The Black Churches: A New Agenda

by Lawrence N. Jones

Dr. Jones is dean of Howard University’s school of religion.

This article appeared in the Christian Century April 18, 1979, p. 434. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Black churches are called to actualize their potential as agents of social change without abandoning their traditional role as communities of faith. The most significant development in recent years has been an increasing awareness among blacks not affiliated with the churches that religious institutions are as critical to the survival of Afro-Americans in the present as they have been in the past.

As Bishop John Hurst Adams of the African Methodist Episcopal Church observed recently, black churches are operating essentially on the agenda given to them by their founders. The first agenda of early black American congregations and then of emergent denominations included (1) the proclamation of the gospel, (2) benevolences, (3) education and, by the mid-19th century, (4) foreign missions. (Of course, in the antebellum period a concern for the eradication of slavery was also central.) That these items continue to dominate the churches’ mission priorities and stewardship planning may be attributed in part to the continuing marginality and relative powerlessness of blacks in American society. It is due also in part to the fact that religious institutions in black communities have not been sufficiently cognizant of the radical implications which the changing political, economic and social realities have for their life. Bishop Adams’s antidote for this institutional inertia is “zero-based” mission planning -- an imaginative and valid suggestion.


Some early black congregations began as benevolent societies, and all of them were concerned for the welfare of the sick, the widowed and the orphaned. Most congregations continue to maintain benevolent funds, but they are no longer accorded high priority. It is obvious in the light of massive need that the churches’ impact in this area can be only palliative. The social welfare programs sponsored by the government and by community and private agencies are far better resourced and programmatically more comprehensive than those that individual churches can sustain. The churches’ task in the area of benevolence has become that of ensuring that persons gain access to the benefits for which they, are eligible.

The churches’ historic concern for education initially focused on efforts to compensate for the exclusion of blacks from access to elementary education. After emancipation, the most pressing concern became that of establishing and supporting secondary schools and colleges. By 1900 The churches had compiled an impressive record: black Baptist associations were supporting some 80 elementary schools and 18 academies and colleges; the African Methodist Episcopal churches were underwriting 32 secondary and collegiate institutions; and the smaller AME Zion denomination was supporting eight. The denomination now named the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, only 30 years old in 1900, had established five schools. Blacks now have broad access to public secondary and higher education, and the need for church-related institutions to fill an educational vacuum has lessened considerably. The question as to whether there is a qualitative difference in the education being offered in church-sponsored colleges as over against state-supported institutions is a matter that has to be debated in the zero-based mission planning that Bishop Adams suggests.

Blacks have traditionally directed their modest foreign mission efforts to the Caribbean islands and to Africa. The institutional forms of these missions have not differed significantly from those of the majority churches; they have focused on church development, health-care institutions and education. (It may be observed that black churches have established hospitals in Africa but none in America.) The need for such missionary services is diminishing and will doubtless decline more rapidly as independent African and Caribbean nations preempt these areas of responsibility for the state.

If the traditional concerns for education, benevolences and foreign missions need to be carefully scrutinized and their priority status evaluated, the first priority. in the life of the churches does not require such rethinking. The raison d’étre of black churches has not differed from that of churches in any age. They have been the bearers of the good news that God cares about, affirms, forgives and redeems human beings to whom he has given life, and that he acts in their history. This message of divine concern has enabled black believers to survive humanely in inhumane circumstances. The communities of faith have been the social matrixes within which individual significance and worth have been given concrete embodiment and a sense of belonging has been conferred. The form in which this message is conveyed may change, but its essential content will remain the same.

Though not a part of the format agenda of the churches, church buildings have been crucial community assets. From the earliest times they were the only assembly halls to which the black community had access. They housed schools, dramatic productions, cultural events, social welfare programs, rallies and benefits of all sorts, and civil and human rights activities. The requirements in these areas are less critical today. But if the need for meeting space has declined, the claims placed on church members by movements for social, political and economic justice have not diminished. W. E. B. DuBois once remarked that the NAACP could not have survived without the support of black churches and their members. This is still the case. Though many social organizations and unions give support to such movements, church members form an indispensable segment of their constituencies, as the recent financial crisis involving the NAACP in Mississippi made clear. The churches continue to have access to the largest audience that can be gathered in black communities.


It is important to perceive clearly that there is no “black church” in the conventional understanding of that term. There are denominations, composed of congregations of black persons and under their control, and there are countless free-standing congregations, but there is no one entity that can be called the black church. There are also numerous black congregations in predominantly white denominations; though these are properly covered by the rubric “black churches,” it is not with such congregations that this article is concerned.

Several caveats should be entered. It is virtually impossible to make generalizations to which significant exceptions cannot be cited. Yet there is a sense in which all black congregations and denominations respond to identical external circumstances and share common internal strengths, pressures and tensions.

Unlike their white counterparts, black churches have not developed effective centralized bureaucracies. This lack may be counted as an advantage by some, but historically it has had a negative effect. For example, it is impossible to obtain accurate statistical data on such matters as membership, budgets, numbers of pastors, value of church assets, and the level of training achieved by the clergy. Not only do black churches lack fully developed administrative structures; mission structures within a given denomination often do not engage in joint strategy and program planning designed to ensure maximum effective use of all available resources. Church unity is expressed primarily in annual or quadrennial meetings rather than in integrated mission planning and cooperation.

