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African American church in L.A. seen facing new challenges

USC News | 9/14/2011, 5 p.m.

The Black churches of Los Angeles appear to be losing the struggle to stay vital, which could have grave consequences for an institution that cultivated one of the most important social movements in American history, according to a new report authored by Daniel E. Walker, a research associate with the USC Dornsife College's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

"We should care about the Black church because it made America better for all Americans," Walker said. "The righteous indignation and critique of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights made those rights available to everyone. Because they felt they were following a higher power, they pushed the envelope for everyone."

In "The Black Church Next: Challenges and Opportunities Facing African American Congregations in 21st Century Los Angeles," Walker addresses the issues of falling attendance and looks for answers to reverse the trend.

Walker found that church leaders are trying to hold on to the few who are left at the expense of younger Blacks and nearby Latinos who make up the surrounding community.

"It's not about who sits in the pews--it's about who is in the community around the church," Walker said.

That doesn't mean there isn't an audience for the churches' historic mission, exemplified by its leadership in the fight for civil rights a generation ago.

"Their social justice message is relevant," Walker said. "They could be growing if they just expanded their rhetoric to include those around them. Their principles of equal access, freedom from injustice, and economic fairness are universal."

One of the larger challenges is changing demographics. South Los Angeles, home to the majority of the historically important Black churches in the city, is now mostly Latinos.

Walker said the traditional definition of "The Black Church"--a church with Black people--should change. Black churches should keep their core values but expand its outreach to Latinos and others who live nearby.

"There's a bigger definition. The Black church embodies certain characteristics--political engagement, a celebration of creativity and social justice," Walker said. "What is the Black church? It speaks truth to power. It advocates for the downtrodden, irrespective of race, gender or country of origin."

Some of the problems facing Black churches are similar for other mainstream denominations, such as attracting younger parishioners. The Youtube generation is being catered to by non-denominational mega-churches, such as Saddleback Church in Orange County and the Potter's House in Dallas.

To not lose younger potential parishioners, the point of view of the sermons must change, Walker said. Messages from the pulpit steeped in Southern traditions and stories from the '60s don't resonate with African American youth today.

Walker points out that Blacks are more cosmopolitan, in part because their schools are no longer homogenous. Traditional Black high schools, such as Dorsey, Washington and Crenshaw, now have large populations of Latinos, Asians and a diversity of religious traditions. And even Blacks may not be African American Blacks, but hail directly from Africa or Central America, Walker said.

"They don't all have a Southern narrative attached to them," Walker said. "Most leaders of traditional churches came from the Deep South. But today a significant number of Blacks in Los Angeles were born on the West Coast. This historic leadership model hasn't adapted to the new narrative."

Still there is a need for Black churches to remain strong, Walker said.

"No one has stepped up to take the place of the Black church," Walker said. "What you do for the stranger, for the least of these--that issue should resonate. Other races around the world respect what the Black church has done. I believe people are ready to accept a leadership role for African American churches around the issue of social justice as long as that leadership is grounded in an interracial definition of community--one bounded by similarities and not differences."