There is something tragically askew in the religious state of black Americans; namely, the near-failure of qualitative development in integrated and/or separate black middle-class churches and denominations.
That same near-failure is of course evident in every mainstream Protestant denomination, black or white, whether the criteria be lack of growth or loss of adult membership, youth participation, trained clergy, theologically alert laity, or commitment to black ecumenism. But nowhere is this reality more poignant than among black United Methodists. Not only did they shrink by 140,000 between 1940 and 1964, but their attrition from an estimated 385,000 since the 1968 decree of "no more segregated jurisdictions" has paralleled the demise of the segregated Central Jurisdiction.
A Disquieting Inertia
Since there is no significant countervailing evidence in any integrated and/or middle-class denomination, the lack of qualitative development is the issue of moment -- one that can no longer be avoided without fatal consequences for the healthy growth of black church life.
It is a multifaceted issue laced with serious questions. Is the distinctive religion of black Americans culture-bound? Is it limited to the lower class and therefore alien to the middle class? Is it inherently racial and consequently inimical to integration or to functional interaction between self-accepting and other-regarding ethnics?
That dynamism is not the dominant pattern in middle-class black churches is a virtually undisputed fact, empirically verifiable by any unbiased investigator in most communities where middle-class blacks practice religion. It is precisely because of its pervasiveness that this inertia is so disquieting.
Owing largely to the controversy over more exciting debaters’ points (i.e., What is black religion, black theology, the black church? What is uniquely black in religion or theology or the church?), this alarming situation has been allowed quietly to fester. But, however important and interesting such discussions may prove to be -- and after all, black Christian life can be interpreted in a variety of ways of which none excludes the others -- they amount to little more than whistling in the dark apart from a vibrant community of participants. What is important is that the issue of lack of quality and quantity in middle-class black religious life be rightly understood and addressed. Dealt with in those terms, it is an issue of relevance to white and black churches alike.
Black Students: In Retreat from Religion
It may be that as chairman of Afro-American studies and professor of religious studies here at the University of Virginia, and as lecturer in both fields on some 100 U.S. campuses, I have been made more acutely aware than most of my fellow religionists to what must be called a crisis in the black religious spirit. In any case, in the past three years I have witnessed the emergence of a strange phenomenon. Whether in the classrooms on...