Once a Hub for the Community, Atlanta's Black Churches Struggle to Stay Relevant

Jul 22, 2016

African-Americans have historically relied on churches to be the social center of their communities.  Many black churches have enabled members to stay engaged in politics, education, and other issues. However, in recent decades, some black churches have had to evolve in hopes of remaining relevant with members, particularly younger African-Americans.

Long-time Pastor in Atlanta

Rev. Timothy McDonald, a pastor for 41 years and currently a pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church, says these days it's a challenge to keep congregants engaged in the black community.  He says the black church was not created by the black community. "White America created the black church through its racist policy and would not even let us worship with them. That's how the black church was born," he says. The black church was at the center of the community even in the most difficult times, he says, "If you look at the revolts historically, the issues of lynching, the issues of segregation and desegregation and Jim Crow laws, at the center of that has been the black church," McDonald says. "Unfortunately, now those types of churches are becoming fewer and fewer."

The changing role of the black church

The role of the black church is changing, McDonald says. Churches used to be more community-oriented, he says. "It was customary when I was growing up that the principal of the school, the teachers, as well as the blue collar laborer -- they all came together at church."

Now, he says, churches are focusing on marketing themselves and media attention rather than on ministry and community outreach.

From the church to the living room

Bria Carr, a 23-year-old member of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta says that black churches need to include younger generations. When she was younger, she used to go to church often. But she doesn't feel the need to attend regularly anymore, at least not in the conventional way. "I guess that could also be from me believing that I could praise God wherever I was, that I didn't need to be in the house of the Lord to do so every time," she says. Instead, Carr now watches religious programs on television and livestreams sermons on her computer.

Credit Cardine Johnson

Church and community

McDonald agrees that young people should be included, and says black churches shouldn't feel threatened by younger members. McDonald has dealt with the shifts in the black church by creating community programs such as schools and summer camps.  He also has embraced social media and other technology as a way of staying connected. He even gives his congregants his cell phone number from the pulpit. But don't expect a long drawn-out conversation over the phone, he says. "I'm not a chit-chat pastor."

Cardine Johnson is a junior at Georgia State University, where she majors in journalism and is minoring in sociology. She aspires to work as a reporter in both radio and television, as her passion for news reporting continues to grow immensely. Cardine, a Virginia native, enjoys traveling and immersing herself in the performing arts, which she does often as a single mother of a young woman who studies opera.