Journal of Southern Religion


African American Religion: The Struggle for Community Development in a Southern City

Said Sewell/State University of West Georgia



The findings indicate that there is an important role for southern black faith communities in the development of African-American communities. One has only to examine the literature on the black Baptist churches to comprehend that the Church has an extensive history in responding to not only to the religious needs of these communities, but to the educational, social, political, and economic concerns inherent in African-American communities in South. Finally, this study advanced that although black Baptist churches are concerned with secular issues (e.g., community development), they are not, in general, significantly or necessarily active in the development of their communities.

As such, in the year 2000, pastors in Atlanta were of the mindset to conclude that black advocacy groups would be better able to advance the needs of the black community than black Baptist churches. This apparent disregard for secular activism stands in sharp contrast to the historic context of black Baptist churches, which, heretofore, has seen the Church as the liberating champion of human rights, civil rights, and the attainment of a quality of life comparable to that which exists beyond the boundaries of our disenfranchised black communities.

Black Churches and Neighborhood Development in Atlanta

The purpose of this article is to address two primary questions regarding black churches and the existence and/or level of community participation: 1) Is there a role for black faith communities in neighborhood development in the South? 2) Are black faith communities in the South concerned with, and involved in, the development of their communities?

"The traditional perspective on black religion and the Black Church has tended to focus on the inward, 'other-world,' perspective."  


This research was a first effort in linking the role of black churches to the issues of urbanization that have plagued black communities since their inception. The method for collecting data for this study was a forty-nine (49)-item questionnaire—a closed-ended, forced response survey that was mailed to respondents.1 The questionnaire was sent to all seventy-nine (79) black Baptist pastors in Atlanta who were affiliated with one of the two black state Baptist conventions (the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia and the New Era State Convention of Georgia). Fifty (50) pastors responded to the survey, resulting in a 63% response rate. Black Baptist pastors were selected to respond to the questionnaire because previous studies acknowledged that it is the pastor’s vision and ideas that direct the church’s action.2 The reason this research looks at the Baptist denomination is that it is the only denomination that is congregational, as opposed to episcopal, in church structure, which means that all church-related decisions are made at the local congregational level. In addition, while there is a natural predisposition to assume that Atlanta’s disadvantaged minority communities (e.g., high levels of unemployment, single-parent households and low levels of educational attainment and income) could benefit greatly from the community development efforts of black churches, it is only through a rigorous examination of the attitudes of a pool of local black Baptist preachers that we can establish what is actually happening in this regard, and what is not. The literature affirmed that a black pastor's perceptions are often very reflective of his/her congregation's views, and that it is his/her perceptions, for the most part, that set the direction, or "vision," for the church (Hamilton 1972 and Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

Historical Perspective

Other-world vs. This-world Perspectives

Much of the commentary regarding black churches and their role in society falls into two perspectives—an inward view of society, in which the church rejects contemporary community issues for more religious experiences, and a "this-world" perspective that sees the work of the church as being solely involved in secular and sacred affairs.

The traditional perspective on black religion and the Black Church has tended to focus on the inward, "other-world," perspective. As Alphonso Pickney points out, most black religions and black churches have historically chosen to avoid addressing the problems facing its members and have chosen an "other-world" view of its role.3 E.U. Essien-Udom writes in his book Black Nationalism that the Negro Church is particularly culpable for its general lack of concern for the moral and social problems of the community. It has been accommodating.4 Choosing to focus its attention on heaven and the eternal life, Harold Wingfield writes that the black church was strictly a place in which to engage in the religious experience; it had very little to do with confronting problems of society.5 Moreover, he asserts that such an orientation caused many to conclude that the black church has an orientation toward black passivity. ]

For example, Myrdal contends:

the Negro church is, on the whole, passive in the field of intercaste power relations. It generally provides meeting halls and encourages church members to attend when other organizations want to influence the Negroes. But viewed as an instrument of collective action to improve the Negroes’ position in American society, the church has been relatively inefficient and uninfluental. In the South it has not taken a lead in attacking the caste system or even in bringing about minor reforms. . . .6

Frazier writes of this passive thought on the Black Church:

The Negro church could enjoy this freedom so long as it offered no threat to the white man’s dominance . . . . In addition, the Negroes’ church was not a threat to white domination and aided the Negro to become accommodated to an inferior status. The religion of the Negro continued to be other-world in its outlook, dismissing the privations and suffering and injustices of this world as temporary and transient.7

Ultimately, the traditional perspective of the Black Church can be summed up, according to C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, as a "pie-in-the-sky" attitude that neglects political and social concerns.8

This perspective of black religion advances that neither the Black Church nor its pastors were used to keep blacks in subjugation, but as a means of relief for those affected by slavery. This perspective is not the dominant scholarship on the subject; however, Gary Peck argues that religion functioned as a vehicle of individual expression in order to meet the needs of the individual.9 Hortense Powdermaker asserts that religion nurtured feelings of self-worth to blacks, particularly during slavery. She writes:

[I]n both its secular and its religious character, [religion] serves as an antidote, a palliative, an escapeBy helping the Negro to endure the status quo, this institution has been a conservative force, tending to relieve and counteract the discontents that make for rebellion. At the same time, the equally vital function of maintaining the self-respect of the Negro individual is by no means a conservative one.10


Thus, one could say that Marx was partially correct in his obeservation that religion is the opium of the people, because it also gave rise to liberational ideas.

