Bit by bit, the consensus is growing that black Americans must learn to rely less for their progress on the government and more on their own resources -- especially their economic clout.

That is the notion behind Operation PUSH's demand for "reciprocal trade agreements" between large businesses and blacks who are important purchasers of their products. That is the rationale of the NAACP's "Fair Share" program, in which corporations are pressured not just to hire blacks but to contract with black firms for goods and services.

And it is one of the key points of the newly formed Congress of National Black Churches, Inc., a coalition of the seven largest black denominations. Bishop John Hurst Adams of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is founder and chairman of the congress.

"I asked myself a few questions," he says of the idea that came to him five years ago. "Where is black folk's power? Where is their biggest investment? Where is their greatest independence? The answers all pointed toward the black church. Yet, in my lifetime, there has been no forum in which the black church leadership could come together to deal with the common pain of black folk."

Bishop Adams acknowledges that his first priority is "the theological preparation of our ministry so we can provide the black Christian community with the best prepared ministry we can." But a second priority, the one that seems to have captured the imagination of the top church leadership, is black economics.

Black Americans have nearly $150 billion to spend a year, a hefty proportion of it controlled by black churches. "What we have in mind is to take those items on which the black church is already spending considerable money and organize them so that they contribute more to black development," Bishop Adams said in an interview. "For instance, we may spend as much as a billion a year on insurance. The question is, how can we mobilize that kind of expenditure in the best interest of the community? We are encouraging black churches to bank black -- and black bankers to worship black. There is some talk of a revolving fund to provide capital for black entrepreneurs. There are all kinds of possibilities. I'm not an economist; I just have an idea."

One churchman who is an economist, Dr. Virgil Wood, a Baptist minister who holds a PhD in economics from Harvard and who teaches at Northeastern University, has put his finger on a crucial problem.

"We have dollars, not an economy," he told a recent New York gathering of the coalition's leaders. "Our task today is to invent an economy."

For some, the idea goes even beyond that. "What these men are doing is hewing a philosophy of selfhood and survival," says the Rev. Robert Pruitt of Washington's Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. "We are no longer looking for charismatic leaders but to institutional leadership. We are speaking to the question of how we are going to live in a mean society that degrades and dehumanizes us. I see this coalition flexing its muscles politically, when the right candidate comes along. We are just beginning to realize that you cannot be free when all of your resources, your employment, is dependent on someone else. We have to learn to create jobs for our people, so that our money turns over more than once in our community. In Washington alone, the black churches deposit a million dollars a week. We have to learn to leverage that money, using it to strengthen black banks which, in turn, could strengthen black businesses.

"We are not interested in building a nation- within-a-nation; we are interested in building a community. We have been so busy identifying with other people that we have forgotten to identify with ourselves."