New Report Contradicts Past Claims of Black Church Decline

According to to the recent study, the last quarter of the 20th century saw an explosive growth of black megachurches. The report disputes earlier studies noting a decline in the African American church community.

A recent groundbreaking study concluded that there are at least 1,210 megachurches in the United States today, but the large scale participation of African Americans in the 2,000+ congregations has escaped notice, according to a newly released research on black churches.

Pulpit & Pew published a report on trends among black churches and black pastoral leadership, revealing a resiliency and strength that previous studies had stated otherwise. In the research, carried out by Lawrence Mamiya, a veteran student of the black church in America, African American Christians were cited to have been disproportionately attracted to megachurch congregations.

African Americans constitute about 25 percent of the participants in megachurch congregations, both black and white, according to scholar Cheryl Gilkes in the study.

Sociologist Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research noted that "twelve percent of churches without a black majority have a significant black presence among their regular attenders."

The report disputes earlier studies conducted by evangelical researcher George Barna who cited a decline in the African American church community. According to to the recent study, the last quarter of the 20th century saw an explosive growth of black megachurches.

Within the growing megachurch movement, "Prosperity Gospel" has taken on an increasing trend. The report accounted the spread of the prosperity message to the rise of a black middle class in the Civil Rights era. Not all of the pastors of black megachurches, however, agree with the prosperity gospel. The study stated that some pastors, including the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, have been critical of the injustices of American capitalism and the prosperity message.

Dr. Cain Hope Felder, professor at Howard University School of Divinity, had stated the need for a more holistic approach to scripture. He told The Christian Post in a past interview that the rise of megachurches and their corporate executive model could be potentially dangerous.

Criticisms of black megachurches were noted in the Pulpit & Pew study.

Bishop John Hurst Adams of the A.M.E. Church said that both black and white megachurches lack emphasis on justice, a trend that Felder had also brought attention to. While the large congregations fail to engage the critical issues of justice and focus more on "praise worship," as some church leaders say, media attention has largely been on megachurches. On the other end, smaller churches, which carry the daily burden of the struggle for justice in most black communities, according to the study, have been largely ignored by media.

Felder mentioned an example of the one-way media coverage. Megafest 2005 with Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the megachurch The Potter's House, drew over 100,000 people along with wide media attention. Meanwhile, civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a Voting Rights Act march in the same city and month, and media coverage was not as large.

Despite several aspects of "institutional weakness," the report paints a hopeful portrait of black churches and their pastors.

The studies "reveal a loyalty and depth of commitment to this institutional area that is not found in other sectors of society, even among white churches," stated Mamiya.

The report is the final one in a series of research reports that have been published during the first phase of Pulpit & Pew. The project, with generous support from Lilly Endowment, has sought to bring together a wide body of research to gain purchase on the state of pastoral leadership in Christian churches in the United States.