Leon Watts in his article "Caucuses and Caucasians" discusses how black slave preachers took that which was in the Bible and taught by slave owners and made it a tool for empowerment. He argues that though religion did focus slaves on duty and servitude, it was black preachers, and their interpretation of the Bible, that ushered in liberation. Many preachers redefined Scripture in a manner that allowed for identification with biblical stories. D'Apolitio informs us about such affects, "cast this way, the Christian the message served as a bedrock for subtle defiance and even occasional rebelliousness."11

After viewing the Black Church from both, the "other-world" and "this-world" perspective, one can conclude, as many scholars have, that there is no one type of black church. This might explain the actions of black churches in history as well as in contemporary society.

Synoptic History of the Black Baptists in America12

It can be argued that the black Baptist denomination arose out of a compelling need to address the inequities of racism experienced by blacks in the late eighteenth century. Concerned with their second-class status within white Baptist churches and armed with a newly-acquired and heightened racial consciousness, black Baptist pastors throughout the country, particularly in the South, began to form their own churches.13 These and later actions of black pastors reflected the commitment of black Baptist churches to extend their reach beyond the sanctity of their sanctuaries by working for and in African-American communities. What follows is a brief historical discussion of the origin of the Baptist denomination, in general, and in Georgia, in particular.

Unlike other black denominations founded primarily as spin-offs of Northern, largely white, Christian denominations, the black Baptist Church originated in the early 1700s when white missionaries migrated South in an effort to disseminate the Christian doctrine among slaves.14 Historically, white Baptists were the first denomination to reach out to and welcome fully enslaved blacks into their churches; however, their admission was contingent upon the enslaved members attending church services with their masters15 and understanding that baptism did not free them.16 Nevertheless, blacks joined Baptist churches in record numbers. It has been noted that the reason why most blacks joined the Baptist denomination—beyond the fact that they could be baptized—was because of similarities between West African practices and Baptist rituals.17 Moreover, the denomination also gave strong encouragement to black clergy.18 By the nineteenth century, primarily in the South, black Baptists outnumbered their white brethren three to one, resulting in constant tension between the two groups.19 To minimize these conflicts, blacks were seated in special "galleries," in basements, outside the church doors, or allowed to hold their own church services in the evening under the watchful eye of an overseer.20 This trend became even more apparent after the insurrections of antislavery revolutionaries Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner.21 Segregation, and a desire by blacks to be free, motivated them to begin clandestine church meetings at various secret locations.

It is widely recognized that George Liele, who traveled and exported slaves along the Georgia-South Carolina boarder, was the first black preacher in the Baptist denomination.22 Essentially, Liele’s work was in response to many plantation owners who did not attend church regularly, but who believed that the use of the principles of Christian doctrine was a viable means to keep their slaves obedient. Nevertheless, in 1773, Liele organized the first black Baptist church, Silver Bluff Baptist Church, in the barn of his slave master, William Byrd. Byrd’s cooperation, no doubt, resulted from his convicitons that Christian principles kept slaves submissive. Though the church was successful in teaching the southern enslaved about the Bible and "clean living," it ran into challenges that caused it to be disbanded just a few years after it was initially established.23

"As more blacks in the South joined the Baptist denomination, concerns arose as to whether or not to affiliate with white churches and associations."  


Liele moved on, continuing his preaching and baptizing of slaves into the Baptist denomination. By 1777, he had organized yet another Baptist congregation—this time in Savannah, Georgia. In the mist of the Revolutionary War, a group of Silver Bluff church members moved to Savannah to assist Liele in his work with the slave population. After constant harassment by white property owners, Liele left Savannah to establish a church in the less hostile environment of Jamaica. Because of Liele’s work in Jamaica, the Baptist doctrine spread throughout the Caribbean. Nevertheless, one of the members from Silver Bluff, a baptized slave named Andrew Bryan, along with another member, Jesse Peters, organized the First African Church of Savannah in 1788.24 However, due to Bryan’s support of the British during the Revolutionary War, a group of white Georgians descended upon the church, thwarting efforts to expand the church, threatening many of its members, and imprisoning Bryan for inciting revolts among the enslaved.25 Because his owner supported his work among the enslaved, he purchased Bryan’s freedom, enabling him to continue to build upon his denominational efforts by founding Springfield Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia. It was from the work of these two preachers that the number of black Baptists grew from a few dozen in the mid to late 1700s, to more than 25,000 by the turn of the century.

As more blacks in the South joined the Baptist denomination, concerns arose as to whether or not to affiliate with white churches and associations. It had not gone unoticed that it was primarily black pastors who had been active in evangelizing among the slave population, in establishing schools, and in "uplifting the race."26 It was, therefore, agreed upon, that blacks would work in cooperation with whites in the America Baptist Union, via their African Baptist Missionary Society, yet remain independent from white Baptists.27

Unlike the African Missionary Society, some black and white churches had a difficult time in cooperating with each other. Once again, these conflicts drove black pastors toward racially separated churches, creating unique opportunities for blacks, especially black pastors, to develop as indigenous community leaders. It was in these historically black churches that blacks, banned from participation in the politics and decision making affecting their communities, became educated not only in reading and writing, but also in community and civic affairs. Their collective engagement in political matters (i.e., slavery), albeit on the fringes, and their constant insurrections prompted the eradication of slavery as a legal practice.

Forty years of concentration on core issues centering on the education of former slaves and the black Baptist foreign mission led to the formation of the National Baptist Convention in 1895. The new freedoms bestowed upon blacks required a massive venture in education at all levels. Thus, new schools, particularly institutions of higher learning, called "normal and industrial schools," were created across the South to assist in the integration of newly freed blacks into American culture and society.28 Interestingly, Meir and Rudwick write that "[i]n the South, during the three quarters of a century following Reconstruction, most of the leading professional men and many prominent businessmen were products of the church-related colleges. . . ."29

The large number of blacks who joined the Baptist Church during this period, though somewhat related to the Church’s historical ties to the South, was a testament to the levels of activism and enthusiasm black preachers demonstrated by educating and assisting the newly freed slaves. It was the pastor’s job to teach lawfulness, habits of chaste living, manners, and other social skills. Albert Raboteau wrote of the successful efforts of one pastor during this era:

[They]‘have less superstition, less reliance on dreams and vision, they talk less of the palpable guiding of the Spirit as independent of or opposed to the word of God.’ They were also learning to ‘avoid habits of whining, snuffling, grunting, drawling, repeating, hic[c]oughing, and other vulgarities in prayer. . . .30

As America evolved, so did the role of black churches. The passive gospel that was common in the early Black Church was now being replaced by a more community-responsive gospel. These southern blacks understood that if they were going to survive, they would have to develop programs that met their every need. Out of this conviction arose mutual aid/benevolent societies and private enterprises. For example, black churches in Richmond, Virginia, during the 1850s assisted needy blacks, both slaves and free persons in distress, with the creation of a "Poor Saints" fund, to which both black and white churches contributed each month.31 Thus, it can be concluded that the ability of black Baptist churches to advocate for the needs of blacks contributed greatly to the overall success of the Church as a formultable institution. It was during this period the denomination grew in stature to become one of the most important and influential institutions in the black community.

During Reconstruction, with the deployment of federal troops into southern states, many black churches became involved in politics, resulting in a significant change in their role—from one of intercessor to one of policy initiator. Most early black elected officials were products of leadership roles in black churches—pastors, elders, and deacons—such as Reverend Richard Cain who was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1873 from Charleston, South Carolina.

Although black churches played an important role in advocating for the needs of blacks in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, their false sense of security, resulting from blacks being elected to public office in record numbers, fostered a level of complacency by the late nineteenth century with regard to community advocacy. Not only had southern black churches assumed a diminished role as protectors and providers for the black community, their focus began to markedly shift to the spiritual "after-life." As such, most of the gains of the Reconstruction period that blacks had acquired, from political to economic, were lost during the nearly seventy-year reign of legal segregation—historically referred to as the Jim Crow Era.

The challenges of the twentieth century, however, ushered in a return of the socially active black church. southern blacks Baptist churches, once again, organized advocacy groups to respond to the mass lynchings and civil and voting rights violations that plagued black communities. These activist Baptist churches, along with black churches representing other Christian denominations, provided the foundational support for the formation of secular associations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Consequently, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and the election of southern blacks to federal, state, and local offices, the black community, once again, began to look less to the Church and more to black elected representatives to meet their needs. Black churches, by virtue of political circumstances, again shifted the focus of their ministries. Spiritual needs began to emerge as the primary focus, as opposed to the more practical, secular needs of blacks.

David Hurst, author of The Shepherding of Black Christians, writes of this period:

the contemporary Black Church had no outside contact with the general needs of the community. In essence, the churches became private social clubs. Black preachers primarily benefited from this arrangement, whose pastoral energies were largely centered in the Sunday morning worship impact. The members reinforced this arrangement. The Black Church was mainly self-serving and irrelevant to the real needs of its members and the wider Black community.32

History of Black Baptists in Atlanta

"Following the Emancipation, the church experienced a rapid influx of newly freed slaves to its worship services."  


The first report of organized black Baptists in Atlanta was during the formation of Friendship Baptist Church in 1864,33 the product of a split from the First Baptist Church in 1862. The central issue in this separation was a desire for its black members to reach out and meet the needs of the blacks in the city.34 Reverend Frank Quarles, who later organized and served as the first president of the Missionary Baptist convention of Georgia, was chosen to serve as its first preacher. It was Quarles’ activism in the emancipation movement that drew the members of Friendship to call him as their pastor.35

Following the Emancipation, the church experienced a rapid influx of newly freed slaves to its worship services. As a result, Reverend Quarles developed programs and clubs that taught blacks personal and communal discipline as well as Christian living. Friendship was, therefore, not only instrumental in developing church programs, it also exercised its commitment to involvement in the secular interests of blacks throughout the Atlanta. It was Friendship, for example, that provided the impetus for planting six other black Baptist churches throughout Atlanta, as well as providing for the education of newly freed blacks by founding Spelman College (an historically black women’s college of national reputation) in its basement and nurturing Morehouse College (the companion historically black men’s college) and Atlanta University in the late 1800s.36

By 1900, Atlanta boasted nearly a dozen black Baptist churches. Spurred on by a desire to answer the clarion call of service in the black community, several of these churches became directly involved in the struggle for racial justice. One example of their intercession took place when the white owners of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery refused to allow blacks to enter its front gates. The members of several black churches convened at Friendship Baptist Church in 1886 and organized the South View Cemetery for blacks. Likewise, in 1904, the Reverend Peter J. Bryant organized the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association, a small insurance society for blacks who were sick or in need of "a decent burial."37

Understanding that collaborative activism wielded both power and influence, the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia was then formed in 1915. Though this convention was essentially established as a political strategy to elect Dr. D. W. Cannon as president of the Congress, the General Missionary Baptist Convention had as it primary goals: 1) to hire missionaries to travel across the state to teach the gospel and organize black churches in the South; and 2) to establish theological schools for the purpose of educating young black men in preaching and ministering to the general needs of the blacks in the state.38 At the time of its formation, the Convention claimed a membership of 408,624 in some 2,779 churches led by 3,038 ordained ministers. Central to its mission was the enlightenment of its pastors, as it sought to focus against racism in favor of community activism and black empowerment.39

