PASTOR JOHN SMITH presides at the Olivet Baptist church, a towering and handsome structure in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. He tells a cracking tale of the 170-year history of the city’s oldest black Baptist church. Before the civil war it was part of the Underground Railroad, helping to smuggle escaped slaves to safety. In the Great Migration, a century ago, Olivet helped to attract and settle black families from the South who forged new lives in northern cities.
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The newly arrived routinely made their first stop at Olivet to collect food and clothes, and to learn about finding homes and jobs. The church bloomed as “the place you could go” to meet practical and social needs, not only spiritual ones. In effect it became America’s first megachurch by the late 1920s, with some 15,000 members.
Those new arrivals were registered as voters and African-Americans emerged as an influential bloc in city politics. “We have always been engaged in the struggle for the liberation of black people,” says Pastor Smith. His church still promotes a “social gospel”, seeking a real-world impact.
Olivet’s story reflects that of the black church as a whole. In a PBS television series devoted to the story of the church nationally, broadcast in February, Henry Louis Gates junior, a prominent intellectual, called it “the seminal force in shaping the history of African-Americans”. It did the most to spread literacy among black Americans, even during slavery. The first schools and universities for African-Americans in the South, which have since grown into the historically black colleges, were founded inside churches.
One of America’s first black congressmen, Richard Cain, was a minister in South Carolina, elected in 1872. Black consciousness grew in churches during the Jim Crow era, as ministers in Georgia in the 1890s declared God to be black. Many such churches were part of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Raphael Warnock, who was elected in January in Georgia as the first black Democratic senator from the South, is the latest incarnation of a reverend-politician. His victory was aided heavily by church activists, especially women.
Yet the power of the church is waning. In the face of Black Lives Matter protests, it has floundered. Pastor Smith concedes he is still unsure how to respond to the street activists. Young African-Americans infuriated by police violence did not wait for a charismatic leader to come from a church, says Shayla Harris, a film-maker. Instead, “they take it on themselves”.
At Olivet interest in the church has been falling for years. Today Pastor Smith counts just 250 people as members, most of them elderly. And though he has taken to live-streaming services and has ginned up Olivet’s website and Facebook pages, he says that his church suffered “because it lost the young generation”.
This is true across much of the black church. The PBS series dwelt on a glorious history, but touched only briefly on the church’s more recent troubles. “The real question is does the church have a central role now?” says Ms Harris, who co-directed the documentary. She notes how the institution is increasingly fragmenting, it is “not a monolith”, and may better be talked about as a collection of many churches. Too many of these have failed women, who cannot “shatter the stained-glass ceiling”. They still fill pews and raise funds, but it is almost always “men in their 50s” who preside, complains Terri Laws, a scholar of the black church, based in Detroit.
A Pew Research Centre survey, published in February, found younger African-Americans ever less involved in churches. One in three black millennials (or younger) say they are not affiliated to any church, and around half of all black youngsters attend one rarely or never; among the oldest, only a quarter skip church. As for youngsters who still attend one, they are keener than their elders on multiracial congregations, not exclusively black ones. In time, even the idea of a black church may fade.
Ryan Burge, at Eastern Illinois University, tracks trends among atheists and the non-affiliated in “The Nones”, a new book. He says black millennials are following a path that white and other Americans already trod, but “there is more stigma for the black community in moving away.” Among young adults of all races, only 11% shunned church in the early 1980s; today the rate is nearly three times higher. Walter Fluker, at Emory University in Atlanta, says many black churches “have become haunted houses”, with leaders who are far too slow to respond to matters such as police violence or debates on gay rights.
The pandemic, Mr Fluker says, brought a moment for black churches to make themselves relevant again. Conservative church leaders badly failed to respond to the AIDS crisis from the 1980s onwards, which especially afflicted African-Americans. This time round the church has seen coronavirus especially hurt black people, who have been infected, hospitalised and killed at unusually high rates.
Some churches have taken again to the idea of a social gospel. “Covid created a wonderful opportunity,” says Pastor Smith, noting how Olivet tries to ease fear of vaccines by getting nurses to speak to his members. Church leaders, such as Al Sharpton, have lauded the safety of the vaccines in an effort—one that looks broadly successful—to reduce vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans. More such efforts to improve the lives of their followers would be a reminder that the churches are still a force to be reckoned with. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Haunted houses”