Historically Black Churches Embrace Others to Stay Alive for Elders

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Why you should care

Black churches need to attract diverse audiences to avoid the displacement of elderly believers as congregations shut down.

Aging With Race: An OZY original series exploring how Black Americans are confronting elder care. Aging With Race: An OZY original series exploring how Black Americans are confronting elder care.

Religion and Christianity have been ingrained in the fabric of America since its inception. “One nation under God” is committed to memory before time tables are; currency bills state “In God we trust.” Now religiosity is slowly evaporating, and older churchgoing African Americans might be the hardest hit — unless a dramatic, nascent strategy picks up.

Two-thirds of American adults identify as Christian, according to a Pew Research study released in October, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Thousands of churches are closing every year, including 3,500 in 2016, according to the most recent figures. More than 10,000 others are on their way out, says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

While Pew’s research shows African Americans identify with Christianity the most and attend religious services at least once a week at the highest rate among all communities, they’re not immune from these winds of change. With two in three Blacks born between 1928 and 1945 identifying with historically Black denominations compared to only 41 percent of Black millennials, the mass closing of these churches will affect African American elders the most.

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A woman walks past stained glass windows depicting historical African American women leaders after a Sunday church service in Denver.

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But a simultaneous rise in multiracial congregations is sparking a debate over whether historically Black churches need to start opening up more in order to survive, especially for elders who depend on them. In 2019, 23 percent of all evangelical churches were multicultural — meaning no single racial group constituted 80 percent or more of participants — compared to 15 percent in 2012. The fraction of congregants attending multicultural churches is up to 24 percent, from 18 percent in 2012.

It’s a trend that’s taking off in the African American community too. Today, 18 percent of multicultural churches are led by Black clergy, up from 5 percent in 2007. In the same time period, White leadership of multi-ethnic churches has fallen from 83 percent to 70 percent. More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. said: “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning,” there are real signs of a shift.

“The impact and significance of the American church in the future will, in my opinion, lie within healthy, multi-ethnic, economically diverse and socially just churches,” says Mark DeYmaz, pastor of the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas and co-founder of Mosaix, a network of pastors with a mission to see 20 percent of local churches achieve 20 percent diversity by 2020.

To be clear, integrating isn’t simple for elders in Black churches. These institutions have roots dating back to the post-slavery and Jim Crow eras, when African Americans often weren’t allowed to worship in White spaces. While all churches, White and Black, are closing, elder African Americans have additional history to lose. “All Black churches were established on the faith of their beliefs,” says Tony Byers, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, the oldest Black church in the state. “They have roots there.”

But advancements in civil rights have led to more people looking to attend churches that reflect their broader friend groups rather than race-based congregations. When you add America’s growing racial diversity, immigration and gentrification into the mix, the factors stack up against the survival of homogeneous churches, including predominantly Black ones.

Rev. Robert Jemonde Taylor, who presides over St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, has seen this firsthand. At one point, North Carolina had 60 historically Black Episcopal churches — now there are 15. In Philadelphia’s seventh ward, where African Americans settled starting in the 19th century — and where W.E.B. Du Bois studied the sociology of Black life in his landmark work, The Philadelphia Negro — 10 churches have closed amid gentrification and enormous demographic change, says Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, an organization that works with historic congregations. Among those demolished: Union Baptist Church, where Marian Anderson learned to sing. The acclaimed singer’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 had helped set the stage for the civil rights era.

I’m preparing St. Ambrose now for the point in time when there may be more White people … than Black people.

Rev. Robert Jemonde Taylor, St. Ambrose Episcopal Church

That’s forcing Black churches to change. Abundant Life Word Fellowship in Eatonton, Georgia, started off catering to a predominantly Black audience 24 years ago but has since shifted to a congregation serving all races. Led by Apostle Ronald Wilson, Full Gospel Christian Assemblies International in Hazel Crest, Illinois, started off predominantly Black 35 years ago. A decline in membership and multiracial additions to his own family prompted Wilson to reach out to a broader audience. “The world is versatile,” he says. “If we don’t expand, we’ll just stay boxed into one culture.”

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Gentrification, while leading to Black flight, is also opening up opportunities for churches to seek more diverse congregations.

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When Full Gospel first attempted the shift 15 years ago, “I don’t think they were ready for us,” says Lynda White, a community elder who has been with the congregation since it started. But Wilson went out of his way to seek out members from other communities, she says, and that made it work. “The Bible says if you want friends, you gotta show yourself friendly, and Apostle made himself available.”

Over in Raleigh, Taylor’s not waiting around any longer either. If Black elders are to be saved from having to search for another congregation late in life, their churches must be kept alive. And for that, these churches must broaden their reach. “Some of [the churches] are dying because the population is aging and new members are not coming,” he says. “But I also believe these churches have been selfish, being inward-facing and not outward-facing.”

Gentrification, while leading to Black flight, is also opening up opportunities for churches to seek out more diverse congregations. “I’m preparing St. Ambrose now for the point in time when there may be more White people in St. Ambrose than Black people,” says Taylor.

That might not be what every Black churchgoing elder wishes for. But if they want their sacred building to remain after they leave, they’re going to have to open their doors a bit wider.

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