From the 1940s through the 1960s, the convention continued its activist agenda. At the time, Atlanta was deeply divided on the issue of civil rights. As such, many black churches in the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, like Wheat Street Baptist Church, engaged in overt actions that challenged the city’s white power structure. The congregation’s efforts and programs were strongly reflective of their secular concerns for Atlanta’s blacks. For example, they led several boycotts to integrate public facilities (e.g., Atlanta’s golf courses) and mass transportation entities. Later, in the 1960s, Wheat Street developed a housing community for senior citizens and low-income families, becoming one of the first black churches to engage in such a community program.40

Also during the 1960s, a division occurred within the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. over the relevance and appropriateness of secular concerns to its central mission. Its president, Reverend Joseph Jackson, tended to be more gradual in his approach to civil rights, while Drs. Gardner Taylor, Martin King, Sr., and Martin Luther King, Jr. led the charge toward greater activism. Believing there was a need for new leadership, Challenging Jackson’s incumbency, Taylor sought the presidency and was, ultimately, defeated. Such ideological differences among younger, more educated pastors within the Baptist rank and file led to the establishment of an alternative convention—the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC). This new convention focused on active engagement in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the support of the Black Power Movement, and public opposition to the Vietnam War.41 Many black Baptist pastors in Georgia, who adhered to the principles of this mission, organized a state affiliate of the Progressive National Baptist Convention called the New Era State Convention of Georgia.

"Though the black Baptist denomination in Georgia, particularly in Atlanta, has been challenged by many internal and external conflicts, its early history and foundational mission have been instrumental in helping it to retain much of its original zeal with regard to community service. "  


Though the black Baptist denomination in Georgia, particularly in Atlanta, has been challenged by many internal and external conflicts, its early history and foundational mission have been instrumental in helping it to retain much of its original zeal with regard to community service. However, there exists an interesting dichotomy within Baptist churches in the South. While these churches continue to be a strong force in providing the sacred uplift their congregants need to empower their spiritual essence, they have been less vocal, even unwilling, to engage in secular issues that are paramount to the survival of the black community. Such passivity on the part of black Baptist churches stands in sharp contrast to their role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—which raises the proverbial question: Why?

It is believed that despite the rise in the current number of Baptist churches in Atlanta, many are in a quandary regarding their roles in their communities in the twenty-first century. That being the case, this research addresses two primary questions: 1) is there a role for black faith communities in neighborhood development in the South? 2) Are southern black faith communities concerned with, and involved in, the development of their communities?

Operationalizing of Key Term: Church's level of Community Participation

The response to Question 26 was a primary indicator of the church’s level of community participation: "In thinking about your responses to local community problems, in which of the following actions did you engage during the last year (2000-2001)?" Responses to this question enabled the researcher to examine and categorize the types of community participation (e.g., indirect or direct) in which the churches were or had been involved.

Essentially, indirect participation by churches was defined as passive actions of interest and/or concern, such as speaking publicly about community issues, informal visits with civic or community leaders, etc. Direct participation was defined as assertive, faith-based community participation; that is, programs and activities developed and implemented by churches to address community problems. Examples of such activities might include forming a community development corporation or implementing a job training, housing development, or educational program. It was important that the church leaders who were sampled understood that the indirect and direct actions to be reported were to be community oriented, as opposed to being self-serving activities conducted for the sole benefit of members of their respective churches.


Pastors were asked a general question regarding their evaluations of various socio-political community organizations. Using Ralph Johnstone’s typology of black pastors: militants, moderates, and traditionalists,42 it was expected that most pastors would be more supportive of traditional organizations (particularly those that are Christian in mission), than they were of those that are deemed more radical in nature. Table 1 indicates the pastors’ favorable evaluations of various organizations that attempt to deal with urban problems. Their responses ranged from 76% favoring the traditional approach of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Concerned Black Clergy, to 68% percent in favor of the moderate integrationist approach of the NAACP and the Atlanta Urban League, to 24% in favor of the more militant approach of the Nation of Islam’s Black Muslims. Moreover, in their evaluations of the effectiveness of these groups on a local basis, about one-third considered none of these groups to be effective, another one-third considered local community organizations to be most effective, while 20% considered their own congregations to be most effective

Table 1 —Pastor’s Favorable Rankings and Secular Organizations


Secular Organizations Frequency Percentage Who Support Their Approach to Urban Life

Atlanta Urban League 34 (68%)

Black Muslims 12 (24%)

S.C.L.C./Concern Black Clergy 38 (76%)

NAACP 34 (68%)

Atlanta Empowerment Zone 32 (64%)

Black Fraternities/Sororities 23 (46%)

Black Church Affiliated Conventions 28 (56%)



The pastors’ perceptions of the challenges that faced their respective communities in Atlanta were measured using four questions. The first dealt with the ranking of ten community problems, from "a serious problem" to "do not know if it’s a problem." The second question sought to ascertain the pastors’ feelings about their communities, from "below average" to "above average," when compared to other neighborhoods in Atlanta. The third question asked about Atlanta, in general: How would you rank the city thirty years ago, today, and five years from now, on a scale from one to ten? At the conclusion of the questionnaire, the pastors were asked to identify the most salient issues facing black communities in Atlanta.

Table 2 reveals the results of the pastors’ perceptions of the most important issues facing inner-city communities. It was assumed that crime would top the list. However, more than half of the pastors (56.0%) indicated that disinvestment in the black community was the Number One problem in their communities. That is: vacant and neglected land, 46.0%; joblessness, 44.0%; inadequate job training programs, 42.0%; and deteriorating housing, 40.0 %. All of these issues rated nearly equally in the degree of negative impact they have on African-American communities. Thirty-four percent of the pastors responded that burglary, vandalism, and assault were also serious problems. Twenty-six percent commented that dilapidation was the most serious problem in their communities—apparently not making the connection that dilapidation is a direct result of disinvestment, i.e., vacant and neglected land, deteriorating housing, and joblessness. Only 10.0% of the pastors surveyed mentioned the presence of youth gangs as a serious problem.

