Is the Decline of Black Males in Black Churches Affecting their Abilities to Develop a Counter Frame?

This Sunday, I received my tri-monthly call from my guilt ridden mother in regards to her hope that I miraculously surprise her by showing up at her Baptist church. Beyond the fact that I decided to follow my father’s side of the family and become Roman Catholic in college (even though I rarely go today, I will never tell her), she is conscious (or at least I hope she is) of the fact that I do not like her church. In the past I jokingly have demonstrated to her my frustration with the church through my montage of skits that are full of high jinks clapping, foot stomping, “Amens, and brow wiping.” But still, she continues to push and hope. After the call, I decided to spend the rest of my morning finishing The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, by Joe Feagin. After reading the eloquently discussed topic of the abilities of people of color to combat the ever-present white racial construct through the utilization of constructing a counter frame to oppression, I began to reflect.

Greater File Chapel Baptist Church
Creative Commons License photo credit: Julia Manzerova

In particular, I reflected upon the book’s discussion of how the Black churches have been a source for enabling Blacks to construct a counter frame to the oppressive and racist barriers that are present within the U.S. My mind then became flooded with recollections of the past, and intricate codes for survival embedded within stories my wise grandmother told me as a child. She mentioned numerous times of how we, as Black people, relied upon Black churches for not only religious, but social salvation. I can remember every Sunday attempting new ways to avoid putting on my little suit and accompanying clip-on plaid bow-tie that my grandmother deemed cute. She was old-school. “If you do not go to church, you cannot be saved.” More importantly to me was the phrase, “If you do not go to church, your butt cannot play.” My grandmother grew up seeing the church as a place that provided a level of social support in a time where racism was as evident as the air that flowed through her lungs. It was a salvation for her when her brother was hung by the Klan in Mississippi. The church was a place to be replenished in faith. It was a place where an alternative message to the dominate White frame was proclaimed in a theatrical and moving fashion.

Today, there is a decline in the attendance in the Black church. Bishop Cecil Bishop, of an African Methodist Episcopal church noted that “[t]he church now is in the midst of a storm and the storm is worse than we thought it was…What you have is a growing number of people for whom the church doesn’t mean very much.” He goes on to state that younger generations, in particular Black males are declining in their numbers within the pews. In March of 2010, leadership from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church gathered together and acknowledged the decline of attendance. Specifically they discussed the decline of Black males and social concerns that affect them (i.e., unemployment, incarceration, and etc.).

Controversial scholar, Jawanza Kunjufu, has asserted that the decline of Black males is due to the fact that religion is viewed by many Black males as too passive, soft, and full of too many emotions. Leon Podles, author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (1999)theorizes how Christianity in general has “lost this masculine sense of a struggle against the forces within oneself, having been watered down to passionate feelings and emotional ecstasies that men find difficult to identify with.” Even though the clergy in most churches are males, Podles asserts that they have adapted their message toward females.

So the question arises; does the “Black Church” still provide the abilities to help Blacks, in particular Black males to construct a counter frame? My opinion will probably not win any nice replies within this blog, but it would seem that through the anecdotal conversations with other Black males, the Black church has lost a degree of that ability to help Black males. On average, Black leaders in these churches have lost what was so uniquely discussed in W.E.B. Du Bois essay, “The Faith of the Fathers.”He states, the leader as preacher is “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil,” a man who “found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people” This beautiful description was evident within the great migration period to the civil rights movement era with people such Rev. Marin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, Ralph Abernathy; Wyatt T. Walker, and Andrew Young. Black churches once played a pivotal role in the crusade for social justice. Today, some scholars have described the church as dead in relation to past actions for countering the oppression and racism that are covertly illustrated within the U.S. All I really know is that as Bob Dylan sang, “For the times they are a-changin’.”


  1. Seattle in Texas

    I think that’s an interesting question. I just don’t know enough about this topic and only personally know 1 Black Catholic…his father’s Latino and Catholic and his mother is Black/Baptist. He allowed me to talk to him about his personal conceptions of Jesus, etc. He’s got brandings and tattoos, completed his undergraduate degree, has a beautiful Black wife, and went the Protestant way with his wife. His own personal beliefs are a combination of the Catholic and Protestant in that he has images of guardian angels in various places with symbolic and religious beliefs behind them. They have incredible art pieces of Jesus, both Black and White images and in their dining room have a wonderful painting of the last supper with Black Jesus, etc. He has an incredibly strong counterframe and attends the Black Church because that’s where he feels his own spirituality is best met. And it is incredibly important to him that his children grow up with that connection to the Black Church.

