For two centuries, the church has been black America’s epicenter; a cultural, social and political entity that has been a deep source of pride and community.
But the institution itself is in danger, says F. Douglas Powe Jr., a theologian and author of the new book “New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations.”
Powe contends that black churches are in crisis because of their inability to communicate with newer generations, and an unwillingness to change how they operate.
Powe is the E. Stanley Jones associate professor of evangelism and black church studies at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
He writes: “Many African American congregations fail to attract new parishioners because those operating with an old wineskin mentality are stuck in a particular cultural box … The truth is that some members are so beholden to the old wineskin that they would rather disintegrate completely than consider new ideas that may transform the congregation.”
Powe said the black church consists of several “generational” groups: Civil Rights (1921-1940); Silent (1925-1942); Black Consciousness (1941-1960); Boomers ( 1943-1960); Thirteenth (1961-1981); Integrationist (1961-1980), and Hip-Hop (1981-2000).
“With the Integrationist and Hip-Hop generations particularly, there seems to be a struggle in communicating to those generations,” he said. “How to bridge that gap, is why I wrote the book.”
Powe said the current church is most strongly identified with the stalwart “Civil Rights” generation.
“When people think of the black church, that’s the generation they’re referring to,” he said. “Certainly, we know there are lot of people who came before, but a lot of what people think in terms of the black church are Martin Luther King and others who symbolize that age.”
Powe said the Black Consciousness generation, which produced the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Jeremiah Wright and Floyd Flake, and such “black-power” activists as H. Rapp Brown and Angela Davis, “deepened our understanding of the systematic nature of the nation’s social ills.”
This generation, he said, also marks the emergence of “Black Liberation Theology.”
“I would define it (liberation theology) as an attempt to think about the way the Bible speaks to the freedom and full personhood, or identity that African Americans seek in the United States,” Powe said. “The problem is it focused more on male identity. For this reason, some black women criticized it in the beginning.”
Though women are the most loyal and active members in black churches, Powe said the power structure remains male-dominated, though there has been a shift in the last decade with the elevation of some women clergy to the rank of bishop.
Powe said the first detectable generational break within the black church comes with the Integrationists. Born as the social, educational and political power begins to shift away from the black church, Integrationists are more disconnected from their predecessors, and are more open to the idea of being “spiritual” without being connected to a specific religion.
The Hip-Hop generation of churchgoers, Powe said, tend to gravitate to nondenominational megachurches, like that of Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most influential black clergymen in America.
“Many of the megachurches start with the charisma of the pastor,” Powe said. “Because of that, people are drawn to him and to his ministry. But the second piece of that, along with being charismatic, is he’s able to communicate his message in a way that is relevant to lives of individuals. He was able to build a foundation with women through his ‘Woman, Thou Art Loosed’ (outreach) that helped create a strong ministry for him.”
Powe said that if they are to thrive, denominational churches must be “intentional” in reaching out to the generations.
“One of the congregations has done really well, particularly in understanding the Hip-Hop generation, is Impact United Methodist in Atlanta (Rev. Olu Brown),” he said. “As a whole, nondenominational churches have done well in making that sort of bridge of understanding. They’re more willing to make the changes that it’s easier for local congregations to make.”
A NEW THING
Powe urges churches to not be discouraged if their initial efforts to attract new members aren’t successful — but change they must.
“They’re not going to be able to do the same thing over and over and be successful,” he said. “Already, many of those congregations are starting to decline.”
A 1983 graduate of GlenOak High School, Powe attended the Sherrick Road Church of God in Canton. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan College, his master’s degree from the Handler School of Theology, and his doctorate from Emory University in Atlanta.
“…Post-Civil Rights generations want to be part of the process in congregations,” Powe writes. “They are not trying to destroy the congregation, but want their voices heard. Congregations have to be willing to hear their voices or be boycotted… Congregations have to change and be agents of change, because God is always doing a new thing.”
The book is available at Cokesbury Christian Bookstores and Amazon.com.