This article addresses a very good question asked in response to our first article. The question is why black churches are known as “black” whereas evangelical churches—even if they’re mainly or all white—don’t refer to themselves as “white” churches. Here are a few reasons (in no particular order) why the black church came to be known as such.
The Impact of Segregation
To begin, we must note that for much of history segregation (whether legalized Jim Crow in the South or de facto John Crow in the North and West) affected every aspect of life for black Americans and this of course included the church. Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that African-Americans began to organize in their own churches when they were either refused membership in white (evangelical) congregations or, even when admitted, were still treated as second-class citizens. In fact, up until 40 to 50 years ago many evangelical congregations refused to admit black people as members. So, at the risk of being over-simplistic, just as American society produced black grade schools, black neighborhoods, black water fountains, and black restrooms, it produced black churches—where blacks would be welcome and not excluded or discriminated against.
Of course segregation wasn’t the only factor. Recent history reveals that as new immigrant groups embrace the faith they set up and operate their own distinct churches even though they’d be welcome at most evangelical churches.
The Role of Demographic Patterns
General demographic patterns are another factor that explain why most churches contain a majority of one ethnicity. Several factors contributed to whites being able to leave large cities to move to newly developed suburbs post WWII. For the most part African-Americans were excluded from these enclaves of the American dream, and that—coupled with the continuing migration of blacks from the South into the North and West—resulted in neighborhoods that were almost exclusively black. These neighborhoods then birthed black churches that were attended by those African-Americans who lived in the community. Add to that the social inertia inherent in any human institution and it is little wonder that to this day most Bible-believing black churches and most evangelical congregations consist of mainly one ethnicity.
The Black Church in the African-American Community
Ethnically-based segregation of the church also produced a great many unintended consequences for both blacks and whites, and served to bolster the identity of the black church. One of the most significant of these is the growth of the black church into the most prominent institution within the African-American community. The black church grew to be the one institution that represented the black community and on which the community relied for a great many things. For example, the church was the main place and institution that affirmed the basic God-given dignity and humanity of black people. Conversely, while the black church would not have forbidden whites from attending, joining it simply would have been unthinkable for the average white person. To do such a thing would have broken far too many taboos and given the black community a sense of importance that was simply unheard of during segregation.
Just as American society produced black grade schools, black neighborhoods, black water fountains, and black restrooms, it produced black churches—where blacks would be welcome and not excluded or discriminated against.
These are just a few of the factors that contributed to the growth of the “black church.” It was black not by virtue of its desire (or perhaps ability) to exclude whites or others, but in terms of being the one institution which served to care for, nurture, heal, protect, speak for, guide, lead, and pastor (in a general sense) the black community. The black church was the one place where blacks could go to express themselves in rapturous worship to the living God they depended upon to first liberate them from enslavement and then break the shackles of segregation. It was the place where African-Americans could go to celebrate their salvation and other important life events free from the domination of a hostile white majority. It was the place where those who were graced with the God-given gifts of leadership could exercise that leadership for the good of their congregations and community. It was the black church that could lead its members to stand in the face of vicious mobs and practice non-violent resistance, breaking down almost a century of enforced segregation. And it was the black church where any African-American could enter and receive a warm welcome with the knowledge that he or she would be free from any kind of racial discrimination.
Part of this may be difficult to explain and difficult to hear. It is difficult to explain because it’s difficult to capture the pull and attraction the black church has had on those who were treated as second-class citizens. For them the church was much more than a place of good teaching, proper worship, and social gathering. It was a womb where one could, if just for a few hours, rediscover that she is in fact a human being, created in God’s image, and loved by Him just as He loves all the rest of His children.
Must this always be the case? Can we look forward to a day in our society when we can truly say that there is no black church, white church, etc.? I believe we can, but only if we’re willing to admit that Sunday morning is not “the most segregated day of the week” as much as it is simply a reflection of the kind of society that we have chosen to build, nurture, and hold on to.
Reverend Lance Lewis is the pastor of Christ Liberation Fellowship, a plant of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pa.
To read the earlier articles in this series please see: