Changing the Perception

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Amantha Barbee

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies”

Resolutions are a grand way for an institution to make public statements about issues regarding either a part or whole of a body. Very often, at their core, the resolutions typically hold the studied opinions of those who penned them. They will cause emotive expressions of support, rejection, or lack of care to that small percentage of the institution who actually read them. Unfortunately, an enormous amount of time and effort goes in to denominational resolutions. I think they are necessary more so for those outside the denomination. “Others” will look for documents such as these to learn a particular stance of a denomination. It is just that, a denominational stance, and not an individual stance. We are not the denomination but a part of. This is where the problems lie.

Photo from Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

The “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” is a serious problem as well as the diminution of Presbyterian congregations, no matter the ethnic background. With the rapid growth of non-denominational mega-churches coupled with the increasing number of families opting out of organized religion all together, we all stand at a crossroad of an “if-then” reality. As much as I personally love the structure of the PCUSA, it is archaic at its core and makes it difficult to maneuver with certain freedoms at certain levels if one does not fully understand the constitution. When the government of the church has very similar qualities of the federal government it poses a problem with those who are ill at ease with the federal government and the church.

This is not great for promoting the institution. Pew Research Center reports that 40% of churched African Americans are Baptist. The closest to that is Pentecostal with 6%. 8 out of 10 African Americans report that religion is important to them. The Presbyterian church is the total antithesis of the Baptist church. The Pentecostal church is even further distanced from Presbyterianism. The PCUSA is fighting a historic battle with how African Americans worship. We are a highly educated, financially charged, and white institution trying to attract a historically oppressed, undereducated, financially underserved people. Our African American numbers should come at no surprise to anyone.

I left the Baptist church after 45 years. The majority of my African American friends are Baptist and many of them have left the Presbyterian church to become Baptist. I left because I felt that as a woman in ministry my opportunities would be greater outside the Baptist church. Additionally, I found the governance of the Baptist church oppressive. If I had not been in leadership I am not positive that I would have made the change. As a leader in the church it made sense to me. As a layperson, it really didn’t matter as much. Most church attendees are not in leadership and, as in most denominations, do not understand the nuances of the government. Therefore, it really does not affect them in the same way.

Worship style has some bearing on the public opinion, but I honestly think that has less to do with the declining numbers than a missed comradery. What can the PCUSA do about that? Perhaps launch a nationwide campaign to African Americans which speaks to freedom of thought, speech, and governance, and encourage African American congregations to invite their congregations to offer a contemporary service to attract those with a more charismatic background. With that encouragement will have to come financial support to hire worthy musicians to include vocalists to assist in worship. This is an expensive undertaking, but in order to attract African Americans we will have to change the perception of the PCUSA. Without changing the perception, the numbers will continue to decline as our older members pass away.

Amantha Barbee is pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church and chair of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. She stood between protesters and police with other interfaith clergy when Keith Scott was killed by police in 2016. She is a recipient of the Charlotte City Center Partners Special Achievement Award.