The New York Times recently published an article by Trymaine Lee detailing the hard times that the smaller, less well-known African American churches in Harlem have come upon. This includes not only financial difficulty but poor attendance (which are undoubtedly  linked). Both have to do with the utter absence of young people in not only these churches but many mainline Protestant churches across the country. But in Harlem, there are very local factors as to why these smaller churches are struggling. As Lee writes,

The gentrification of Harlem has helped deplete their ranks, as younger residents, black and white, have arrived but not taken up places in their pews. Longtime Harlem families, either cashing in on the real estate boom over the past decade or simply opting to head south for their retirement, have left the neighborhood and its churches. Then there are the deaths, as year by year, whole age bands are chipped away.

Without a sustainable membership, and with no fresh wave of tithe-paying, collection-plate-filling young members, these churches have struggled to keep their doors open, to maintain repairs and to extend their reach in the community.

Many of them have had to pursue a variety of cost-cutting measures, sometimes even having to do away with a full-time minister and soup kitchens.

Though one could venture to blame the harsh reality faced by these churches on gentrification, Lee rightly notes that the present situation is a result of the changing place of the church in social life more generally. In the middle of the twentieth century, these churches were vibrant and full of members:

Those were the days of the blue laws, when few businesses were open on Sunday, which meant there were few excuses to skip service. Many homes did not have television. The church was the absolute center of the community, Ms. Lynch said, a place where friends came in packs and families and neighbors mingled, a time when families’ status, to a degree, could be judged by how “churched” they were.

This has some significance for how religion and race play into common wisdom in American political discourse. Every election year, much is made of the social conservatism of African American voters, pointing rather simplistically to the religiosity of most African Americans. In communities such as Harlem, in light of this trend, this may have to be rethought.

Read the full article here.