New Wine Calls for New Wineskins: Black Megachurch Approaches to Racial Inequality

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The changing nature of racism in the post-Civil Rights period coincides with the decline in collective racial protest, or what some scholars consider the activist or prophetic wing, of black churches. As a result of the shift from the overt racism of the Civil Rights era to the hidden and often invisible forms of contemporary racism, the ways in which blacks address and resist racism might reflect similar shifts. In other words, I argue that black churches’ responses to contemporary racial inequality may be different from the actions taken by some churches before and during the pre-Civil Rights era. This study seeks to explore the explanations and solutions for contemporary racial inequality offered by black megachurch leaders and attendees. More specifically it also takes into account how religious culture may influence these explanations of and solutions to racial inequality.

A case study approach is utilized to examine three black megachurches in Washington, D.C.—one Baptist, one Pentecostal, and one nondenominational. Data from semi-structured interviews with church leaders and congregants, content analysis of church documents, and participant observation of church worship services reveal three main findings. First, contrary to literature that states blacks tend to rely on structural rather than individual explanations of racial inequality, church leaders and congregants tend to rely on explanations that are simultaneously individual and structural. Second, the strategies used by the megachurches in this study do not reflect the direct action protesting strategies used by some black churches during the Civil Rights Movement. The strategies of the megachurches in this study to address racial inequality range from aiding in educational achievement to civic engagement to employment training to address racial inequality. Furthermore, each of the churches has developed nonprofit Community Development Corporations to provide social services such as transitional housing. Third, although the various religious cultures of megachurches in this study inform how they address racial inequality, other factors, such as declining membership and changing community demographics, also shape strategies to intervene in racial inequality.