Traditionally since its inception, The Black Church in America has been a symbol of unity in the Black community. In times of crisis it has cut across various religious positions and has served as a spiritual base camp for Blacks in America for many years. It has also played a role in community participation, social activities and provided care for the sick and a place of refuge for the poor. During the civil rights movement the Black community looked to the church leaders as an instrument that could effect change for their social conditions.
During that time, Black church leaders were influential to many of the social changes that we partake of today. Any important institution of society will have a number of roles and functions, and thus, an impact upon its membership. The Black church is no exception. In his study of the Black church, distinguished social scientist E. Franklin Frazier included a chapter, “The Black Church: Nation within a Nation,” in which he saw the church as an “agency of social control,’’ as an “economic cooperative,’’ as an “educational institution,’’ as an “arena of political life,’’ and as a “refuge in a hostile white world: (Frazier, 1964).
These functions—political, economic, social, and security—all attest to the secular scope of the Black church. Some students of the Black church have supported this view of the church’s secular function. An example is Joseph Washington, Jr. (1964), referring to the work of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an extension of the religious role of the church into the civil rights area. Although Washington viewed King’s philosophy as a perversion of the uses of Christian theology, and tended to view this activity as negative, his rationale was based on a lack of emphasis on theology in the Black church.
Other writers have tended to support the view that, the function of the Black church was not so much to foster the spiritual growth of its members by its adherence to and development of the normal Christian theology of the church, as it was to serve their spiritually-related secular needs. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, for instance, say in their study of the Black church in Chicago in the 1930’s: The Negro Church is ostensibly a “religious organization,’’ but Bronzeville expects it, too, to “advance the race. ”
Negro Baptists think of their congregation as a “Race Church,” and their leaders concern themselves with such matters as fighting the job ceiling and demanding equal economic opportunity as well as “serving the Lord. ” (Drake and Cayton, 1970 Pg 167). Kelly Miller also says that the Black church “ was not yet able to formulate a theological statement of its doctrine,’’ that it broke from the white church and “decided to go worship God under its own fig tree,” and in so doing, developed a distinctive orientation (Miller, 1968).
Others, however, such as Gayraud S. Wilmore and James Cone, built on the Drake and Cayton notion of the Black church as a “race church. ” They outlined the tendency of the Black church to be responsive to the dominant forces in the Black community by pointing to the compatibility between the “Blackness” of the church and the dominant ideologies—such as Black power—in the community (Wilmore, 1973; Cone, 1969). Assuming these notions are true, it should be possible to test a theory of the responsiveness of the Black Church.
Learning more about the function of the Black church is made urgent by the increased necessity for it to be responsive to the social needs of the Black community. The nature of these social needs is made urgent by the many new problems, of this age. STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM AND PURPOSE Today’s problems which relate to the role of the church in secular activities is in its relationship to Black families. The number of Black families headed by Black females has continued to rise over the years verses other ethnic groups.
This dramatic rise may be attributed to an increase in babies born out of wedlock, divorce and separations, all of which have more serious underlying causes, and which also have ramifications on the ability to maintain adequate income for provisional needs. The church formerly was the home for many entire extended families in the Black community; as such, it played a role in establishing standards of conduct; legitimizing births, marriages, and deaths; educating and caring for children; and counseling married individuals.
Consequently, the church was a resource center for the Black family, and played a role in its survival. If there are now new pressures on the family which—in addition to employment-related difficulties—threaten the survival of the family, it is also worthwhile to assess the modern role of the church and the extent to which it provides services to meet these new needs. In light of the current problems facing the Black community, it is appropriate and necessary that a new assessment be made of the various institutions within the community which played a role in its progress.
PURPOSE OF THIS STUDY The purpose of this study is to ascertain the present-day role of the Black church as a community institution, particularly with respect to the views of the church’s leadership, membership, and individuals in the community. To what extent, if any, does the church leadership believe that the Black church should be involved in the community? How do church members perceive the scope of the church as it relates to non-secular activities? And to what extent do residents, especially non-church members, view the church as a community resource?