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America's Black Churches Debate Role in Society

Traditionally, America's black churches have been a potent political force. But now, the churches that draw the largest congregations are focusing not on social change but on individual prosperity. Some ministers complain those churches are turning their backs on the fight for civil rights.

Throughout American history, predominantly black churches have been at the forefront in the battle for social progress and equality. From the days of slavery through the civil rights marches of the 1960s, preachers such as Martin Luther King, Jr. used sermons to call for sweeping changes and government reform. In a 1967 speech at New York City's Riverside Church, Dr. King spoke about the effect the war in Vietnam was having on America's black community. "I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds of energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube." He went to explain that was why he saw the war as an enemy of the poor and attacked it as such.

But step into one the most popular black churches today and you're likely to hear a sermon focusing on the wealthy. At a recent service at World Changers Church, just south of Atlanta, Georgia, Pastor Creflo Dollar talked about economic power. "The Christians are the head guys in business," he told the people who'd crowded into the church's 8,500-seat atrium to hear him. "The Christians are the head guys in sports. Every time you look around there's a Christian somewhere getting some supernatural results. I want you to know the power has hit. … I'm telling you the power of God is getting ready to hit this place. And I'm not talking about when we get to church. I'm talking about when you go on your job, power gonna be there with you."

Reverend Dollar is a leading preacher of what's called prosperity gospel, and his sermons focus largely on helping inspire people to succeed... especially professionally. He says it's what his congregants need, and want. "Most people come to me, their issue is 'I'm broke, I can't pay my bills. Don't tell me about a Jesus that won't help me get a better job.' So by dealing with the Word, showing them how to have a good attitude, how to get focused, how to operate in diligence, how to discipline their lives," he explains, "then you can change the way people think through training and you have a better person at the end of the day." His sermons are broadcast on TV and the Internet, reaching an audience of millions. There are similar so-called "mega-churches" in Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles that also broadcast their sermons and have popular performers who sing at services. More churches following this style are springing up around the country.

But some African-American pastors rail against the phenomenon. According to James Cone, "You don't realize you can be very successful institutionally and also a failure in terms of really the mission that called you into being." Mr. Cone, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary, complains the mega-churches preaching prosperity gospel help people feel good about their financial success... but fail to use the pulpit to push for broader change that will help those still in need. "When you talk about the cross you are talking about the focus on the little ones... the ones who are hurting, suffering, who don't have voice. Churches are reaching out to middle-class people."

Minister Cone was among hundreds of pastors from various denominations at a conference in Atlanta who lamented the direction they see the black church going. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said mega-churches preaching prosperity gospel are not addressing critical issues. "What are you doing about why is there hunger? What are you doing to change the laws?" he demanded. "You've got kids who cannot read. What are you doing about that? Have another worship service?"

The gathering in Atlanta was co-organized by Frederick Haynes, senior pastor of a church in Dallas who fears too many churches are turning away from their responsibility to use the pulpit to affect change. "There is no continuance of the legacy left by Martin Luther King Jr. and that kind of faith expression." He adds, "if it had not been for that faith expression we wouldn't have a middle class right now."

Leaders of mega-churches say they are combating social problems by helping the downtrodden improve their own lives. Pastor T.D. Jakes, who runs the 35,000-member Potters' House church in Dallas, is unapologetic. "Because I serve in the inner city we have unique needs. And so our messages are tailored to the continuity of the needs of our parishioners," he says.

There have always been these differences among African-American churches. While many have led the fight for civil rights, some have not engaged in politics in all. But with mega-churches expanding their reach in the black community, some pastors who focus on civil rights say they plan to get more competitive, working to attract equally huge crowds to their churches, and making their sermons available on TV and the Internet.

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