Often, he says, evoking the "autonomy" of the church is a pastor's way of becoming a dictator.

"There's a history of abuse where pastors are the ones who have the big car and the big house," says Mr. Tilghman, who argues that a pastor's salary should equal the median of what his congregants earn.

He also thinks the black Christian effort to spread the Gospel should be more urgent and emphatic.

"With black folks, it's up front and personal. You don't come tiptoe. You want to get loud, I can get loud with you," he says.

"Why do you think [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan brought so many people to the Mall? Muslims don't play. Jehovah's Witnesses; they don't play. See, Christianity has taken this 'lite love' thing. We lowered the standards."

Neo-Pentecostal rise

Much of American black church history was set in motion when, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Baptists and Methodists were most successful in reaching out to both black slaves and free men.

"Opportunities to become preachers pulled African Amer-icans into these denominations," says Mr. Dickerson, the historian.

Today, 75 percent of blacks are Protestants. The recent interest in neo-Pentecostalism, however, had its roots among blacks in 1906 Los Angeles, where the Azusa Street mission of Methodist holiness minister William Seymour sparked the rise of Pentecostalism.

Its influence spread over all Christian churches, but its main legacy today among black churches is the Church of God in Christ, formed in 1914 and known as COGIC. With its Pentecostal spirit, the COGIC tradition also gave rise to entrepreneurial ministers and the mass choir, the starting ground for many of today's top black recording artists.

Pentecostalism's excitement has spilled into the more "proper" traditions of the African Methodists and even the Baptists, says Mr. Mamiya, the historian.

"All of the AME's largest and wealthiest churches are part of the neo-Pentecostal movement," Mr. Mamiya says.

That is because the Pentecostal zeal, once associated with poorer congregations, now has been adapted to churches frequented by those with higher educations and incomes. For these reasons Mr. Mamiya predicts that both the AME Church and the National Baptists in time will be transformed by the neo-Pentecostal combination of lively worship with outreach into education, business and even politics.

The unofficial mother church of the neo-Pentecostal revolution is the 11,000-member Bethel AME in Baltimore, where the Rev. John Bryant, now an AME bishop, brought about the fusion from 1975 to 1988.

The bishop's proteges have replicated Bethel's services in Los Angeles and other major cities. Churches such as Bethel are attracting male attendance of 40 percent.

Mr. Mamiya says that a "generational change" has brought a businesslike clergy to neo-Pentecostalism, able to build steady finance for the church by encouraging tithes and investing them wisely.

Mr. Lipscombe, whose AME Chapel is active in its Southeast Washington neighborhood and draws civic leaders to services, retains a stately style of Methodist Episcopal worship. His preaching is potent and the choir is superb all performed in a gospel spirit, but with restraint.

He wishes the more fiery neo-Pentecostalism well, but after 30 years in the pulpit, believes the highly emotional style of worship rarely changes people.

"My job is to challenge them to think," he says.

An interracial future?

As 2005 approaches the year when Hispanics are projected to outnumber blacks in America historic black enclaves already are feeling the cultural revolution.

South-central Los Angeles and Watts, filled with black churches, now are predominantly Hispanic.

"The black churches are still there, but they've not yet moved to integrate Mexicans and other Hispanic people into the services yet," Mr. Mamiya says. "I think that is inevitable."

He urged black clergy to learn Spanish during a recent lecture at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, the nation's largest black theological school.

Mr. Lincoln, retired from teaching at Duke University, has joined an experiment called Reconciliation United Methodist Church. The pastor is black, his associate white. The congregation draws American Indians, Hispanics, East Indians and Koreans.

"The black church has to make a determination about whether it is going to remain an ethnic or racial group, or move toward a common communion with other churches," he says.

At his 2-year-old church, he says, worship styles still are being worked out and there continues to be a stigma for both blacks and whites who are trying interracial church life.

Despite its many challenges, Mr. Lincoln sees the black church as a new engine for the future of American Christianity.

"In the old days, the mainline did not consider the black church legitimate," he says. "They considered it a 'Negro cult.' Now, the mainline has declined in numbers and prestige, and the black church has waxed."

Next year, the vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops will become the first black president of the organization. The president of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention has called for election within the next five years of a minority pastor to lead the 15 million-member association.

The National Association of Evangelicals has elected its first black chairman, Edward Foggs, former general secretary of the Church of God. And in May in Cleveland, Mrs. Stroman's United Methodist denomination again will consider whether all the Methodist groups one predominantly white and three predominantly black should unite.

"My concern is how the bishops and clergy will come together," she says, voicing her concerns about racial power sharing. "It has been studied for a number of years.

"This year we may get an answer."

Please visit part I: Americans' spiritual growth hunt being swept up in a 'new wave'

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