Gentrification and African American Church Decline

From The Atlantic by Alessandra Ram:

This is a distinctive American problem, but one that contradicts the point of Paul’s mission: getting two ethnic groups into the same room around  (and under) King Jesus.

In cities across America, a new population is moving to neighborhoods formerly occupied by working-class African Americans. Property developers, eager to take advantage of the modest rent, are tearing down buildings to make way for trendy eateries and luxury condominiums to fit the needs of millennials: young, educated individuals, most of whom reside briefly in a given urban area before choosing to settle elsewhere.

This recent physical and cultural transformation has been endlessly debated. According to Neil Smith, a professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York Graduate Center, gentrification has changed enormously since the ’70s and ’80s. “It’s no longer just about housing,” he told the New York Times. “It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods. It’s driven by many of the same forces, especially the profitable use of land. But it’s about creating entire environments: employment, recreation, environmental conditions.”

In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint, for instance, the proportion of residents holding graduate degrees quadrupled to 12 percent from 1990. At the same time, the retail focus has shifted from offering products to creating experiences. “In this struggle,” he says, “the interests of private capital rarely lose.”

In the nation’s capital, black churches have refused to budge amid this accelerated gentrification process, even as they see their communities (and influence) slowly wane. For the first time, African Americans are no longer D.C.’s major racial or ethnic group. Select D.C. neighborhoods are experiencing a verifiable identity crisis, with the black church at the helm. Changing demographics are a daunting challenge for an institution that used to occupy an integral role in the community — serving as the center of stability and camaraderie, offering potlucks and after-school care along with religious services. To understand this struggle is to understand the changing role of the black church in the American narrative, and what vulnerable communities stand to lose if it disappears.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Debbie

    This is a real problem when it comes to serving the community and increasing church membership. In Washington DC, increasingly the people in communities where African American churches are, do not attend the community church, nor do they need the services it provides. The current memberships have dwindled and churches are trying to find new and creative ways to attrack new attendees and members to their church, such as aligning with progressive movements or using music or hosting workshops. In many cases, the attendees of these events are still current chuch members or visitors who may already have a church of their own, but who are attending as a guess.

    Although in many urban communities, there are still alot of needs in the remaining low income communities, it appear the area churches are not equipt to help them all and other churches, because of their small congregations, are not resources to help beyond their own small missionary programs.


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