Table 2
Most Salient Issues Facing Atlanta.


Youth gangs 10%

Deteriorating Housing 40%

Inadequate Public Education 28%

Inadequate Job Training 42%

Joblessness 44%

Disinvestments in Black Community 56%

Ineffective Political Representation 30%

Burglary, Vandalism, and Assault 34%

Vacant and Neglected Land 46%

Dilapidated Community 26%

These pastors were also asked to compare their neighborhoods to others in the city. (See Table 3.) The choices ranged from "below average" to "above average." Not a single respondent commented that his or her community was "above average." The majority of the pastors ranked their communities "below average" when compared to other communities in the city. Only 44% described their communities as "about average."

Moreover, black Baptist pastors were asked to rank the city of Atlanta at various points in the city’s history (i.e., thirty years ago, today, and five years ahead). (See Table 4.) After collapsing the ten rings into three categories: best (10-7), moderate (6-4), and worst (3-1), 36 pastors (72%) reported that Atlanta is the best city in which to live, 20% felt that the city was just a moderately good place to live, and 4 (8%) felt that Atlanta was the worst possible city in which to live. The average ranking of the city today, according to the pastoral survey, was 7.3. The pastors were then asked to rank the city thirty years ago. The average ranking of Atlanta in 1969 was 5.2. Specifically, 24% ranked Atlanta as the worst possible city, 28% ranked Atlanta as the best possible city, and 44% reported that the city was a moderately good place to live.

When asked to forecast their expectations of the city five years from now, the average ranking was 7.6. An overwhelming majority, 72%, ranked Atlanta as the best possible city, 16% ranked it as the worst city, and 12%t said that Atlanta would be a moderately good place to live.


Table 3—Pastors’ Rank of their Neighborhoods


Ranking Frequency Percentage


Below Average 28 56%

About Average 22 44%

Above Average 0 0%

Total 50 100%


Table 4—Pastors’ Rank of Atlanta


Rating Today 30 years ago* 5 years from now**


  • Best 36 (72%) 12 (27%) 36 (72%)

    Moderate 10 (20%) 22 (44%) 6 (12%)

    Worst 4 (8%) 14 (28%) 7 (14%)

    Total 50(100%) 48(100%) 49 (98%)

  • _____________________________________________________________________

    *2 (4%) missing variable; **1(2%) missing variable

    It was assumed that black Baptist pastors in Atlanta who are community active might only be engaged in passive spiritual actions (e.g., sermons). However, when asked in what actions had they engaged in direct response to local community problems in the past year, 78% stated that they had only spoken about secular issues from the pulpit. The least form of action pastors have taken in the last year was forming community development corporations. Only 36% had a positive response to this specific action. (See Table 5.) Consistent with this finding, 36 pastors (72%) said they had only preached about community development with the last 6 months, 14 (28%) had conducted small group community meetings, and none reported to have had films or guest speakers to mobilize community development program efforts. (See Table 6.)

    Table 5—Pastors’ Actions Taken Regarding Community Development


    Actions Percentage


    Spoke about a specific community issue from the pulpit 78%

    Encouraged members of the congregation to take action through 56%

    study groups or individual conversation

    Wrote letters to public officials. 48%

    Informal visits with public officials and other community leaders. 50%

    Sought to form a community development corporation. 36%

    Helped to organize the community toward revitalization efforts. 44%


    *Persons were asked to choose as many as applied, resulting in a total percentage that exceeds 100%.

    Table 6—Pastors’ Community Development Actions – Past Six Months


    Efforts Frequency Percentage


    Sermons 36 72%

    Small group meetings 14 28%

    Films or guest speakers 0 0%

    Total 50 100%


    The pastors’ perceptions of what they feel is the Church’s role—"other-world" or "this-world"—was ranked as important. Scholars have long debated this issue with little resolution; however, the majority has concluded that the Church and its leadership are "other-worldly." Accordingly, pastors were asked 11 questions, using a six-point Likert scale, that measured their perceptions of the Church as an institution (see Table 7). There was only one statement about which the uncertain category captured at least 18% of the respondents. Given the statement, "the most creative and exciting forms of ministry are found in inner-city churches," nine respondents (18%) indicated their uncertainty. However, the majority of the pastors, 23 (46%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement.

    There were four statements, including the one above, that led respondents to clearly reveal their feelings that the Church should focus less on the secular, and more on sacred concerns. More than half of the respondents, 33, (66%) agreed with the statement that the Christian faith provides clear-cut answers to contemporary ethical questions, 15 pastors (30%) disagreed with the statement, and 2 pastors (4%) were uncertain. Nearly all of the respondents, 42, (84%) agreed that the working of God can be manifested in the human struggle for freedom and dignity, while 5 pastors (12%) disagreed with the statement, and 2 pastors (4%) were uncertain. Thirty-five respondents (70%) agreed that pastors who have an interest and involvement in civic and political matters should prepare and encourage members of their congregations to act individually, while 10 (20%) disagreed, and 2 pastors (4%) were uncertain.

    An analysis of the responses to these four questions reflects a basic belief by many of the pastors that the role of the black Baptist church in Atlanta is to look to a higher power for direction, and to understand that one’s fate is already determined. These thoughts remain consistent with their "other-world" ideology.

    There were, however, seven statements in which the majority of the respondents said that the Black Church reflects a "this-world" ideology. A majority of the pastors, 38 (76%), disagreed with the statement that one’s relationship to God is immediate and direct and has nothing to do with relationships with other people, while 11 pastors (22%) agreed with this statement. Again, more than half of the respondents (52%) disagreed with the statement that responsible Christians should not enter into the "give and take" of political compromise, 21 pastors (42%) agreed with the statement, and 1 pastor (2%) was uncertain. Forty-five pastors (90%) agreed that black Baptist churches have a responsibility to develop inner-city communities through the use of public and private funds by way of nonprofit organizations to redevelop their communities. On the other hand, 4 pastors (8%) disagreed, and 1 pastor (2%) was uncertain. More than two-thirds of the pastors, 38 (76%) agreed and 12 (24%) disagreed that in civic and political matters, pastors should act on behalf of their congregations.

    Similar responses were presented by pastors on the same general question, but with varied sub-statements: "encourage the congregation to take corporate action," and " act along with the congregation." Specifically, 39 pastors (78%) agreed, 6 pastors (12%) disagreed, and 2 pastors (4% percent) were uncertain about the latter question. Moreover, 35 pastors (70%) disagreed with the statement that pastors should act only as private citizens in civic and political matters, while 33 pastors (66%) agreed, 13 pastors (26%) disagreed, and 1 pastor (2%) indicated an uncertainty about the statement.

    Table 7
    Pastor's Perceptions of the Churches Responsibilities

    Responses (summarized)



    One's relationship to God is immediate and direct (other-world)



    The Christian faith provides clear-cut answers to contemporary ethical questions




    The working of God can be seen in the human struggle for freedom and dignity




    Christians should not enter into the give and take of political compromise




    Black Baptist Churches have a responsibility to develop inner city communities by the use of public and private fund, can be an excellent tool for churches to redevelop their communities. (this-world)



    In civic and political matters minister should:    
    Act on behalf of the congregation (this-world)



    Prepare and encourage members of the congregation to act individually (other-world)



    Encourage the congregation to act cooperatively (this-world)



    Act along with the congregation (this-world)



    Act only as a private citizen (this-world)



    Generally, one could assume that the majority of black Baptist pastors in Atlanta felt that their members were informed and interested in meeting the needs of the community. As such, the pastors were asked three questions about their congregations’ perceptions of needs of the community adjacent to their churches. First, pastors were asked how informed they were about the needs of their contiguous communities. Twenty-four pastors (48%) noted that they were very informed, 20 pastors (40%) indicated that they were somewhat informed, and 6 pastors (12%) were not very informed. A cross-tabulation was done of this variable with community activism variables based on the responses to the questions: Has your church contributed financially to social or community service organizations? And: Has your church taken direct steps toward community development? The result indicated the responses being relational

    (c 2=19.525,p<.000 and c 2=10.565,p<.032). Basically, those who were informed were community active.

    Secondly, they were asked: How informed were your members about the needs of the community that surrounds their church? The results were: 16 pastors (32 %) said their members were very informed, 28 pastors (56%) responded that they were somewhat informed, and 5 pastors (10%) said they were not very informed about the needs of their adjacent communities. One pastor (2%) indicated that he did not know how informed his members were about the needs of the community. A cross-tabulation of responses to this question and to the community activism questions resulted in no relationship being statistically determined.

    Lastly, pastors were asked how interested their members were in community development. Thirty pastors (60%) indicated their members were very interested, 17 pastors (34%) indicated their members were somewhat informed, and 2 pastors (4%) stated that their members were not interested in community development. A cross-tabulation revealed that churches where members were interested in community development had also contributed financially to social or community service agencies (X2=30.204,p<.000). However, there was no relationship between this question and direct community development (X2=7.488,p<.278), even though a positive trend of very interested members was indicated.

    Contextually, pastors worked, in general, in churches that ranged in size from a few dozen to several thousand members. The members of these congregations resided in a variety of types of neighborhoods, varying widely in terms of socioeconomic composition, historical community activism (or lack thereof), and the tenor of their neighboring communities. Therefore, the contextual variables, relative to the actual number and location of black Baptist churches, and the community demographics of the neighborhoods in which they pastor, may provide some insight on the patterns that might emerge when the survey is further analyzed.


    "Yet while these faith groups in Atlanta are working toward rebuilding their communities, the prevailing question remains: 'Why are there not more black churches continuing this phenomenon throughout the South?' "  


    Is there a role for black faith groups in community development? In the case of Atlanta, this researcher remains cognizant that the city is an atypical, southern, urban environment in terms of its racial composition, its history regarding race relations, the number and size of its black churches, its degree of community activism, and the emergence of African Americans being elected to the vast majority of local and statewide public offices, However, even in Atlanta, there is still a significant role for black faith groups to become even more involved in community affairs.

    Beginning with Friendship Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Atlanta, programs and organizations were developed to acclimate the newly freed slaves from their rural environs to the mores of urban life. Educational institutions, such as Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Atlanta University, arose from the magnanimity of the Church as they grew into being by way of borrowed classroom space in the church basement. Today, many Atlanta churches, such as Antioch Baptist Church North,43 have, within the last ten years, developed a range of community service programs that address everything from job enhancement skills to housing programs.

    Yet while these faith groups in Atlanta are working toward rebuilding their communities, the prevailing question remains: "Why are there not more black churches continuing this phenomenon throughout the South?" Many have argued that southern black churches do not need to involve themselves and their resources in meeting the needs of the black community. That it is, indeed the role of other entities (i.e., the public sector) to be responsible for these matters.

    With a newly-elected conservative administration and a rise in protectionism, there will undoubtedly be a shifting of funds from social service programs to defense and intelligence priorities. Many southerners, especially those in black comminutes, will find job training, substance abuse, and other social service programs being severely cut. The elimination of these programs will not signal that these problems have been solved; rather, it will mean that the level of public resources that was once available no longer exists. Ultimately, thousands will be left in crisis.

    Despite its many challenges, the Black Church in the South has played a pivotal role in the struggle toward uplifting black communities. When and where there has been resistance, there are theoretically tested reasons and empirical findings that suggest the lack of resources44 and the pastor’s background characteristics and perceptional views having influenced the involvement of a church in community development activities.45

    It is critically important, therefore, for scholars and policy makers to further assess the impact of black faith leaders on community development—how to partner with them, through resources and training, to develop minority communities.

    When we focus on the question of black pastors being concerned with secular community issues, the answer is a resounding "Yes." On the basis of this study, it can be determined that black Baptist pastors in Atlanta are very much concerned with the challenges facing their communities. This was indicated when comparing the pastors’ responses to that of citizens’46 and elected officials’47 attitudes regarding the most salient community-related issues. These findings proved to be consistent with Andrew Billingsley’s 1999 conclusion of the relationship between black churches and community concern. He writes, "There is widespread recognition among contemporary black churches, via their pastors, of the duality of their mission: to be church and community minded."48

    The problems of disenfranchisement, degradation, joblessness, and inadequate housing identified by the pastors were consistent with the attitudes of Atlanta’s public and private citizenry. Specifically, when asked about the most salient issues facing Atlanta, the majority of the black citizens reported: crime, education, drug enforcement, and job creation at the top of their lists.49 This was supported by the attitudes of local elected officials on the question of the important issues: crime, environment and infrastructure problems, inefficient city government, and the disparity in services between the Northside and Southside quadrants of the city.50 This consensus about the problems facing the black community supported the assertion that black pastors were aware of the needs of their communities.

    The respondents in this study were then asked to rank their communities and their city as a place to live in comparison to other neighborhoods and cities. The respondents overwhelmingly ranked their communities as "below average," but stated that Atlanta was, nevertheless, a good place to live, that the city had become remarkably better for blacks since the 1970s, and that it will become an even better city in five years.

    Although many of these pastors recognized the problems of, and noted their concern for, the needs of the black community, they failed to become actively involved in community development issues. When questioned about the potential value of a well designed educational or community development program aimed at the improvement of deteriorating communities, only 39% said it would help. Couple that with the fact that 78% had "spoken about community development from the pulpit," only 36% of the pastors surveyed said they had taken direct action toward community development by forming a community development corporation, and 44% noted they had helped organize the community toward revitalization.

    The results of the study, which were confirmed by the works of Billingsley and Bartkowski,51 also indicated that the majority of community outreach conducted by black Baptist churches, via their pastors’ visions, was in the area of social services.

    Among the 50 churches in this study, 90% had either a food or clothing pantry. However, it should also be noted that social service programs did not constitute a community development program as defined by this study. The rationale for this distinction is based upon the fact that most church-based social service/community outreach programs limit the availability of their services (e.g., food and clothing pantries, utility bill project, or job referrals) to the members of the church and are of limited duration. Community development programs, on the other hand, seek to address long-term systemic problems in the secular community.

    Moreover, it appeared that southern black churches relinquished their secular-community work to a variety of black organizations. The study showed that these pastors favored the work of black advocacy groups in their approach to developing and empowering the black community. They cited strong support for the work and effectiveness of the SCLC, Concerned Black Clergy, the NAACP, the Atlanta Urban League and the newly created Empowerment Zone Board—a federally sponsored, categorical grant awarded to Atlanta to rebuild thirty urban communities. The Empowerment Zone Board is managed by representatives of the public, private, and community sectors.

    Ironically, each of these organizations has experienced major internal challenges, which have limited, if not thwarted, their community development efforts. One can only conclude that it is the articulated missions and histories of these organizations that have resonated with most of the pastors in this study, despite the relative failure of these organizations to achieve results of major or long-lasting significance in the community development arena.

    On the other hand, the pastors noted minimal support for the community outreach work of their denominational conventions, even though the majority of the respondents were associated with one of two conventions in Georgia. This raises the question: Why do these pastors, who are strongly concerned with community issues, affiliate with a group they perceive to do little for the black community? In an effort to validate this response, the researcher asked whether their denominations should be doing more to develop their communities. The majority responded "Yes," but were not sure if their conventions had started programs to reduce joblessness, homelessness, and illiteracy.

    Even more interesting is the fact that the pastors overwhelmingly noted a lack of support for the work of the Black Muslims. Only 12 (24%) responded that they supported their approach to urban life. This was somewhat perplexing, due to the fact that the National of Islam has been the most visible and active voice of community activism in the last ten years. One can only assume that theological differences played a major role in shaping their perceptions. Of course, such antipathy for others might clarify why most black churches, in this case the Baptist Church, do not partner with other churches to revitalize black communities.

    Closer examination revealed that a majority of the Baptist pastors in Atlanta had taken only passive actions toward community development. Seventy-two percent of the pastors’ community development efforts had been actualized from the pulpit. In comparison, 28% reported hosting community development group meetings.


    "So widespread is this mindset, that many southern black Baptist churches have begun to leave their inner-city communities for suburban neighborhoods—essentially abandoning the challenges of the central city for the relative ease of the suburban life."  


    This study did reveal that black faith institutions are important contemporary agents for ameliorating problems in the black community. The high level of community activism seen by some black churches in the South have a historical background: acting as a cultural womb for the enslaved, promoting liberation thoughts and slave rebellions, establishing educational institutions and as community businesses, and advancing civil rights for minorities. These major benchmarks continue to promote an activist orientation for black faith institutions in South. However, it is noted that black churches, while demonstrating a sincere concern for their communities, have a low interest in community activism.

    One can only conclude, therefore, that their community-mindedness does not venture far beyond the symbolic. They "talked" about the challenges of their community and the need for things to get better, but when it came time to develop initiatives or take substantive actions, they chose to defer to others. Such avoidance has become indicative of most contemporary black Baptist churches. So widespread is this mindset, that many southern black Baptist churches have begun to leave their inner-city communities for suburban neighborhood—essentially abandoning the challenges of the central city for the relative ease of the suburban life. This phenomenon, however, can be essentially attributed to certain background characteristics and perceptions of black Baptist pastors in Atlanta.

