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.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs