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Black Megachurches: Social Gospel Usage and Community Empowerment

Abstract

Social Gospel advocates suggest that Christianity should foster social reform, political activism, and collective empowerment. Black megachurches do not generally have a reputation for espousing such tenets. But, have they been inaccurately depicted? This analysis focuses on whether and how a Social Gospel message influences the purposes and programs for a group of Black megachurches. The study relies on ethnographic research and content analysis of 16 Black megachurches. Findings show that most sample clergy espouse a Social Gospel message that reflects social justice, servanthood, and self-help themes. Community empowerment programs are also influenced by factors such as pastor's vocation as well as church location and have a decidedly economic rather than political dimension. The implications of what constitutes Social Gospel in the twenty-first century are discussed.

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Notes

  1. In literature, the terms “megachurch” and “mega church” are used interchangeably. The use of “weekend” rather than just Sunday as the selection criterion is based on the tendency for some megachurches to also sponsor worship services on Saturdays.

  2. The 120–150 reported Black megachurches in the USA were used as a benchmark to select at least a 10% sample from this population. A purposive sample was selected based on two megachurch definitions linked to church size and types of programs (Thumma and Travis 2007; Schaller 2000). Save one church, the others have mean weekend worship attendance of at least 2,000 adults. Most significantly exceed this guideline. Churches were also selected from locations where a larger proportion of Black megachurches are located such as Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Texas, California, and New York.

  3. Save one church, each consistently has a mean weekend worship attendance of at least 2,000 adults. Most of them significantly exceed this benchmark. I elected to retain this church because it reflects aspects of Schaller’s (2000) definition of a large church. It also enhanced the overall denominational mix and, relative to its size, is involved in a substantial and diverse number of community outreach programs. I made initial contact by identifying, locating, and calling each pastor's administrative assistant(s). Churches were mailed an informational packet about the project and samples of my published research on the Black Church. After subsequent emails, telephone calls, and messages, typically over a 3–6-month period, the sample pastor's agreed to participate. Sermons were provided by pastors, church contact persons, randomly by book store clerks, or by the author via church websites. Sermons were selected that seemed interesting or related to the topics of study (i.e., topics such as social problems, victorious living, economics, and overcoming life's challenges). So, although the sermon selection process was somewhat purposive, it did reflect some variation.

  4. Readers should be cognizant of the limitations of using participant observation. Data reliability relies heavily on the researcher's training. My past research experience observing church settings, the small sample size, the use of a consistent observation template by a single observer, as well as a focus on a specific set of church activities makes me confident in the observations as well as my analysis of them.

  5. Regarding self-selection, some pastors declined to take part due to scheduling problems; several were completing their own memoires. Several refused and no reason was provided. It is possible that those churches and pastors who believed that their churches would be more impressive might be more apt to participate in the study. In contrast, churches with limited programs might be less inclined to participate. Yet, programs and community involvement varied considerably across the 16 Black megachurches. Thus, I believe that self-selection is not a huge concern. The qualitative data were transcribed and coded by this writer.

  6. It is a belief among Prosperity proponents that the problem in society in not the accumulation of wealth, but rather the accumulation of wealth by the ungodly who then hoard it and refuse to help the less fortunate. They believe that their message has been misconstrued and that Christians should welcome prosperity in its many forms in order to escape the anxieties associated with poverty, share it with others, and subsidize evangelism (Dollar 2008; Thompson 1999). Detractors consider this rhetoric used to justify materialism (Franklin 2007; Mitchem 2007).

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Correspondence to Sandra Lynn Barnes.

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Barnes, S.L. Black Megachurches: Social Gospel Usage and Community Empowerment. J Afr Am St 15, 177–198 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-010-9148-8

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Keywords

  • Social Gospel
  • Black megachurch
  • Community action