    I know down here in Texas the Black males clearly have strong counterframes, very much inherited from their parents and grandparents–their collective memories as well as their contemporary struggles faced on a daily basis. While not big into attending Church or the Temple on a regular basis, are very spiritual and have much love and respect for the Black Churches. Wouldn’t take well to mocking of the Black Church from anybody–and understandably so.

    I don’t know if this is a question that would have to include SES, as well as region. But it’s an interesting one. I’m inclined to think that the lessening in numbers has to do with constant racist blows Black men have endured particularly over the last 3 decades or so. I would love to see a study carried out on this.

    While a bit older, makes me think of:

    • Dr. Terence Fitzgerald Author

      Thanks Seattle in Texas for the comments. I think you may be on to something in terms of region and SES. But interesting still is the fact that the meeting between the religious Black leaders that I discussed in my piece took place. This to me, give validity that the issue is wide spread. For these different churches to get together (which has not happened for over 45 years) symbolizes that Black male attendance is an issue of importance.

      • Seattle in Texas

        You are welcome Dr. Fitzgerald. Thank you for the piece–it’s both interesting and important.

        I was just throwing out my thoughts and more focusing on the questions on if the counterframe has weakened as a result of the lack of church attendance. With that, is church a necessary component of having and/or preserving a counterframe among the Black population(s).

        The Black Church and religious traditions have been phenomenal and made invaluable contributions to the U.S. They were key in disseminating information quickly and collectively organizing. I think the decline in attendance may make it more difficult for collective organizing at that greater level and serve other positive functions, as well as missing otherwise potential leadership that could be effective in ways that seem to be lacking.

        While I see how and why the decline of church attendance among the churches would be of concern to the church communities, it would be unfair to blame lack of church attendance and/or participation for the issues that Black men and communities disproportionately face in comparison to white communities for example, on the decline of church attendance–when racism(s) is/are the blame–that is not what you are suggesting I know, but that’s something I can see people suggesting with this whole issue…well, if they went to church then maybe they wouldn’t have blank blank blank, etc., etc., etc., blaming the victim in other words….

        Anyway, I hope to see some future research on this. Thank you

  2. Will

    As a black man I have to agree with the essay as I no longer attend church, but I want to add my personal thoughts on the matter.

    A relative pressured me to go to church out of fear that if I die, I won’t be going to heaven because I didn’t go to church as often as I should. I said to myself “People say God is a loving god, but he seems to hate so many things according to people.”

    When I get to church, I honestly and usually get bored depending on either the preacher or the sermon. To me it’s the same message of passivity, morality, and prayer and being “rewarded” for such qualities. Usually the rewards are materialistic and at times it sounds like an informercial for a money-making product that is not guaranteed to work. You even have testimonials er…testimonies of how people prayed for cars, houses, money or whatever, and their prayers are answered. I tried that for years, but I’m still struggling. People will turn around and say “He will answer your prayers in time or in His time.” What the hell is He waiting on? (lol) I’m just tired of being told to “just pray”.

    Not speaking for all black males, but I, for one, would wish preachers were more like Jeremiah Wright and telling it like it is. I wish more preachers were like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King who not only spoke but worked hard to create changes in the faces of their oppressors. It seems like most of today’s black churches have lost their purpose, not to mention their courage, to help lead the charge against a racist system. But it’s not just the churches; it’s about what God is and the many contradictions that are associated with His name in this world.

    At least that’s how I see it.

    • Dr. Terence Fitzgerald Author

      Thanks Will for the insight. I am honored by your candor. There is a concern (from the little information I found) that the messages and sentiment of people like Jeremiah Wrights and Malcolm X are exactly what is missing from the messages sent from Black churches today. These people were validating the oppression felt by people of color, while at the same time sending messages of hope and promise.

  3. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Some other polls say church attendance is growing in the black community. Maybe that’s just among the women? But I’m sure I’ve read that while Christianity is on the “decline” in the US, that’s just among white US-Americans.

    Be that as it may, I do agree that the black Church isn’t adequately serving young black men. So, let’s just first acknowledge that religion in general and Christianity in particular has historically appealed to “women and slaves” I believe the Latin slur went, pre-Constantine of course. So there’s that. Then, we live in a society where we’re all bombarded with the message that racism is no longer an issue. And apparently, younger blacks seem to buy it. So, they’re told there’s no longer that need.

    But, to address what black churches could be doing better, my own observation is that as it currently stands, most black churches don’t create the necessary psychic space more men. By that I mean there’re only a few positions where a man can be who own man: preacher, deacon, or trustee. Some churches have Laymen’s Leagues, but they’re really only women’s Missionary groups for men. So if you’re not a preacher, deacon, or trustee, you’re basically like the same as all the other members of the church: you’re a woman. To make a profane comparison, it’s like a pimp who has associate pimps and bodyguards he’s hired, then everyone else in the organization is ho.

    Now granted, I’m no religious scholar (yet), but I did research women for independent study. And I’ve been a member of some black baptist church my whole life. So I literally see what you’re talking about. I think the way to reach out to black men today is to, well, reach out to black men where they are today. (Sorry, just can’t think of a better way to put it right now.) We have to create space for them to be male while also addressing the struggles they face in a society that’s in denial about its racism. The pastor has to address them as men (as gender equals if the pastor is a man), not as “masculine” women. (Whoa, whoa. Whoa. You won’t find a bigger supporter of gender equality, including women pastors. But I don’t open doors for men unless they’re at least both elderly and disabled, and I don’t pump gas if there’s a guy in the car. And if there’s two guys, I don’t pay, either.)

    But I digress. The black Church also needs to do more of what Rev. Wright and black Muslims do. I understand that the NOI is on SPLC’s hatelist, but when it comes to supporting black men’s masculinity, who’s better? The black Church needs to do more of that. In addition, we have to redefine black masculinity as something other than a social ill. We have to point out that the problem is in and with the “World,” and that it’s no surprise that society denies racism as the devil’s greatest trick is convincing people he doesn’t exist.

    This means less admonishing for the fathers they’re allegedly not, and more explicit encouraging of the fathers they are, they can be, the community needs. Take Obama’s actual 2008 speech to the NAACP for example. He didn’t just harp on black folks to get it together; he also acknowledged the ubiquity of racism. True, men already in the church will have to be surrogate fathers, but that’s not a notion new to the black community. Once upon a time not very long ago, every grown man was a father. So the proper message, I theorize, is one that says, “Yes, you’re going to have to face obstacles you wouldn’t have to if you were white and/or male. But you can overcome. And the community needs you to overcome.” So for example, we acknowledge that black English is no worse than any other dialect and the contempt with which it’s held is but one manifestation of the new, more subtle racism. But consider this: who’s smarter: the one who speaks standard American English as a first language or the one who’s *bilingual? And if we in the black community really want to rid ourselves of racism (or at least mitigate its impact), we need a thriving economy where we can give hire ourselves and promote ourselves. And to get to that point, we need our men to educate themselves and master the dominant dialect in order to hire the young teens who haven’t mastered it yet.

    We’ll have to redefine masculinity as something other than being the primary breadwinner. As “suitable” rather than dominant helper. And we’ll have to demonstrate that black men do, in fact, have the necessary skills to be successful in the US economy. Let’s face it – the head pimp ain’t no fool. And really, what’s the difference between gang leaders and hedge fund managers except that at least inside the gang there’s a sense of family?

    And it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one Sunday morning service that was over before football. I doubt any black church could match the Catholic hour long mass and still consider itself a black church, but even west coast churches could have 8am service that’d be over in time catch most of the first Sunday NFL game. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

      • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

        Well, I mean, I agree with your central thesis. I just think it may well be the other way around. I think it’s the way you explained to Will.

        I just have a lot to say on the subject because I think the black Church is failing the community on a number of aspects.

        • Seattle in Texas

          Blaque Swan, *big sighs* I’m not religious. But it seems like a lot of blame and responsibility to take with relation to the Black Church(s) and traditions. Some try nonstop and are visible in the communities. One in Houston instantly comes to mind. American society is failing black communities at all levels. And nobody can tell me Jim Crow don’t exist no more–this is beyond the prisons/concentration camps. Major egalitarian change generally only comes from the bottom up. The role the church has played….

          As Dr. Fitzgerald mentioned above too though, we are in different times too. Because this topic was on my mind, I was asking folks that attend different churches–both black and white people on their male attendance and so on. With regard to male attendance at Black Churches, a couple of women this morning said there is very low male attendance. They explained there is a church on nearly every corner of the town and outer areas from here, but the pews are never full in any of them. They said it’s not just a lower attendance of males in general, but they see a decline younger Black females too. They said that’s typical though–all are raised in the church, leave for a while, but eventually return. Their reasons for the lower participation of males is: 1. Probably because all the women want a black man for themselves. (not a joke) 2. Their churches are of the older traditions and styles–the preachers are older. They said there are a couple of churches that the younger black men attend which has different music styles, younger preachers that preach at their levels and within tune to their generations, and so forth. But they said there is great diversity among the Black churches in terms of preaching and worship styles, new and old, and so on–what ever you want, it’s there. White Catholic and Protestant women said they’ve seen no decline in white male attendance. Both Catholics said their Churches are very diverse, and one said she’s seen an increase in people and couples of color over the last few years…. I would love to hear the different thoughts on this from a variety of people.