    This article seeks to introduce some initial thoughts on the subject, using black Baptist churches in Atlanta as a test variable. An interesting extension of this study would be to measure churches' levels of community activism by examining the background and perceptional variables of pastors to determine if the level of activism increased with the addition of independent variables.


    1. The survey used in this study was modified from Walter Stuhr, Jr's 1970s study of churches' participation in secular society. (see Walter Stuhr, Jr., The Public Style (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1972) Return

    2. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (Schocken Books: New York: 1963, Charles Hamilton, The Black Preacher in America (New York: Morrow, 1972), and C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990). Return

    3. Alphonso Pinkney, Black Americans 4th ed. (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliff, 1993): 98-99. Return

    4. E.U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962): 358. Return

    5. Harold Wingfield, "The Historical and Changing Role of the Black Church: The Social and Political Implication" The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 1988, 127-132. Return

    6. Gunnar Myrdal, "The Negro Church: Its Weakness, Trends, and Outlook" The Black Church in America Hart Nelsen, Raytha Yokley, and Anne Nelsen, eds. (New York: Basic Books, 1971): 258. Return

    7. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (Schocken Books: New York:1963):51. Return

    8. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 12. Return

    9. Gary Peck, "Black radical consciousness and the Black Christian experience: Toward a critical sociology of Afro-American religion." Sociological Analysis 43 (Fall 1982):161. Return

    10. Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural History of the Deep South (New York: Viking Press, 39; reprint, 1968):285. Return

    11. D'Apolitio, 54. Return

    12. For a more comprehensive discussion, see Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like A River: The Black Church and Social Reform (New York: Oxford Press, 1999). Return

    13. Otis Moss, Black Church Life Styles: Rediscovering the Black Church Experience (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1986), 11-12. Return

    14. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto, 3rd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 78. Return

    15. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experiences (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 24-28. Return

    16. Rudy Johnston, The Development of Negro Religion (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), 6. Return

    17. Ibid., 23. Return

    18. Ibid., 79. Return

    19. Ibid. 24., Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), 58-60. Return

    20. Ibid. Return

    21. Meir and Rudwick, 103. Return

    22. Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1972), 35-36. Return

    23. James Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon: Mercer, 1986), 9. Return

    24. James Simms, The First Colored Baptist Church in North America (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1988), 15. Return

    25. Fitts, 33-39. Return

    26. T. Fulop and A. Raboteau, African American Religion: Interpretative Essays in History and Culture (New York: Routledge Press, 1997), 92. Return

    27. Meir and Rudwick, 102-104. Return

    28. Ibid., 178. Return

    29. Ibid., 180. Return

    30. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 174. Return

    31. Ibid.178. Return

    32. David Hurst, "The Shepherding of Black Christians" (Th.D., diss., School of Theology, 1981), 51. Return

    33. Herman Mason, ed., Going Against the Wind: A Pictorial History of African Americans in Atlanta (Atlanta: Longstreet, 1992), 4. Return

    34. Thelma Mckelpin, A Documented History of Friendship Baptist Church (Atlanta: Mckelpin, 1993), 7. Return

    35. Ibid. 11. Return

    36. Ibid. 10. Return

    37. Mason, 50. Return

    38. Clarence Wagner, Profiles of Black Georgia Baptists: 206 Years of Georgia Baptist and 100 Years of National Baptist History as told by Clarence Wagner (Atlanta: Bennett Brothers, 1980), 82. Return

    39. Ibid. 85. Return

    40. Mason, 186. Return

    41. Washington, 195; Fitts, 101-106. Return

    42. Militants-were persons deeply committed to civil rights goals who demonstrated, marched, and picketed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They comprised the central planning unit of the boycott organizations. These ministers tended to be young and highly educated, came from average social status backgrounds, tended toward theological liberalism, emphasized social as opposed to otherworldly concerns, and served larger than average black congregations. Moderates were pastors that were more gradual or accommodating in their civil rights involvement. They tended to be older than the militants and not so highly educated. They lent their support not by direct activism, but by reading letters to their congregation from the boycott committee. Traditionalists-were pastors that were passive with regard to challenging the prevailing social order and were spiritually rather socially oriented. They tended to be older men who had very little formal education, came from low social status backgrounds, and served small congregations, often only as part time pastors. See Ronald L. Johnstone, Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, 5th edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997): 291-292. Return

    43. Robert M. Franklin, "When God Says Stay, You Stay," Center City Churches: The New Urban Frontier, Lyle E. Schaller ed., (Nashville: Abingdon Press: 1993): 21-30. Return

    44. Marjorie Lewis, "The Black Church: A Political and Social Technology," unpublished paper, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, March 1999, 6-8. Return

    45. Said Sewell, "Quantitative Analysis of Black Baptist Pastors: Perception and Actions toward Community Development" (Ph.D. diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2001). Return

    46. Michael Bailey, "Black Political Attitudes in Atlanta," unpublished paper, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, March 1997. Return

    47. Bob Holmes, "The 1997 City Election and Its Aftermath," The Status of Black Atlanta 1998, Bob Holmes, ed. (Atlanta: Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, 1998). Return

    48. Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like A River, 88. Return

    49. Bailey, 7. Return

    50. Holmes, 21-22. Return

    51. John Bartkowski, "Charitable Choice: Faith-Based Poverty Relief in the Post-Welfare Era," published paper, Mississippi Church/State Partnerships in Social Service Delivery Study Project, 2001. Return


    2001 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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