LITHONIA, Ga. — Under a sparkling blue sky, thousands of worshipers in cars and SUVs streamed into the mall-like parking lots at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a sprawling campus just off I-20 in this suburb of Atlanta.
It was Sunday morning, and for the African-American families flocking to services that meant it was time for church, just as it had for generations of black Christians who had found in the pews not only a sanctuary from a hostile world, but also a platform for communal action to make their lives better.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation commemorates on Monday, was a product of the black church, and the black church has arguably done as much as any Christian community to inspire the soul and culture of modern American society. It has supplied the prophetic language that has driven the nation’s ongoing reconciliation with the original sin of slavery, and it helped form the character of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president and an orator with the delivery of a black preacher.
Yet New Birth Missionary Baptist — with 25,000 members who generously bankroll high-living pastors and high-tech services — is also emblematic of what many in the African-American community see as a profound crisis in black Christianity, or even the “death” of the black church.