WASHINGTON, March 22 (RNS) -- The vast majority of African-American churches areproviding social services and their clergy report a vitality in theircongregations even when they struggle financially to offer thoseservices.

A survey conducted last year found that 92% of black churchesoffer youth programs and 86% provide cash assistance to needypeople.

"Black churches have a unique sort of way of blending their somewhatconservative and moderate theology with their more liberal socialoutreach and those sort of combinations seem to bring about a greatsense of vitality," said the Rev. Stephen Rasor, director of the doctorof ministry program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, aconsortium of six predominantly black seminaries in Atlanta.

Rasor and the Rev. Michael Dash, co-directors of the ITC/FaithFactor Project 2000, reported the results of the project's survey inAtlanta on March 21. The survey was part of the larger"Faith Communities Today" study released March 13 by Hartford Seminary'sHartford Institute for Religious Research, but the ITC's work focused onAfrican-American congregations.

The survey results from the ITC report were based on interviews ofclergy or lay leaders of 1,863 black churches across the country.

"We were pleased, overall, that the churches saw themselves asvital, as strong, as making major contributions to their community,"Rasor said in an interview prior to the Atlanta news conference. "That cut across all denominational groups and all sizes of thechurch."

That sense of vitality was higher in African-American congregationsthan among liberal white Protestant churches, he said. The larger "FaithCommunities Today" study -- which included 41 denominations -- alsofound that historically black churches are more likely than otherChristian groups to focus on community service.

The ITC study reported that 76% of black congregations wereinvolved in voter registration or voter education efforts. A total of 75percent of the black churches had a food pantry or soup kitchen.

Rasor said the study's findings about the provision of socialservices despite financial challenges reflects results of other studiesthat looked specifically at storefront or rural churches.

"What I think is happening is the black churches are made up ofblack men and women who've always struggled in this society, financially... and otherwise," he said. "Their theology is grounded in theknowledge that God is calling them to liberate, transform bothinstitutions and people."

ITC President Robert Franklin was among African-American religiousleaders who met with President Bush on Monday to discuss the new WhiteHouse Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He said the studyhas "urgent implications" for that office.

"We are excited to learn that most black churches provide servicesto people who do not belong to their congregations," Franklin said in astatement. "Yet it is sobering to learn that the range and depth of thatcommunity service is limited by the very thin financial resource basesupporting the entire church."

Among other things, the survey also found that a wide variety ofmusic is used in African-American churches.

Rasor said researchers found that spirituals are "overwhelmingly"used in black churches but the frequency of their use declines as theeducational level of the church's leader increases.

"My guess is, as a sociologist, that it's the influence of thedenominational groupings that have more openness to classical music andmore traditional music and less openness to spirituals and gospel, butkind of a European bias to what is appropriate or less appropriate," hesaid.

The study included congregations that were part of historicallyblack Christian denominations, including African Methodist Episcopal,African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Churchof God in Christ, National Baptist Convention of America, NationalBaptist Convention, USA, and Progressive National Baptist Convention. Italso included black congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) andUnited Methodist Church.

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