          Anyway…great topic.

          • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

            I know. Really great, right?

            Don’t worry, though. I’m not blaming the black church for social ills or anything like that. I would like to see more grappling with what the Jesus actually teaches. That’s all. I mean, we don’t have to attend church to be saved. Stuff like that.

            Specifically to the issue of passivity vs pro-activity, I think we have to understand that “turn the other cheek” wasn’t a call to be a doormat, but rather more like a call to stand your ground without losing control.

            That’s a short summary of my issues with the black Church, and very specifically, the black Baptist community in my area. My qualms rest basically on issues of doctrine and messaging. And definitely, there’re too many old-heads resistant to change. They forget that once upon a time, their worship style was considered profane and unholy.

            Those’re my issues with the black Church. When it comes to the white Church, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists, I question their professed fidelity and belief that the Bible, especially the Authorized King James Version, is the literal and inerrant Word of God. YWHW is explicit about restorative justice. Much more explicit than, say, a prohibition against abortion.

            And when it comes to which Church shoulders the blame for current racial cacophony . . . let me just say, my Church.

            (And just so new readers are clear, I am black. Lighter complected than the mego picture, but of African descent nonetheless.)

  4. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    I did research women for independent study.

    I meant I researched women in the black Church for independent study.

    *I’m not prepared to say that black English is to standard English as Spanish is to standard English. But I’m not sure bidialectal is a word. Moreover, there’re some linguists who define black English as its own language. All linguists would point out that currently what gets defined as a language depends on who has the biggest boats, ie politics. For example, Mandarin and Cantonese are both considered Chinese even though they’re mutually unintelligible. And mind you, some speakers of standard English claim they can’t understand black English. At the very least, you certainly don’t understand the verb ‘be’!! Ie, today’s weather don’t “be” 72 and sunny.

    But I digress.

  5. shmarcano

    The Black church, in my opinion, is not serving the Black male OR female. However, since most of the support given to the Black church comes from women,financially, socially and in most other ways, it seems strange to me that those who give the most (Black women) are ignored in this discussion in favor of those who seem to have very little, or no, interest in the health and survival of this institution. Black women have been, and remain, second class citizens in the very place where they are the majority! It doesn’t suprise me that Blaque Swan speaks of the position of women in the church as if it is an insult to be in their position. Quite possibly, the problem with the lack of Black males in the church stems from the same pathologies that result in a lack of Black males in the lack family home, in colleges and in the lives of the children they help create.

    • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

      To the extent that a “pathology” is involved, the one effecting black males in church isn’t the same as the others affecting blacks males throughout society.

      As for black women’s position, I didn’t mean to make it sound that bad. A woman’s position in her church depends on that church itself, as well as any group or association the church may be joined to. If a woman doesn’t like the treatment of women in her church, she can always get up and leave. Some take that route. Then, there’re some who’ll stay and just push the boundaries until there’s been change. Historically, black women have created our own religious experience independent of what male church leaders may, or may not, wish. If the church doesn’t meet their needs, they get together outside church or in church groups outside men’s purview and do what they want.

      So let me give an example of what I meant. Say the pastor has been asked to be the guest speaker at a revival somewhere else. His own church and the church’s choir are expected to come at least one night, usually the last night. Following the pastor to show support while he speaks somewhere else? Kinda of a feminine thing to do. But that’s not an insult anymore than, say, to have women screaming at male R&B singers. Even the biggest male fan isn’t going to swoon at a John Legend concert. And he won’t swoon at a Beyonce concert either.

      So yes, we have a ways to go when it comes to gender equality in the black Church. That said, we’re farther along than is the white Church. And being in women’s position in the black Church isn’t an insult unless you’re not a woman. It’s like, how would a man feel if another man opened the door for him or pulled out his chair?

      And to the point of why there’s never a discussion of how the black Church fails women. Look, whatever your feelings may be on the status of women in the black Church, if you reach the father of a family, you’re very likely to engage than entire family. Reaching the men in a community is more likely to get a bigger bang than not. So there’re some practical reasons beyond sexism for focusing the question on black men. Could the Church do better for everybody? Yes. But there’s a sex “gap” so to speak, and so long as by reaching out to men, male leaders don’t use the opportunity to restrict women – improving ourselves in that aspect will improve the entire operation.

      And just a thought – perhaps there’re more black men who’d like to be (more) involved in religious activities, but the stress of racism outside the church leaves them exhausted. In focus group studies, some black fathers, even those in the child’s home, report being so drained after work, that they’re not as involved in their child’s life as they’d like to be. Just a thought.


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