Failure to develop strong centralized structures can be attributed to polity (particularly among the Baptists), accidents of history, patterns of church growth, migration to the cities by rural blacks and, most critically, lack of money. Religious bodies among Afro-Americans have not devised the means for generating financial surpluses sufficient to enable them to maintain national headquarters staffs. As a consequence, the mission activity of the churches is, with limited exceptions, carried out by regional or local judicatories. Denominational loyalty has rarely been fervent among black Christians. Except among black Methodists in earlier times, churches owe their origins not to the initiative of home missions boards but to concerned laypersons or clergy who undertook “to raise the flag of Zion.” In recent years the national bodies of predominantly white denominations have been experiencing diminishing support from congregations and regional judicatories. Among blacks, local support for denominational programs has rarely been directed to concerns other than foreign missions, theological education, and a college here and there. Local or regional proprietorship and support of church institutions has been the rule.

In addition to inhibiting the growth of national church structures, the generalized economic deprivation of blacks in America has contributed to the continued fragmentation of the Afro-American religious community. It has meant that irrespective of polity, each congregation, with few exceptions, is a “tub resting on its own bottom.” No black denomination has significant building or salary-support funds. Similarly, there are no means other than denominational journals, most of which have limited distribution, through which a consensus may be developed with respect to important moral, religious, social, political and economic questions.

The absence of a “sense of the church” deprives many congregations and their leaders of the information and guidance that are foundational to effective Christian witness. This need is critical in a religious community where an estimated 70 per cent of the clergy lack formal theological education. Black church people receive limited guidance from their national judicatories on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, women’s rights. and the like. The AME Church has recently drafted “working papers” on some of these subjects. The absence of consensus on important public issues means that the power of the churches to influence public policy tends to be proportional to the charisma and prestige of individual church leaders.

The underdevelopment of church structures and limited financial resources have also inhibited the growth of clergy retirement funds. Several denominations have made modest beginnings with pension programs, but most black pastors cannot afford to retire. Consequently, pastorates tend to be marked by long tenure, and access is restricted for younger men and women. The difficulty in finding good placements has diminished the attractiveness of the ministry as a vocation for many promising young persons.


Counterbalancing these observations about the weaknesses of the churches corporately is the fact that many local congregations are vibrantly involved in mission in their communities and are growing in membership as a result. Church-sponsored housing projects, some of them congregationally funded, are commonplace in major urban centers. Church buildings house Head Start schools, day-care facilities, senior citizens’ centers, tutorial programs, “Meals on Wheels,” and similar publicly funded projects. Funds are raised to amortize building mortgages -- a common obligation of most black churches. Mission funds are sent to national headquarters or conventions, and church member assessments are paid. Members continue to participate in the  quest for social justice through community organizations and form these groups’ stable center.

The net growth of black churches has not exceeded the rate of growth in the general population. In general, long-established congregations appear to hold their own or to slip a little in terms of total membership, while Pentecostal and charismatic churches seem to have an increasing appeal, particularly for youth. Young people appear to be attracted to churches in which worship is free-form and spontaneous, and in which gospel music has supplanted the hymns of Watts and Wesley.

Like their white counterparts, black churches are commuter churches. They tend to be homogeneous with respect to social class -- except for Pentecostal or charismatic churches, which are no longer the exclusive havens of the disinherited.

As has been suggested above, no one knows the exact membership of the black churches. It is estimated that the total numbers of black Baptists are in excess of 8 million, with the National Baptist Convention, Inc., having approximately 6.3. million members; the Progressive National Baptist Convention, 750,000; and the National Baptist Convention, Unincorporated, 1 million. The total membership of black Methodist bodies is around 2.8 million. The largest Pentecostal body, the Church of God in Christ estimates its total membership at 3 million, and there are uncounted numbers of persons affiliated with less well-known church groupings and thousands of free-standing congregations. According to the conventional wisdom, approximately 61 per cent of blacks are members of Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant. By this standard, a total of 3.4 million Afro-Americans are carried on church rosters, though the active membership must be well below this figure. But if these figures are reasonably accurate, they are an index to the potential of the churches to influence public policy if their strengths can be marshaled.


As we look toward the future, the agenda for black churches is a complex one. The existence of the churches is not in jeopardy; they are and will continue to be for large numbers of persons the only accessible institutions that will meet their need to be affirmed in their identity and sense of belonging in both a human and a divine dimension. What is in jeopardy is the capacity of the churches to attract urban dwellers in large numbers while church programs are geared to a 19th century rural ethos.

