Comparing the Community Involvement of Black and White Congregations

Have the extra-religious functions of black congregations become attenuated in recent decades? We have addressed this question here via a comparative analysis of black and white churches with the only extant national probability sample of U.S. congregations. We found that in 1988 black congregations were not more active in secular activities in general, but they were significantly more active in certain kinds of non-religious activity: (a) activity directed at serving disprivileged segments of the immediately surrounding community, and (b) civil rights activity. The observed differences between black and white congregations in these activities were not explained by differences in congregational size, resources, urban/rural setting, or southern/non-southern location. These results support the idea that black congregations continue to perform non-religious functions within their communities, although an intriguing interaction between race and a congregation’s founding date points to important variation within black religion.

What is the institutional position of black congregations within African-American communities? Historically, at least, there is universal consensus on the answer to this question: In the past, black churches have been the most vigorous institutions within African-American communities. A long history of persecution and extremely limited opportunities for organizing secular social political and economic organizations has produced black churches which performed functions and tasks beyond those traditionally religious. In addition to being centers of community religious life, black churches historically have been the primary sponsors of secular social services, sources of autonomous indigenous political leadership, and reservoirs of organizational and human resources, especially during the Civil Rights Movement (Du Bois 1903; Frazier [1964] 1974; Lincoln 1974; McAdam 1982; Morris 1984; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

However, the contemporary position of the black church is a more contentious issue. Several sociological observers have argued that the historical institutional centrality of the black church within African-American communities has recently been compromised, especially in urban settings, by increased competition from secular organizations better situated to meet the needs of differentiated urban communities, and by enhanced opportunities for black Americans in secular social, political, and economic spheres. This thesis of an increasingly limited institutional role for the black church has been variously expressed. Frazier ([1964] 1974:76), for example, has written:

[T]he Negro church could not perform the functions of the new types of associations necessary to life in the city…. As a consequence, the Negro church has lost much of its influence as an agency of social control. Its supervision over the marital and family life of Negroes has declined. The church has ceased to be the chief means of economic cooperation. New avenue” have been opened to all kinds of, business ventures in which secular ends and values are dominant. The church is no longer the main arena for political activities which was the case when Negroes were disfranchised in the South…. In a word, the Negroes have been forced into competition with whites in most areas of social life and their church can no longer serve as a refuge within the American community.

Mukenge (1983:25) has offered an even stronger statement of this thesis:

The functional [attrition] of the black church is due to the inability of the denominational bodies to meet all the needs of their clientele because the church’s resources were limited by economic conditions, the needs of black people were differentiated, and other organizations with access to more resources increased in number and responsiveness to black people. (emphasis m original)

Mukenge concludes that the “functional attrition of the black urban church” is such that the “pre-eminent” role of the black church “as we move through the last decades of the twentieth century [is] maintaining mental health and psychological stability” (204). Most recently, Nelsen (1988:407) has written:

With the urbanization of the black church caused by the migration of blacks to the urban South and North . . . the church could not meet all the functions required m the complex urban environment and it had no monopoly to do so…. The higher rates of being unchurched on the part of blacks in the metropolitan non-South can be marshalled as evidence that increasingly m that context the black church is becoming differentiated to provide the religious function and that blacks have become involved in and turn to other institutions for the meeting of other needs.

However, Lincoln and Mamiya (1990:9ff) have challenged this thesis about the declining institutional centrality of black churches, arguing that social and political functions have been only partially differentiated from congregations:

The important fact about the development of these secular institutions such as the NAACP or National Urban League is that they were often founded with the help and support of Black Church leaders; their memberships also often overlapped with Black Church membership…. In other words. a partial differentiation of these institutions, spheres, and functions occurred, which did not require a complete separation from the Black Church…. Most social scientific views of religion m modern society assume a posture of complete differentiation, where the spheres of the polity and the economy are completely separated from religion, do not intersect, and have very little interaction…. Our contention is that such a view of complete differentiation when applied to the Black Church confuses the historical uniqueness of that institution, and leads to a misinterpretation of the data and to a misunderstanding of black churches and black culture.

Lincoln and Mamiya developed this thesis by drawing on the standard theoretical account of the social forces which led religion and religious institutions to sociological prominence in African-American communities: (a) centuries of racial discrimination and violence against black economic and political efforts; (b) the relative paucity of secular institutions to compete with the church; and (c) the substantial social need confronting the churches. They differ from Frazier and others not in claiming that these factors had historical importance; that is an uncontested fact. Rather, Lincoln and Mamiya believe these factors stiR operate to maintain the functional centrality of the black church within African-American communities.[1]

Distinguishing between social control/socialization functions of the black church and other social/economic/political functions helps us to move this debate forward. It is quite possible that the social control functions of black churches have become attenuated while at the same time these churches continue to provide a wide range of community services. Nelsen’s analysis, for example, demonstrates clearly that black individuals who live in cities are much less likely to be “churched” than are black individuals who do not live in cities. (Those who live in non-southern cities are the least likely to be “churched.”) While these data probably indicate that the social control function of the black church has indeed been attenuated, this individual-level evidence does not directly support the claim that black churches are failing to perform other community functions beyond the strictly religious.

In this paper we engage this debate with respect to community activities other than the social control/socialization function. Within this limit, we present evidence to support the Lincoln and Mamiya position against the Frazier et al. thesis: The analysis to follow suggests that black congregations continue to do more than provide narrowly religious services to their communities, even if it is true that these congregations no longer dominate the socialization of many African-American individuals.

We approach this issue from a new direction in that we offer a comparative analysis of the community involvement of black and white congregations. In the following section we describe our approach.


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