'Prosperity Gospel' is the Greatest Threat to Black Churches, Says Author

There is a crisis in many black churches, what a scholar-preacher calls a "mission crisis." And the greatest threat to the churches is the "prosperity gospel" movement.

Dr. Robert M. Franklin, author of newly released Crisis in the Village, says the achievements of the African American community are losing ground, especially among church leaders who have shifted more focus onto individual achievement.

As the most accomplished generation of black Americans, we could and should do more to renew our villages (African American communities), said Franklin at the launching of the book on Tuesday.

The core institutions in the black community, Franklin names, are the family, the church and school/college. While equally explaining the crisis in the black family and college in the book, the author writes in his book: "the black church has been and continues to function as the hub of civil society and remains the center of social life in many black communities.”

Congregations have expanded to thousands and thousands and black megachurches are on the rise, particularly in urban centers such as Los Angeles, Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C. The large congregations have "social, political and economic power that is unprecedented in black church history," the book states.

Franklin, however, sees a "mission drift" in the hub of black communities.

"I am convinced that the single greatest threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition is posed by what is known as the 'prosperity gospel' movement," he writes, explaining that the black church has assimilated into a culture that is hostile to marginalized people, such as the poor, the HIV-infected, homosexuals and immigrants.

According to Franklin, one-fourth of the black community lives in poverty. But many churches are devoting more time to "building their local kingdoms" and less time aiding and uplifting the poor.

Invited to a panel discussion at the book launch event was the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Sanders of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. Her church hosts the Urban Prayer Breakfast, serving food to the poor, every weekday morning. It's not a soup kitchen, Sanders clarified, and the church doesn't just hand out grits. But the poor are invited to sit at the table and eat together and engage in Bible study.

Sanders emphasized being "good neighbors" and empowering people by "showing" and not just "preaching at them."

While describing some of the problems in the black community, Franklin’s book goes on to do what the author believes few black writers have done – offer ways to move forward. He calls for village renewal.

"I propose that the community, laity, and clergy work together to help change the prevailing culture of compensation and material reward," he states. "The community should declare that if a clergyperson and/or church demonstrates good faith in collaborating with other churches and organizations engaged in renewing the village or, in the absence of collaboration, they are working heroically and strategically to make a positive impact on our most pressing problems, it will reward these clergy with financial support and personal encouragement."

If the village-renewal agenda is ignored, then Franklin suggests that the community withdraw its support for the clergy.

Regarding the overall uplifting of black communities, Franklin calls the African American Methodists to take responsibility to leading the educational renewal of the entire village; the black Baptists to answer the call for leadership in assisting people that have been incarcerated to reenter the village with integrity and support; the black Pentecostals to step up to positive youth development, especially with the most at-risk youth. These three faith traditions target the majority of African Americans, Franklin noted Tuesday, as he called all other denominations to action.

Paraphrasing Franklin's call to renewal, Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, said, "We won't get to social justice in this country without spiritual renewal ... until people have a change in their hearts."

Wallis believes that Crisis in the Village could help "change the conversation in America" as it speaks about culture today and presents real solutions.

As Sanders described the book, "It preaches and it teaches.

"But will it reach?"

Wallis believes it will.

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