The ‘Black Church’ has helped to provide African Americans a better life within the tumultuous history of the United States. It has provided venues for debate and discussion, food - both in the spiritual and physical sense - shelter, and, in some cases, places to hide from those who angrily did not want social change.
When you examine the nation's history and cross-reference it with race relations; the black church was the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, one of the nation’s most critical sociopolitical causes.
However, through academic research, Dr. Jason E. Shelton, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and expert in the sociology of religion, has noted that a portion of African Americans who do not identify with the three leading black religious sects of Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist are lessening their Sunday morning attendances.
“Far more blacks have left the black church than ever before,” Shelton said. “One reason comes from the fact that religious affiliations have become more voluntary in today’s world. For most of American history, people were less likely to challenge faith-related arguments and ideas. Another reason could be that those who stopped going to church disagree with the politics of their former tradition. The church’s stance on controversial political issues such abortion and sexual morality have led some people to abandon their religious affiliation. Again, while previous generations may have disagreed with the Church, they were less likely to depart the tradition altogether.”
Since the early 1970's, the number of black Americans stopping their attendance in church has more than tripled.
In 1972, the General Social Survey found that five percent of African Americans did not affiliate themselves with organized religion. As of 2016, in the same survey, the number of non-affiliated black Americans increased to 17 percent, Shelton said.
As for younger adults overall, in 2017, LifeWay Research found in a survey, that two-thirds of young people stated that they stopped regularly going to church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22 for a variety of reasons.
According to Shelton, the denomination most hit by the departure of non-affiliates is the smallest.
"One of the traditions that have lost a lot of people compared to other denominations are the Methodists," he said. "The Baptists have lost a lot too, but the Methodists were already smaller. So when you're already small, people leaving may 'hurt' a bit more. And so, that could be some of that disconnect we see between church leadership and those who sit out in the pews."
Another reason for the increase of African Americans leaving the church comes from a more worldly cause, he noted.
“Some African American non-affiliates live in a secular world, and they don’t believe faith plays much of a role in their lives,” Shelton said. “However, most African American non-affiliates believe in God. Their problem is with organized religion overall and the politics that often comes along with it, whether that’s the politics of what happens in their local church or the politics of what’s happening at the national or regional level.”
Although some African Americans are leaving the church, according to Shelton, the black church does need to maintain a level of relevancy in national politics, because of the church’s ability to create a sense of commonality within the black community.
"I think that the church needs to maintain political involvement in regard to national issues," he said. "Even before the Civil Rights Movements, there were black reverends and pastors vocally expounding the 'Back-to-Africa' drive and whether blacks would receive fairness in the United States from their pulpits. That was then. Now, we continue to have issues of importance impacting African Americans. And we need to establish a basis for unity, culture, and camaraderie and that's what the black church does, provide solidarity."
Shelton is the author of the award-winning book, "Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions."