When Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first independent Black denomination in the nascent United States — in 1794, he did so because he believed “everyone is an equal in the eyes of God,” says Richard Newman, author of “Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers.”

The Black church, then and now, stood as an “emblem to equality,” he said, adding that while it’s a physical institution, it’s also an idea that transcends four walls.

“It’s a feeling, deep in the soul. (The Black church) is an image of equality and justice and perfection that has never existed and yet people always try to conjure into being,” said Newman, who is also a history professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  

In this cultural and political moment, Black Americans need that feeling, other academics and Black religious leaders say. But the Black church — like religious institutions in America in general — is showing signs of decline.

“The church is not going anywhere,” said Stacey Holman, producer of the new four-part series “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” which premieres on PBS on Feb. 16. “It is really the moral compass of this nation.” 

However, she adds that the Black church is “going to have to recognize the time and place that we’re in and evolve.”

Community tensions

Both the PBS documentary and a new, landmark study on Black Americans’ religious beliefs from Pew Research Center emphasize the Black church’s import in the Black community and the country more broadly, both historically and in the present. 

But they also point to tensions within the Black community, raising questions about the role the institution will play in our nation’s future.

“There’s this general recognition of the (Black church’s) historical role,” said Besheer Mohamed, senior researcher at Pew and lead author of the new study. “And then there’s a question about what role it should have now.” 

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Though it might seem impossible for numbers to be fraught with tension, the survey revealed changes and conflicts reverberating through Black Americans’ relationship with religion — as well as American society at-large. It showed how the institution is sometimes out of step with the people it’s trying to serve.

For example, Pew found that a tremendous majority of religiously affiliated Black Americans believe in equality between the genders — with a full 71% saying that “opposing sexism is essential to their faith.” But it also showed that they’re not hearing that message from the pulpit.

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Among Black Americans who attend church several times a year or more, 64% report that their congregation places “a lot” of emphasis on men providing for their families — despite the fact that most worshippers believe men and women should share the financial burden equally. 

Pew also found that 87% of Black American women and 84% of men say that “women should be allowed to serve as senior religious leaders of congregations.” However, few Black churches across the country are actually led by women.

Additionally, the survey showed that, perhaps surprisingly, a majority of the more than 8,000 Black Americans surveyed want the Black church to diversify. More than 6 in 10 would like non-Black people to come to their churches, Pew found.

Some interviewees even went as far as to express ambivalence about the term “the Black church.” 

“Church has no color to me, because anyone’s invited to come there, whether they’re Black, whether they’re Chinese, Spanish or whatever. It just so happens that the majority of the ones that come are of Black origin. That’s about it,” said one respondent. In the same interview, she had testified to the importance of predominantly Black churches to herself, personally, and to her community.

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Pew’s survey showed that Black Americans are even conflicted over the role the Black church should play in leveling the racial playing field in America. While approximately three-quarters see opposing racism as essential to their faith, only 24% of respondents felt that it’s essential for religious leaders to preach on political issues, including race, from the pulpit today.

These findings help explain why the Black church plays only a supporting role in today’s civil rights movements, experts say.

While some aspects of Black Lives Matter are outgrowths of the Black church, the movement ultimately transcends the institution, says Anthony Pinn, a religion professor at Rice University and the author or editor of nearly three dozen books, including “The Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era.” 

“Black Lives Matter incorporates some of the civil rights strategies and some of the worldview. ... some of which is drawn from the Black church,” he said. However, he continues, “We do (Black Lives Matter) a disservice by trying to understand it in relation to the Black church and not the community.” 

Despite this conclusion, Pinn and other experts on the Black church believe the institution can still serve as an unflinching mirror for the United States — at once revealing its troubles and pushing the country to meet its potential. The PBS documentary makes a similar argument.

The Black church “holds the nation accountable using (America’s) own rhetoric, using its own imagery,” said Pinn.

As long as inequality and racism persist, so will the Black church — regardless of whether or not the U.S. continues its march towards secularization, says the Rev. Jonathan Lee Walton, dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.  

“Black churches have always played multi functions,” he said. “They are spiritual centers, they are political centers. They’re community organizing centers, they’re social centers. They’re spaces of entertainment. And, for many, they’re places of safety, human affirmation and dignity.”  

“And, call me crazy, but I don’t see that need going away anytime soon,” the Rev. Walton added. “As long as African Americans are still largely living segregated lives due to the racial structures of American society, we will need these spaces of affirmation and dignity.” 

Similarly, Pinn believes the Black church can stay relevant so long as institutional leaders are willing to meet their community’s current needs rather than trying to make Black Americans accept old traditions.

Churches “adapt or they die. That’s the case with any religious tradition. It adapts or it renders itself irrelevant,” he said.

For more information on the history and future of the Black church, read Pew Research Center’s full report. And tune in to PBS’s four-part series,“The Black Church: This is our Story, This is our Song” from Henry Louis Gates Jr., on Feb. 16 and 17.