When the Rev. Charles G. Adams came to town this week to preach at a revival in Northwest Washington, he looked out into a sea of unfamiliar faces at the New Southern Rock Baptist Church.

But Adams, who heads the third-largest black Baptist denomination in the nation, recognized something familiar among the young and old sitting in the pews. He saw the future of the black church. He saw it as a haven of hope, a center of freedom, an extended family.

"We perpetuate our history," Adams said. "There is a bridge that brought us over rough waters for 200 years and it isn't about to fall down."

The jam-packed revival this week at New Southern Rock Baptist reaffirmed for Adams the vitality of the black church at a time that questions are being raised about whether it will endure, and when blacks are increasingly being wooed by other religions and denominations, including Islam and the virtually all-white Southern Baptist Convention.

Adams sees the black church as thriving despite the souls being lost to the demons of crime and poverty, and won to other faiths.

"I don't think the black church has been any more viable than it is today," said Adams, who this summer was unanimously elected to lead the 1.8-million member Progressive National Baptist Convention. "As I travel around the country, I don't see any empty churches."

Adams, a 53-year-old Harvard graduate, heads a relatively young denomination that was created out of dissent and had as one of its founding members the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention was formed in 1961 when several rebellious ministers in the nation's oldest and largest black denomination, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc., sought to more aggressively pursue civil rights and limit the term of the denomination's presidency.

"The National Baptist Convention rejected the efforts of Dr. King," said Taylor Branch, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters." "It was a pretty monolithic organization and once {the dissenting ministers} threatened the leadership and raised the issue of civil rights, all those people began to be purged. Dr. King was one of the first to be purged."

The denomination, which has 73 churches in the District, counts among its members Jesse L. Jackson, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, House Majority Leader William H. Gray III and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), according to Adams.

Adams said his religious group is the most insistent on civil liberties among the black Baptist groups. But some religious leaders suggest that tradition and history have become the most distinguishable difference because of changes in denominational leadership.

"They are all moving very much along the same line now," said Emmanuel McCall, director of the black church extension division of the Southern Baptist home mission board.

The black Baptist groups splintered from an unincorporated black Baptist denomination, called the National Baptist Convention, which was established in 1895 to organize Baptist work among newly freed slaves. The largest is the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc., with 7 million members across the country; followed by the National Baptist Convention of America, with 3 million members primarily in the South; the Progressive National Baptist Convention, with members mostly in the Midwest, and the 1 million-member National Missionary Baptist Convention, which is concentrated in the Midwest, according to Adams.

As the new president of the Progressive National Baptists, Adams said he wants to continue speaking out against injustices in the tradition of the denomination's founders.

"They wanted freedom in society and they wanted to agitate for that freedom," he said. "They were not gradualists. They were not accommodationists. They were not anti-political. They were nonviolent militants."

Adams is used to speaking out. He is a big, bearded man whose voice booms. He has a grueling schedule that keeps him on the road almost every week. Adams was in Seoul in August, speaking before the Baptist World Alliance on the subject "God is Love." He is going to South Africa this month to take 200 churches into his denominational fold. He will preach in Australia at a World Council of Churches meeting next spring.

This summer, Adams was one of the first religious leaders to speak out against U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf.

"It would make more sense to go to war against the drug cartels than to go to war on behalf of the oil cartels," Adams said.

Under his leadership, Adams said his denomination plans to mount an offensive against drugs, crime and unemployment.

Adams said the churches must become nurturing centers for single mothers and their children while training women for economic opportunities. He said the black church also must work diligently with their men, whom he said have been "forsaken by society and written off by the government."

His own church in Detroit, the 7,000-member Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, runs more than a dozen programs, including free legal and medical clinics, a tutorial program, a Head Start program, a job placement agency, a crisis support line, a food co-op and a scholarship fund.

Adams, who will serve a four-year term, said the church remains the last best hope for blacks.

"It's the only organized expression of hope we can depend on in the black community," he said. "If we don't organize ourselves as a people, we will not have a meaningful life in the United States or the world."