On Monday, Revs. Irene Monroe and Emmett G. Price III debated data from a recent Gallup poll, which found U.S. church membership dropping below 50 percent for the first time in the eight decades they've tracked it.
Monroe blamed a general “mean-spiritedness” in the church for declining interest among Gen Xers and millennials, adding that “in many ways, people will say it’s a relic of the last century because it refused to espouse the theology that speaks to everybody.”
The poll in question found that just 47 percent of Americans identify as a member of a church, synagogue or mosque. At the turn of the millenium, however, that number was over 70 percent — around where it had been since the 1940's.
While Price acknowledged the data showed a “huge” drop, he said he suspects the poll is more reflective of white churches, because of shortcomings in Gallup’s polling methods. Speaking “extremely confidently” of Black communities, he said he thinks that churches hold a steady degree of moral relevance.
“The church has not lost its posture or its poise in terms of serving the community,” he said. “Now, whether people are coming down the aisle and joining the church, then that’s a whole different story. ... I’m not sure church membership is as important as it used to be within Black spaces, if you go back to the thirties, forties, fifties and sixities.”
"I have to totally push back here," Monroe countered. "Number one, the centrality that the Black church had in the fifties and sixties is not there."
"And I need to say this," she continued. "I get who the church don’t want — the traditional Black church. That’s LGBT folks, that’s your homeless, that’s your drunk, that’s your unemployed, who cannot put money into the church."
Price responded to his All Rev'd Up cohost's criticism by stating that "church is not the building, it’s the people," in an effort to distinguish the prejudiced from everyday parishoners.
"That's slippery," Monroe retorted. "That's politician language."
Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist, the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail and a visiting researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology. Price is a professor of worship, church and culture and founding executive director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Together they host the All Rev’d Up podcast, produced by GBH.