Black churches shape their message for future

Saturday, February 22, 2003

African-American churches have celebrated their past during Black History Month, but what does their future hold?

Today's churches, regardless of color or creed, are having tough times attracting younger members and keeping them. That's partly due to a changing culture marked by technology, shifting demographics and a push toward Christian unity.

Researcher George Barna, CEO of the California-based Barna Research Group Ltd., said that the church shouldn't be surprised or influenced by the future, but aware of what's coming.

In a fast-paced, technological world, a worship service at 11 a.m. on Sunday isn't appealing to a broad crowd, he said in a 2001 interview before the release of his book "Boiling Point."

"Similarly, anchoring a church's ministry offerings to a physical ministry campus won't work for increasing numbers of Americans. Flexibility and creativity will be crucial ingredients to successful ministries in the future," Barna said.

And that's exactly what the area's African-American churches are trying to do: offer as many options for worship and ministry as their members want.

Throughout their history, black churches were the gathering place for people interested in spiritual lessons and education, as well as a social meeting place.

And today's no different. There's a program or study group or ladies' aid meeting every night of the week at the churches here. And sometimes the programs offered are based on needs. Historically, black churches have tried to fill every need in their community, whether spiritual or social.

At New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, members have expressed a need to reach the men in their community and are trying to invite young people to worship.

The Rev. Johnny Thomas, pastor of New Bethel, has said he wants to focus attention on young black men who need role models.

"When you see young men, invite them to come to this church," he told the congregation on a recent Sunday. "They can come at 12 o'clock if they want to, I don't care if they come late as long as they come."

Thomas said the younger generations still need lessons about responsibility. Too many are relying on the welfare system to care for their families, he said.

People shouldn't walk around with a chip on their shoulders, thinking that other people should look out for them, Thomas said. God expects people to use the gifts and talents he's given them, the pastor said.

"I want to tell the people that God has blessed us and we've taken this ball so far and the next generation has to pick up the ball."

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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