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The Changing Face of Religion:
The Suburbanization of the Black Church

by Jacqueline Trussell
Founder and President of
Chicago, Illinois

The African American church is the institution that traditionally, has provided the black community with a base for spiritual and social growth. As middle-class blacks migrate to communities outside of urban environments, where do they go for spiritual development? How is religion in urban America shifting and changing in light of the "outmigration of nonpoor black families?" (Wilson, 1996: 42) Will urban church memberships experience a decline in response to this movement? How do suburban communities react to black church development in these areas?

ChurchThese and other questions are important to the continued viability of the black church institution as it moves to address these issues facing the 21st century church. As authors, Gerald Jaynes and Robin Williams state, "the suburbanization of the middle-class is changing the face of religion in urban America."  In, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, the authors write:

“ American religious institutions, including black churches, are thus facing difficult times expanding the growth of their memberships. Increased social stratification within the black community, suburbanization of the middle class, and losses of worshippers as well as many talented ministers...make this trend especially difficult for black churches.  
(Jaynes and Williams: 176)  ”

Research on this subject has been limited however. The popular media has touched on this developing movement in the black church. In 1997, the now defunct Emerge magazine published an article, "Growing in Glory," which described what is fast becoming a cause for concern for some churches in the central city, the "mega-church." Defined as "those [churches] with congregations of at least 3000," the article also notes another important fact. The author writes,

“ Some of the biggest are in sprawling suburban (emphasis mine) areas, 
where upwardly mobile Blacks have moved.
(Emerge: April 1997: 49-53)  ”

The move by middle and upper income African Americans to the suburbs and the growth of mega-churches in many of these suburban communities is significant and deserves further study.

Much has been written on the black underclass in inner city America and the social problems in urban communities. However, little attention has been given to where middle class blacks, particularly those living in suburban communities, worship. Middle class blacks, taking advantage of liberal fair housing policies, better schools and less crime move to predominantly white suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods. Studies showing how this outmigration effects the inner city church do not appear available at this time, however, its is apparent that loss of membership in inner city churches could be examined in the future as a corollary to this situation. The migration experience of blacks moving from city to suburbs, in some ways mirrors the black migration of an earlier period.


Southern blacks fled the oppressive conditions of post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws in search of full and equal citizenship and a better way of life. They migrated in record numbers to northern cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland between 1900-1940. A large number of southern blacks settled in Chicago and many places of worship were established. Statistics show by 1900 Chicago's black population was 30,150 but rose to 44,103 by 1910. Black Chicago showed a dramatic increase to 109,594 in 1920 and by 1930, more than 200,000 blacks called Chicago home. (Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922:106).

Carter G. Woodson describes the classes of people who sought refuge in northern cities in his book, A Century of Negro Migration. "A large number of educated Negroes...have been compelled to leave the South...the largest number of Negroes who have gone North during this period, however, belong to the intelligent laboring class." (Woodson, 1918: 160) Blacks, in large numbers, traveled by railroad to reach their northern destinations. 

“ Sometimes, " Woodson writes, " one excursion brings to Chicago two or three thousand Negroes, two thirds of whom never go back.
(Woodson: 154)  ”

The newly arrived migrants found places to live, work and worship. This migration contributed to the economic, social, political, and spiritual life of the city.

One place where the influx of these new migrants was felt was in the black church. Many houses of worship, already struggling, struggled harder to meet the needs of this new population. Some churches, however, did benefit from this influx as membership rolls grew significantly. For example, Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago's historic Bronzeville community, lists 600 members in 1903. By 1921, reports show a membership of 10,012 (Fisher, 1922: 104-5). Chicago's black church community established numerous clubs and in house programs to support the spiritual, social and economic needs of the new migrants.

