Monday, September 7, 2015 12:11 PM

You Can't Turn Me Away from the Black Church

Monday, September 7, 2015 12:11 PM
Monday, September 7, 2015 12:11 PM

It just happened again. There he sat in my office looking for answers. He is a young twenty-something black male freshly graduated from a predominantly white evangelical Bible college. He is also an aspiring theologian, pastor, and churchman. He grew up in the hood and came to faith in a black church. But before college was over he felt a strange disorientation, a tug to disavow the black church.


His story is not so uncommon. More of his tribe is increasing each passing spring semester at graduation. My guess is some of you reading this can identify with him.


He had been asking to meet for a while. This time he told me up front. He wanted to talk about some of my research on the health of black preaching in late 20th century Chicago. Now anybody who has interest in my narrowly themed dissertation becomes an eager companion. I thought we were going to talk about Parson and narrative discourse in preaching. I prepared to tell him about how the black Chicago neighborhoods became black ghettos through governmental experiments like “The Neighborhood Composition Rule.” I wanted to tell him about how black pastors bravely fought systemic injustice; recognizing it as a responsibility of the righteousness they preached. It turns out his conversation was much deeper.


While studying theology at his small Bible college, he started to run up against the not so subtle jabs aimed at the black church. His professors and his peers wondered why someone so bright would return to the ‘simplistic, unsophisticated’ preaching of the black church. Far be it from them to name it heresy, but some of them came close. Black churches, he was told, don’t disciple well. Their preachers lack integrity, and their theology is overrun by prosperity. He started to believe it. Before he knew it, he was a critic of the black church in which he got saved. And worse, he condemned the same preaching through which he met Christ.


I’m not exactly sure when it happened or how, but the movement is gaining steam. It is dark, dangerous, and disparaging. Something is afoot. It is drawing young black aspiring pastors, theologians and churchmen away from the black church. I felt compelled to say something. So I tweeted. I leveled my sincere commendation: Don’t let your newfound training turn you away from the black church. One brother replied asking I say more. Here it is.


I want to situate a bit of context and then propose 3 reasons why more young black students should not leave the historic black church.


By the grace of God alone I serve a growing, vibrant black church in Chicago. I am young, sometimes restless but not reformed. At Progressive we are doing the hard work of church revitalization. We are developing ministry that neither alienates the elderly-traditional crowd nor ignores the younger-incoming crowd. For 96 years our church has demonstrated its passion to disciple its membership. More recently, we have turned our focus outward and its bearing fruit. A hallmark at Progressive is the decidedly expositional, Spirit-filled preaching. We are a local, thriving black church in the hood. And we are not an anomaly.


I received my formal theological training at a predominantly white evangelical divinity school in the Chicago suburbs. It had its cultural misnomers, but it held to the same Bible I came to know and love in my black church back home. Not soon after orientation I noticed that some of the ‘brothers’ were not going to black churches. That was no requirement for being a black man in America, but I found it strange that many of them preferred White churches to Black ones. Some of them felt like Black professors were inferior to the White professors and a few made fun of books published by black preachers. They couldn’t learn from black preachers or professors. You can only imagine my discomfiture at their depreciation of the heritage that so nurtured and nourished the faith of countless generations – including my own!


These days I run into an increasing number of young black aspiring pastors who loathe the black church. Many of them skip black churches in favor of what one Illinois’ pastor calls “Gospel Gentrification.” Turned off at the site of old Deacons and trustees, they would rather plant a church in the inner city than to candidate and pastor one already established. And I understand why. Church planting is a biblical imperative, but the motive for planting I’m describing is a mixture of arrogance and abhorrence combined with the mandate of the New Testament.


Lest I be accused of black church tribalism I honestly recognize some glaring weaknesses of the black church in America, especially my own. For instance, one reason why a growing number of young men are opting out of the historic black church is because they cannot find the financial and denominational support to plant within the black church. There are notable exceptions of course. Dr. Eric Mason is one of them. He is turning a tide in Philadelphia by helping young black men locate resources to plant without denouncing the black church in the process. He is not alone, but his type ought to increase.


Another challenge is the arduous process of church revitalization. This is no easy task. The patience, fortitude, and stamina required to overcome traditional encumbrances is painful to acquire. And yet there is no other way to turn the old ship. I recognize that not everyone is wired for this work and that some of these challenges ought not be. However, those whose personalities don’t lend to such revitalization ought not demean a church they are unwilling to help. These are the days when we miss Bishop College. As her last class reaches their mid-50’s the black church in America has no finer replacement to train her succeeding generation of pastors. There is something about the work Bishop College did that is now left undone. Think about it. From one institution came the likes of James Meeks, Ralph West, Jeffrey Johnson, Major Jemison, E. K. Bailey, Karry Wesley, Melvin Wade and a great many more. Where can young, black, aspiring pastor-theologians go? It seems like the paths lead in diverging directions.


