The Black Church

By Charyn D. Sutton
From Pass It On: Outreach to Minority Communities, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, 1992

It is common for persons to talk about the black church as if it were one unified entity. In reality there are many different black churches that serve African-American communities. Generally the most influential churches in many black communities are Baptist, which are independent institutions affiliated with one or more of the major Baptist associations. However, black Methodists are also quite strong. The oldest independent African-American denomination is the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, founded in 1787.

Another important constituent of the black church is Pentecostal. These tend to be the smaller, store-front or movie-theater churches that are focused primarily on evangelism and spiritual service, rather than more "worldly" activities. While ministers of some of the larger Pentecostal churches do play a major role in their communities, they are less likely to become part of community-based networks that do not have a major religious thrust.

In some instances, well-known African-American ministers in a community belong to denominations that are overwhelmingly white--Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic. Often these ministers are largely supported by the diocese rather than by income generated by their own churches and may minister to relatively small congregations. These congregations tend to attract a higher percentage of educated, middle-class congregants than other churches that draw their membership primarily from minority communities.

In working with black church leadership, it is important to recognize that the involvement of ministers in secular activities is generally encouraged by the black community. Many powerful black politicians are also ministers. For example, during the 1980s, three African-Americans served as members of Conoress while simultaneously maintaining positions as senior minister for congregations in Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Generally the most powerful and influential black churches can be identified by three major criteria:

  • Size of congregation;
  • Length of time that the church has been in existence;
  • Number of influential black leaders (particularly elected and appointed officials) who are church members.

Often an individual African-American minister will gain considerable name recognition, particularly in the broader community, even though he or she has a relatively small congregation. While these individuals can be quite helpful, the most resources generally come from ministers who can speak for congregations with hundreds or even thousands of members and whose networks touch other major institutions, such as city, county and school district boards.

Important Facts of the Black Church

  1. The black church in America is primarily female in its membership even though the leadership is generally male.
  2. Males who attend church regularly tend to fall into two major age categories: under 14 years old or over 60. Boys come because their mothers make them attend and older men often establish church membership when their health begins to fail. Both groups - boys and older men in ill health -- are inappropriate as volunteers for [Big Brother]programs.
  3. Adult men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are active in black churches also tend to be involved in a variety of other activities in the community and, as a result, are often over-committed. In addition, their congregations often rely heavily on these men -- who are relatively few in number -- for volunteer activities within the church and in the surrounding community, leaving them little time for other volunteer tasks.
  4. Adult women, particularly those over 40, form the backbone of many churches. Those who are not heavily committed to church work and do not have small children may be excellent prospects for Big Sisters programs.
  5. Women with small children who are concerned about their children's values often establish or re-establish church membership. This is especially true of single mothers who can benefit from the various social and spiritual supports provided by black churches.
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