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River of Struggle, River of Freedom: Trends among Black Churches and Black Pastoral Leadership

By Larry Mamiya

Vincent Harding has suggested that the metaphor of “river” applies to the history of the black freedom struggle, “its long continuous movement, flowing like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.” He continues:

At first, as the river metaphor took life within me, I was unduly concerned about its apparent inexactness and ambiguity. Now, with the passing of time and the deepening of our vision, it is possible to recognize that we are indeed the river, and at the same time the river is more than us—generations more, millions more. Through such an opening we may sense that the river of black struggle is people, but it is also the hope, the movement, the transformative power that humans create and that create them, us, and makes them, us, new persons. So we black people are the river; the river is us….And at its best the river of our struggle has moved consistently toward the ocean of humankind's most courageous hopes for freedom and integrity, forever seeking what black people in South Carolina said they sought in 1865: “the right to develop our whole being1."

In keeping with the spirit of Harding's metaphor, I have entitled this study, River of Struggle , River of Freedom : Trends among Black Churches and Black Pastoral Leadership. If black history can be seen as the flowing river of the metaphor, then black churches are the ships or vessels that navigate the often turgid river. They are the containers of small and large groups of black people who have pooled their often meager resources to build these ships and use them for worship, fellowship, education, public forum, concert hall, art gallery, solace, protection and liberation. But I have also extended the metaphor to viewing black pastors, men and women, as the ships' captains and “river guides,” those who help their people navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of American society. Some of the ships are small like rowboats, such as the small rural black church or a storefront church or a house church begun with family members. Others are extremely large luxury liners like the black megachurches described in the following pages. Throughout the black freedom struggle, courageous leaders have arisen to point the way forward, often in the face of hostility, betrayal, and sometimes death. Many of these leaders were either clergy or lay members of what Lincoln and I have called the “Black Church.2

This study will be divided into three sections. Section I will highlight the recent trends among black churches , including demographic changes in the black population due to migration and their implications for Black Church ministry; the development of black megachurches, which include the rise of neo-Pentecostalism and the spread of the Pentecostal praise tradition, the emphasis on Prosperity Gospel, and the use of televangelism; the development of nondenominational churches and the rise of local Bible institutes. There will also be a focus on the continuing trend of black women in ministry.

Section II will also include studies and data on African American laity : religious profiles on church attendance and membership; issues concerning black youth; denominational switching; the importance of the prayer ritual; black churches as supportive social networks and therapeutic communities and their implications for physical and mental health; and outreach and social programs sponsored by black churches.

Section III will focus on the studies and data concerning a profile of Black Pastoral Leadership , which will include data from the Pulpit and Pew Project at Duke Divinity School and Project 2000, a survey of black clergy and churches, which was based at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

End Notes

1Vincent Harding. There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America . New York : Random House, 1981: xviii-xix of the Introduction.
2While we have been criticized by other scholars for keeping in the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois, Benjamin Mays and Joseph Nicholson, and E. Franklin Frazier (who referred to the Negro Church), saying that there is no monolithic entity called the Black Church but only black churches. We defend its use, first as sociological shorthand, just as others refer to the “black community” or the “white community,” while understanding the implicit diversity therein. Second, as Lawrence Jones has cogently argued, “Yet there is a sense in which all black congregations and denominations respond to identical external circumstances and share common internal strengths, pressures and tensions.” In Lawrence N. Jones, “The Black Churches: A New Agenda,” Christian Century. April 18, 1979, p. 434. Also see http://www.religiononline.org Third, black churches also share a common black culture, which is shown in similar, worship and preaching styles across denominational lines.

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Pastor Speaking to Ladies
African - American Male Speaker