Each week, tons of tourists from around the world fill the pews and balconies at churches across Harlem. However, The New York Times says, the number of congregants filling the remaining pews continues to drop. Church reverends who spoke with the paper say as the worshipers disappear, so do the tithes that they offer. Harlem’s black churches are seeing double-digit declines in tithes and, in some cases, have to seek out bank loans to make up for the shortfall.
We’re not talking about a few people who get too busy and stop coming regularly. These churches describe an exodus of hundreds of congregants. Change is the cause. Harlem’s churches once spoke to neighborhoods filled with migrants from the South. More recently, neighborhoods across Harlem had tremendous drug and crime problems and churches addressed them. These days, only about half of the population of Harlem is black and gentrification has pushed prices on houses, for eating out, and other activities.
So Harlem’s churches need to change, just as the neighborhood has changed. The article mentions greater diversity in order to draw from some of the new populations in Harlem. There are also the financial issues in the black community, and across America. With many people out of work or working for less than they’re used to, people are using their money to pay for household expenses and pay down debt. Tithing falls on the list of priorities.
One also has to wonder about the role that the church plays in black life these days. We’re all busy with family, careers, education, building on businesses and interests. So when it’s time to plan for the weekend, Sunday morning service may not be in the cards for some people who prefer to use the time with family around the breakfast table, catching up with errands, or resting and planning for the week ahead.
And others ask questions about whether the church is addressing the issues relevant to modern life, which would continue to lend it the moral authority that would drive membership and tithing. For example, The Grio wrote an article about whether black churches are talking about climate change, particularly in light of the tornado in Moore, OK. Rev. Calvin Butts from Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church acknowledges that blacks are usually subject to poorer environmental conditions, but the church doesn’t have a unified voice on the issue.
“In places in the south as well as the north, toxic dumping grounds for chemical waste, were often [located] in areas adjacent to black communities – bus depots, sewage plants on the Hudson River adjacent to Harlem,” the article quotes him.
“I preached a sermon about a love for nature base on God’s command in Genesis. But in terms of an organized effort – I am not aware. I do know that people have been talking about these kinds of things for a long time,” he also says.
So what’s your take on the issues facing black churches?