Tensions around the black megachurch

ebenezerbcI spent most of the day on the move from Wheaton, Ill., to downtown Chicago and then on to Grand Rapids, Mich. Thus, I am only now — late at night — getting to some of the major stories of the day.

Thus, I want to call attention to some interesting tensions in the Washington Post story by reporter Darryl Fears (with input from Hamil Harris) about the church that hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The service was held in a 10,000-seat suburban megachurch called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County. It was not held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (pictured) that has been so closely connected with the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

The story focuses, as it should, on the contrasts between the urban poor and the new suburban world of the black middle and upper classes. But there are other themes and, sadly, they are so predictable.

… (The) decision by the King children — Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice — to hold their mother’s funeral service outside Atlanta rankled a few members of the civil rights establishment for several reasons. Coretta King recently spoke out for gay rights, at the very time that the pastor of New Birth, Bishop Eddie L. Long, was marching against same-sex marriage and benefits to gay partners.

It was easy to see that theme coming and it leads immediately to the next tension in the world of black faith and politics — the pew gap. The megachurch is where the growth is, it is where the numbers are when it comes time to count the numbers in the pews. This has long been true in white suburbia. Now, as in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and some other urban areas, the rise of the modern black megachurch is creating some interesting dynamics in politics and culture.

Long, a political independent, has also been one of a number of black ministers who have been actively courted by Republicans. He has met with President Bush, who will be among those attending the funeral Tuesday. Bernice King, the youngest King sibling, who rested on her mother’s lap as she mourned her slain father, drove the decision to hold the service at New Birth. She is a co-pastor there, and in the last years of her life Coretta King attended the church more and more, occasionally speaking there.

In other words, what happens if growing African American churches continue to defend the faith and values of the generations that came before them? Who will modernize? Who will rise in numbers? Who will decline? These questions have haunted many American denominations and religious groups. Now we are seeing these questions asked in new settings.

Watch for these themes in the funeral coverage tomorrow.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Daniel

    Or what if the growing African American churches don’t defend the faith and values of the generatrions that came before them? Can the hearbeat of the civil rights movement be replicated in bougie suburban chuches populated by ministerrs with Lear Jets? Will middle-class suburban churches provide the social services that have kept African American communities alive if they are more concerned about building auditoriums and chasing faith-based grants dangled by the federal government than running soup kitchens?

  • Rick

    What!? Daniel are you saying it is better for them to stay on inner city welfare than to work and prosper and build a new life (and church) where all their white neighbors went long ago?

  • Daniel

    I’m saying that African American churches have long been at the forefront on the civil rights movement and of nurturing their economically starving communities. Can they continue to play that role when the Bishop Eddies and T.D. Jakes of the world, spreading the gospel of prosperity theology, are more interested in paying for their Bentleys then worrying about the needs of the community.

    African American churches are different from white churches. They play a different role in the community, they play a different political role, and the play a different leadership role. There has always been a tradition of middle-class Afircan Americans continuing to help those traditional churches by driving in from the suburbs to attend services in the communities where they came from. When that changes and the prefer to go to prosperity-driven churches near their homes, a lot more is threatened.

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/YoungHomemaker shari

    yes they play a political role. telling all blacks to vote for democrats and demonizing the republicans. i think they should be less political. they should always privately engage in charity and help the poor but they should stop supporting welfare

  • Dexter Patton

    are you saying that Mega churche s are not feeding the hungry? I don’t know about all of them but that is definitely not true about Bishop Jakes and most others. Cricism is fine in its place but propoganda divides a community who need all of our churches and all of our people to be on one accord. Secondly, there were more resons for the rift of the location than the gay issue… Consioder the fact that Mrs king belonged to Ebenezer, her husband had pastored that church and she was a trustee there. the fact that your case is built on one issues ( the gay issue) tourbles me a little. I assume the decision was about space and not politics…. don’t you think it was better for the extra nine thousand people who got in to do so, rather than to stand out in the rain. The community needs mega churches too… or we would have to rent white churches aas we did in the past or go to public auditoriums… how would that be better. Both Rosa Parks event and Ms King took place in a Mega church. Jesse Jackson belongs to a Mega church. Many Black people choose to worship there. Are they not truly black because they enjooy the service there. AAll of our people are valuable, can we please stop fighting long enough to affirm one another…. even when we don’t agree on every point like same sex marrige, it doesn’t mean that we are a part of that ridiculous group of people who picketed the funeral and attacked New Birth for having the funeral of soneone who endorsed same sex… and ye Bishop Long did it anyway. I agree he has said some ridiculous things but I suspect he has put his foot in his mouth and cannot figure out how to get it out. Be that as it may, we have bigger problems that fighting over the size of our buildings and mode of our worship. People vote every sunday by where they go. leave them alone and fight for your rights without attacking people who believe differently. Maybe they will learn to stop fighting you.

  • Jordan

    “Secondly, there were more resons for the rift of the location than the gay issue. . . Consioder the fact that Mrs king belonged to Ebenezer, her husband had pastored that church and she was a trustee there.”

    This (homosexuality) is currently the most pressing issue within the black community for some reason. With growing concerns arising from the spread of HIV in the black community, both religious leaders and black gay activists are beginning to tackle the problem of homophobia within the black church and black community.

    The black community is largely split 50-50 on the issue of same-sex marriage, and the sides are fighting it out.

    Further, Rev. Joeseph Lowry made it clear in his funeral speech that Mrs. King was against homophobia. He did this intentionally to draw attention to this issue. It’s both church politics and gay rights politics, as both seem to be overlapping in today’s political climate.

    “. . .. don’t you think it was better for the extra nine thousand people who got in to do so, rather than to stand out in the rain.”

    I’m in the area that this is happening and I know what’s going one personally. I happen to have went to the funeral. It was not raining. Far from it. It was hot as ever. Atlanta is like that. One day it’s pouring down like crazy and the next day it’s hot as the beach during summertime.

  • shari

    i am against homophobia also, it is an irrational fear of gays and i am not scared of gay people