Emerging Independence of the Black Church Term Paper

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¶ … Independence of the Black Church

Throughout American history, the black church has played an important role in the African-American community. According to King (1998), "The black church has always been a positive force in the struggle for justice and equality for African-Americans. Various studies document the centrality of the black church to the social, spiritual, economic, and political development of the African-American community" (37). Because the black church represents such a powerful and important force in the black community today, this paper provides a summary description of the contemporary issue impacting the sociology of religion, brief explanations from a sociological perspective of the arguments presented from both sides of the issue, the sociological history of the issue, and the impact the issue has had upon both society and religion, and personal evaluation of the issue including possible solutions; a summary of the research and salient findings are provided in the conclusion.

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Background and Overview. The research is consistent in showing that the black church has historically played an important role as one of the primary institutional foundations of the black community (Billingsley, Caldwell and Rubin 1994:251). An excellent example of the communication link between black churches and their role in the African-American community was the part it played during the Civil Rights movement. According to Yarnold (1992), "During the early 1950s, black Protestant churches were used to communicate the ideas of the Civil Rights movement" (188). The Civil Rights movement's recognized leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister, and in these black churches, ministers typically called on a higher, moral law that sharply contrasted with a positive law that allowed for both de facto and de jure discrimination against African-Americans (Yarnold 118). The goals of the Civil Rights movement, though, were communicated through the churches to blacks, that subsequently took a more active role in a wide range of protests, civil disobedience, and, in some cases, violent encounters with white authorities (Yarnold 118). "Through these acts," the author adds, "the larger white population became informed of the major ideas of the Civil Rights movement" (Yarnold 118). Indeed, it was by virtue of their emerging independence from outside influence that these black churches assumed this socially activist role that such substantive and fundamental changes could be wrought in the first place and their impact on American society was profound: "Policy changes were to occur after the adoption of some of the major precepts of the social movement by both entrenched persons and organizations (such as the American Civil Liberties Union) and political entrepreneurs, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (McFarland 1983, cited in Yarnold at 118).

In fact, the emerging sense of independence was honestly earned and represented a true grassroots movement across the country, particularly in the Southern states: "The independence of black churches, which articulated the central ideas of the Civil Rights movement, was attributable to the fact that they were not dependent on any governmental unit for financial support, or on established interests, such as other organizations, wealthy contributors, private foundations, and business. Their activity was subsidized by contributions from church members" (Yarnold 118). Likewise, in her book, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith, Frederick (2003) points out that, "The financial independence of the black church has been largely the result of the giving practices of its members. Not needing to rely upon the benevolence of white trustees, as many black colleges do, or the generosity of white church institutions, the black church is the most economically independent institutional sector in the black community" (170).

Summary Description of the Contemporary Issues Impacting the Sociology of Religion. Because of the centrality of the position in black communities, the black church has assumed an important part in administering to the worldly needs of their congregations and neighborhoods, a feature that has also contributed to their emerging independence. For instance, a study of black churches was conducted by Billingsley and his colleagues (1994) to identify the role of the black church in youth development programs. Of the 176 churches reporting youth programs, the greatest interest was shown for teen support programs which are provided by 39% of the churches. These programs consisted of various Christian fellowships, ministry, counseling, group discussions, rap sessions, seminars, and workshops, and the second most prevalent services provided were sports activities; 31% of the churches provided athletic camps, teams, and/or martial arts classes (Billingsley et al. 251).

Among the least common programs were youth AIDS support programs (3%) and youth health-related services (2%) (Billingsley et al. 251). The former was comprised of classes/seminars, counseling, and financial support to persons with AIDS and the latter included health clinics, seminars, and screening for specific health problems; however, the authors emphasize that substance abuse programs (drug/alcohol counseling, seminars for drug abuse prevention, and workshops) were also offered by 15% of the churches (Billingsley et al. 251).

Other services provided by these black churches included college student financial support (emergency financial assistance, scholarships) which was found in 16% of the churches; 15% fell into the categories of parenting/sexuality (counseling, classes/workshop, pregnancy prevention, seminars, support for teen parents); and 14% for youth at risk (counseling, delinquency prevention, delinquent youth residence) (Billingsley et al. 251).

Finally, 8% of the black churches surveyed reported role modeling (foster grandparents, mentors), and 7% employment/job readiness (career fairs/days, job training, summer employment); 14% of the surveyed churches listed other youth support programs (Billingsley et al. 251).

The characteristics of the surveyed black churches likewise provide some insight into the current issues impacting the sociology of religion. In this regard, Billingsley and his associates (1994) report that their findings serve to illustrate the role of the black church in youth development programs by identifying some of the salient characteristics of those churches which did sponsor youth programs compared with those that did not. Their study determined that 176 (28%) of the 635 Northern churches surveyed did have community outreach programs for youth; however, the researchers found variation among the different denominations, as discussed further below.

For instance, almost one-quarter (24%) of Baptist congregations sponsored youth programs. Among Methodists the rates were found to be 38%; among Pentecostal churches 26% had such programs, and 33% listed under "other." The authors suggest that Methodist churches may assign slightly higher priority to youth support programs than do churches in other denominations. The results of the survey also showed that the older more established churches were more likely to conduct youth programs than were the newer ones. For instance, among the newest churches (those less than 41 years old), only 23% reported youth programs. Among those 41-75 years old, the proportion rises to 32% while among churches 76 years and older, 36% reported such participation (Billingsley et al. 252).

A third finding suggests that the operation of community-oriented youth programs may be social-class related. The survey found that the more middle-class the congregation, the greater the likelihood of a youth sponsored program; for instance, among the primarily middle-class churches, 47% sponsored such programs compared to only 17% of the primarily working-class congregations (Billingsley et al. 252). Another finding from the black church survey was that size of church congregation is a significant factor. The larger the membership, the more support for youth programs; for example, among those larger churches with memberships of 401 or more, 48% had youth programs.

By contrast, among those with between 176 -- 400 members, 38% were found to have youth programs, but among those with 71-175 members, 19% reported having youth programs, and just 12% of the smallest churches with 70 or fewer members had youth programs (Billingsley et al. 252). These authors conclude with the observation that, "It has been observed that one of the more distinctive features of the black church, one which gives it such independence and viability, is the tendency to own its own buildings and facilities" (emphasis added) (Billingsley et al. 252). This sense of independence in both economic and social spheres also plays an important role in how black churches administered their youth programs. According to Billingsley and his colleagues, among the black churches surveyed that rented their facilities, just 8% reported youth programs compared to 28% of those that were buying their property and 30% of those that already owned the property (Billingsley et al. 252).

Sociological Perspectives, History and Impact. In their book, the Black Church in the African-American Experience, Lincoln and Mamiya (1990) report that, "In their accommodative role, black churches have been one of the major cultural brokers of the norms, values, and expectations of white society. Black churches are viewed as mediating institutions" (15). Moreover, these authors point out that following the Civil War, black churches represented one of the primary mediating and socializing vehicle for millions of former slaves, teaching them economic rationality, urging them to get an education, helping them to keep their families together, and providing the leadership for early black communities. In some cases, though, accommodation also meant that black preachers… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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