Black churches need strength, healing
9/24/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: Photos, audio clips and a sidebar, UMNS story #454, are available.
By Linda Green*ATLANTA (UMNS) - The Rev. Louis Chase and four members of his church traveled across the country to find out how African-American congregations are meeting needs in local communities.
Chase and his delegation from Hamilton United Methodist Church in Los Angeles were among the 600 people attending the Sept. 18-20 "Great Event," held by the denomination's Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century Initiative.
"The church has shied away from economic activity," he said. The task of the church, he said, "is to not only reclaim souls but also the soul of the community." He was particularly concerned about the lack of jobs in his own community and the impact of that problem on young people.
The Great Event brought together representatives of the initiative's congregational resource centers and its partner congregations, which share a mentoring relationship. The 25 churches that serve as resource centers provide support and advice to nearly 500 partner congregations that are trying to strengthen their ministries.
The black church needs strengthening because "there are so many souls out there that need to be saved," said Roxanne Chatman of Hope United Methodist Church, Southfield, Mich. "Because we worship in the black community, we need to make sure that our churches do not fall by the wayside." Hope is one of 25 churches chosen by the black church initiative to be a congregational resource center - a church that can mentor other congregations in specific areas of ministry.
Commitment is key to strengthening the black church, she said. "We need people willing to work, we need money, and we have to have the Holy Spirit in us to guide us, which is first and foremost."
Chase noted that many of the traditional African-American congregations are aging. "This does not mean that people are on their way out because the aging provide tremendous and necessary stability," he said. "There is a need for endeavors to be undertaken to vitalize our churches. It is not simply a matter of survival of the church as a passive institution in society, but as an institution that seeks to transform the whole community and be involved in social action."
Statistics indicate that although African-Americans in the United Methodist Church are roughly 5 percent, the numbers are steadily declining and many are joining or attending other congregations, according to Bishop Jonathan Keaton, the initiative chairperson and leader of the church's East Ohio Area. "Strengthening the black church is an effort of the entire denomination to help grow the black church."
Besides strengthening, the black church needs healing, according to several event leaders.
In a Bible study on healing, Marilyn Magee said "all is not well," especially when youth and young adults find other places to worship. Numerous United Methodist African-American churches would be strengthened if they moved from despondency to praising God, having "gut-wrenching prayer" and engaging in possibility thinking, she said.
"They need to move from a peep-hole perspective" and learn a better way of doing things, said Magee, a former member of the initiative's coordinating committee and former staff member of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
First approved by the 1996 General Conference, the initiative seeks to strengthen black churches in the United States by linking growing congregations with partner churches, and to revitalize the more than 2,500 African-American congregations within the denomination. The initiative will come up for renewal next spring at the General Conference in Pittsburgh.
"There is a great gift within African-American churches for the entire denomination," said Bishop Peter Weaver, who leads the Philadelphia Area. "Many black churches are alive and growing in incredible ways and it is exciting to see that gift being shared from the resourcing churches to the partner churches, who become examples for other black churches, white churches and Latino churches. The contagion of this initiative is spreading beyond what any of us dreamed.
"All churches can get stuck in a rut, but an event such as this throws open the windows and doors of your mind and your heart . . . and (has) great transforming power," Weaver said. "The most important gift from the Great Event is for churches to get centered in Jesus and know that Jesus is going to lead them to someplace new."
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*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer.
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