The most significant phenomenon to impact black churches in this century has been migration to the cities. Urban churches grew and prospered as a result of that population movement; but the rural ethos continued to be reflected in worship, organization and mission priorities. There are now persons in the pews who were born in the city, who are secular in their outlook, who are keenly aware of the ways in which their lives are shaped by structures which they do not control and who are concerned that their religious  institutions should be active agents of social change. This new constituency requires programs of Christian nurture that address the consciousness, realities and urgencies of contemporary urban life. In this connection the church must become bilingual: it must understand the language of the world and translate the gospel into the idioms and symbols of that language. Christian nurture must also be bifocal. It must keep its eye on heaven, but it must not fail to see the world at hand and seek to enable persons to wrest meaning and significance from their lives in it.

Perhaps the central agenda of the black churches in the years ahead is accurately to assess their corporate potential for impacting the quality of life available to their constituencies. This task will require, as a matter of first priority, careful determination of mission priorities and the mobilization of resources for their implementation. These activities must be carried out in recognition of the fact that many of the problems affecting the lives of individuals in negative ways are systemic, and can be dealt with only at that level. This effort will inevitably involve individual congregations in difficult decisions concerning the allocation of resources formerly committed to the traditional mission agenda. Local autonomy will have to yield to functional ecumenism for the sake of faithfulness in pursuing God’s will and purpose that justice and peace shall prevail among human beings.

Historically, black churches have been clergy-dominated. This situation must change if religious institutions are to continue to attract gifted persons to their company. It is imperative that the talents of church members be increasingly utilized on behalf of the mission of the church. An important by-product of the involvement of laity in mission is that better-trained lay and clergy leadership will be required. Warm evangelicalism will not compensate for naïve understanding of the powers and principalities of the world.

It has frequently been observed that the quality of life in inner-city communities is deteriorating at alarming rates, and that part of this deterioration is attributable to the erosion of moral and humane values. Churches must not ignore these phenomena. They must be concerned that large numbers of young people never come within the sphere of their teaching or influence. While it is widely agreed that the causes for the morbidity of communities in urban centers are traceable to diverse factors, churches cannot be quiescent in the face of them. Family structures must be reinforced, and churches must be active agents and participants in organizations seeking to help communities improve themselves.

Missionary conventions and church boards face an important period of self-examination. They must ask themselves what the increasing, sense of self-identity in the Third World has to say to missionary structures. What does the indigenization of churches mean for black missionaries in black countries? Black church missions early reflected the “redemption of Africa” theme. What does that term connote at a time when cultural Christianity is undergoing rigorous scrutiny? What does it mean to affirm indigenous religion while proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ? In the light of Third World realities, have the terms “missions” and “missionary” become anachronistic?

Another entry that must be prominent on the agenda of black churches is the nature of worship. Is the “old-time religion” good enough for contemporary urbanites? How can churches respond to the desire of individuals for spontaneity in worship so that form is not mistaken for substance? Can churches devise means for accommodating a genuine desire to abandon outmoded forms without derogating from the claims of the gospel and the truth that worship is the service of God? The ability to sing a gospel, song with feeling is not to be equated with transformation of one’s life nor with continued commitment to the One who is Lord.

Black churches must begin to examine the economic realities of their existence, not in the light of their individual or denominational budgets alone, but in view of their tremendous possibilities to effect social change by utilizing the considerable resources that pass through their hands. In a city with 300 churches, it is fair to assume conservatively that the average Sunday offering would amount to $300 per church or nearly $ 100,000 for all churches. If this sum were put in a single bank, considerable leverage policy in regard to urban neighborhoods. Churches need to consider what cooperative buying of goods and services might mean in savings, influence on the employment practices of vendors, and overall economic impact.

It will be noted that an agenda has been suggested for black churches irrespective of their denominational affiliation. I offer no apology for this lack of differentiation since the situation of one black church is, in large measure, the situation of all black churches. All are addressing themselves to the needs of an oppressed people. One might even suggest that the agenda is appropriate for all churches that wish to take seriously the ministry of Christ in the world.


While the challenges facing black churches are difficult ones, there are important harbingers that bode well for the future. Modestly increasing numbers of bright young people from all denominations are seeking theological training. They are exerting increasing pressure on educational institutions to equip them to be resources to the communities in which they will serve, as well as competent leaders of religious institutions. There are also evidences that the denominational leadership of the church is becoming more aware of the changed context within which mission must be implemented. Another important sign is that church membership has been holding steady and that middle-class defections have not been as numerous as some had predicted.

At the local level laypersons are increasingly asserting their right to participate in the governance of the churches. Clergy serving churches with congregational polity are finding themselves to be governed by constitutions and by-laws in direct contrast to the monarchical clergy styles of a passing generation. Laypeople are also exerting pressure on their churches to demonstrate an authentic sense of social responsibility.

Another favorable index is the broadening effort to provide basic-training for church leaders who are not formally qualified to pursue graduate theological education. This theological training which is both theoretical and practical will have a significant impact on the churches and their ministries.

But the most significant development in recent years has been an increasing awareness among blacks not affiliated with the churches that religious institutions are as critical to the survival of Afro-Americans in the present as they have been in the past. Thus there is pressure from all quarters for the churches to actualize their potential as agents of social change without derogation of their traditional role as communities of faith. Black churches need not abandon their historic mission agendas but rather should consider them in the light of new realities in the world where mission must be implemented.