During this period, the black church experienced great growth. The northern urban church became a hub of activity and helped to give meaning and purpose to the new migrants life, much as the church in the south had done from slavery to freedom. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the church continued to be a voice of hope for a better tomorrow and as a source of protest against America's racial injustice. The black church of the Civil Rights era, was very influential. Sociologist Aldon Morris writes:

“ Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base...the urban church developed into a more efficient organization than its rural counterpart... The great migration of blacks from rural to urban areas between 1910 and 1960 was responsible for the tremendous growth of the church throughout that period.
(Morris, 1984: 4-5)  ”

Northern urban churches, with members rooted in southern rural cities and towns, provided human, but primarily financial resources to the movement.

The Great Society programs of the 1960s also helped the black church. Churches were able to secure funding to operate day care centers, obtain federal funds to build low income and senior citizen housing (often named after the church pastor) and purchase vacant or abandoned property for additional church parking.

The Black Power movement of the 1970s, saw a rise in black consciousness with the development of Black Theology spearheaded by Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York. African centered worship services emerged in churches as ministers took off their traditional long black robes and replaced them with dashikis or robes adorned with African fabric. Inside the church, pictures of a white, Europeanized Christ were removed and images of an Africanized Christ were  hung instead.

The face of black religion began to change. Blacks, who benefited from desegregation in education and housing, experienced employment gains and enjoyed a more favorable economic picture. By the 1980s, middle class blacks in once stable communities in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, began to move. Older residents sold their homes and moved into church built senior housing or into suburban communities closer to their adult children who feared for their parent's safety in the old neighborhoods. Once in senior housing and some no longer driving, many had to rely on church transportation systems to travel back and forth to church. Those who located in suburban communities were faced with a dilemma: find a church in their new suburban community or travel back into the central city to attend services at their old church. Thus, the need for suburban African American churches began to increase.

In, The Changing Face of the Suburbs, Reynolds Farley offers two possible definitions of suburbia. "Many sociologists describe suburbia in terms of low density housing, the presence of strong family ties, or the absence of ethnic minorities...[others describe] the term suburban to mean the area which is urban in its demographic character but outside the large central cities. Suburbia is defined in geographic terms." (Farley, 1976:4) For our purpose, the geographic categorization will suffice. The characteristics of black suburbanization patterns are similar to white migration described in many early sociological studies concerned with fair housing policies or discriminatory real estate practices. 

“ Black suburbanites are similar to whites moving from equivalent previous locations... blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods represent the highest-status segment of the suburban black population.
(Lake, 1981: 135)  ”

The black church was a critical presence throughout the early migration period of many urban cities. The institution provided a place for African American spiritual and social growth and a training ground for most aspects of black life. However, with the outmigration of middle class blacks to suburban communities, we see a change in church attendance and a possible cause for urban churches to experience declining church memberships and loss of members due to locations in high crime and drug infested communities.

White church movement to suburban communities was a concern of the 1950s and 1960s because it was viewed as an abandonment of its Christian mission to the inner city. (Winter, 1961) In an interesting shift, now, however, inner city neighborhoods are faced with the potential loss of black churches to suburban areas. This presents new challenges to communities already in crisis. When inner city black churches take flight and move to the suburbs, the services, i.e. food pantries, clothes giveaways, day care centers, go with them, leaving residents with few resources to obtain these services.

The suburbanization of the black church is part of the changing face of religion being experienced in the black community today.

The Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race History.      Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1922.

Farley, Reynolds, "Religion in Suburban America," in The Changing Face of the Suburbs, ed. Barry Schwartz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 265-278.

Fisher, Miles Mark. "The History of Olivet Baptist Church." Master's thesis, Divinity School, University of Chicago, 1922.

Harris, Hamil. "Growing in Glory." Emerge, April 1977, pp. 49-53.

Jaynes, Gerald David and Williams, Robin M. Jr., eds. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: The Free Press, 1984.

Wilson, William Julius. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Winter, Gibson. The Suburban Captivity of the Churches. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961.

Woodson, Carter G. A Century of Negro Migration. Washington, DC: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1918. rights reserved.

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