Schools like Bishop College handled the issues of orthodoxy, social engagement, and disciple making in the context of the black church. These days it seems like you have to pick one of those issues to the exclusion of the others before deciding on a school for formal training. And this is hurting young black aspiring pastors. Yet in the face of these I want to give you 3 reasons why you should not turn away from the historic black church.


You likely need her more than she needs you. (And I’d hate for you to find out why the hard way.)

The savior complex is tempting, but it’s dangerously presumptive. Some of the young aspirants I meet leave the black church because she didn’t compare to their newfound non-black experience. Their mission is to show the black church how to do church right. They say, “Her theology is not robust. Her message is too ‘socially conscious.’ Her leaders lack moral integrity.” And yet they miss these same tendencies in non-black Christian churches. Don’t assume that any practice of theology is void of its own deficient cultural influences. Everybody from Jonathan Edwards to John Piper processes theology through their own cultural privilege or lack thereof. Gardner Taylor, William Augustus Jones, Charles Adams, Benjamin Elijah Mays and many others did ministry, preaching and theology in ways wonderfully informed by their black cultural experience. The American church is better because of them! Seek a balance in your training.

Not finding a biblically faithful black pastor of integrity is an excuse. We abound! In Illinois I served 3 godly men over 15 years who modeled discipline and discipleship for me. They are faithful to their wives, preached right doctrine and led the church in passionate worship… and each of them are socially active in the civic affairs of their city.

I want to propose that you have more to learn from the Black Church than she does from you. Sadly, one of our well-known black academicians at a celebrated East Coast Christian College learned that lesson the hard way. He recently shared with me how those who divorce the black church for silkier pastures oft come to discover that they are not as welcome as they hoped in their newfound territory.


Her historic theological heritage reflects the ethics and practice of Christian Orthodoxy

From Slavery to Reconstruction, from Jim Crow to Donald Trump the black church has trained her members to live biblically and hope-fully in a foreign land. Her preaching has been faithfully biblical. The miseducation of the neo-evangelical black student is broad. Black students these days don't learn names like Charles Adams, James Perkins, E. K. Bailey, A. Louis Patterson, E. V. Hill and C. L. Franklin. Some in the academy make black preachers to be mere entertainers, jesters of the cultural court. This is both dishonest and irresponsible.

There is this implicit abhorrence for social application of the gospel in the critique of the black church. The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel. My generation will have to give an account for our strange silence in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is the first time that the black pulpit has not been at the forefront of the moral conversation of systemic injustice against black people in America. The witness of Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, M. K. Curry, Jr., Dr. Martin King, Jr. and countless others is that they edified the church through the exposition of biblical propositions. They taught America to live according to our ‘professed’ Christian ideals.


If you think the black church is full of heresy and prosperity, stop going to church on TV

Contrary to popular belief, Black churches did not originate nor promulgate the prosperity gospel. Of course there are black churches that espouse a prosperity gospel. This is without question. And its wrong. But it is a dishonest assertion to blame that tragedy on black churches and not decry its proliferation in non-black theological traditions. When I hear the criticism of the black church prosperity preaching the names of the preachers are almost always those with national television ministries, as if they are solely representative of the black church as a whole. I wonder do these people know of black pastors in the trenches without famous names.

We should hear more about the ministries of young, faithful black pastors like Romell Williams, Phillip Pointer, Sr., George Parks, Jr., Carlos Kelley, Adron Robinson, George Hurtt, Terry Brown, Blake Wilson, Watson Jones III, Bryan Carter, Shaun Marshall, Walter Carter and Kelon Duke. These are men who preach the bible responsibly; who handle Christian theology appropriately and lead growing black churches. Be cautious of those who tell you that Black churches are somehow inferior to white ones. They are simply uninformed or ill-intentioned.


More of us should care about this subject. It is critical to the welfare of the church at large. I think we need a bigger conversation; one that involves those who are concerned about the coming generations of black pastors in America. With Millennials exiting churches around our nation, we need to strategize about how to best equip them for meaningful service in broken communities. I am not inviting an argument, but rather a constructive conversation. Much of black America lives in the tension of greater societal upheaval. The black church has historically been the voice of Biblical conscience and transformation. My concern is that her next class of pastors need a more well-rounded education. We need Christian leaders and professors to encourage our young to humbly serve the black church.


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