NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Black History Month each February is a time set aside to honor African Americans who have made contributions in the United States and around the world. Not forgotten among these successes by individuals and organizations should be the great contributions black churches have made to African Americans, our nation and the world.

Before there were African American mayors, governors or even an African American president, black churches received leadership from African American Sunday School teachers, deacons and pastors. These church leaders, along with others, were seen as community leaders who helped mentor, educate and counsel many in the black community. Moreover, the black church not only was a place of worship but served the community as a center for gathering support and encouraging one another through fellowship.

The Civil Rights Movement gained significant strength because of the participation of black churches. They became meeting centers for the organization and strategic planning of the effort for equal rights. Regular church members, church lay leaders and pastors took a position at the forefront of the work to change a racial and ethnically segregated America. Black churches should be celebrated for their part in influencing a nation to respect and value ethic and racial rights.

Black churches also influenced today's American art and music cultures. Musical genres, such as gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz and even urban can trace their musical roots to black spiritual music. The traditions of music as well as drama in the black church are credited as catalysts for a great number of African American actors, musicians and singers. Along with music, the rich oral tradition of storytelling and distinctive African language patterns have been kept and maintained among many African American churches.

Today, black churches are positioned to continue their contribution to American culture at a wider and deeper level. With the growing number of immigrant families moving into traditional black communities and increased mixed marriages between different ethnicities, black churches have lunged into serving a diverse urban congregation. Their makeup extends beyond African Americans and exemplifies the same melting-pot pattern of our country.

Black churches continue to be a place where the community gathers to help and support one another, without regard to their ethnic background. Moreover, a great number of African Americans are going beyond their community and are actively involved as missionaries around the world. Every year the number of African American missionaries increases. They spread the Gospel to people in other nations as well as share their African American cultural experiences.

No matter what the cause, event or activity may be -- civil rights, the arts or evangelism -- God has used the experiences of the black church to influence America.

The leaders and staff at LifeWay Christian Resources continue to support and pray for what God is doing in black churches and that He will continue to move in mighty ways to impact the world for His Kingdom. In keeping with that commitment, LifeWay offers a number of resources and events designed specifically for African American churches.

These include "YOU!," a biblically based Sunday school/discipleship curriculum designed to be culturally relevant to the black/urban/multicultural audience; Black Church Leadership and Family Week each summer; the "I'm the Man" conference which reminds men how crucial their involvement is in the church and the home; and the National Black Sunday School Conference which gives Sunday School leaders the opportunity to learn how to change lives and impact their communities.

Information about all of these and other resources is available at LifeWay.com/blackchurchlife.

Elgia (Jay) Wells is the director of African American ministries in the church resources division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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