Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed?

That's a question I've been rolling over in my head recently. It's a big question. It's a troubling question for me on many levels, not the least of which is it's confrontation of my own faith or lack thereof. Asking "can" the church be reformed is tantamount in some respects to doubting God. Perhaps "will" is a better verb?

In any event, lots of folks are thinking these days that the church is in need of serious reform and has been for some time. That's a near universal sentiment whether you're on the theological conservative or progressive end of the spectrum. Almost everyone wants more of something to happen in the African-American church... more political involvement, more gospel-centeredness, more focus on health issues like the AIDS crisis, more faithfulness to biblical teaching regarding the church. And typically, if you want more of one thing (gospel-centeredness, for example) you are likely to want less of another (say, political involvement).

All of this really begs the question of what kind of reform one has in mind. And laced together with that question is some notion or assumption about what one should mean by the phrase "African-American church," especially when you attach the definite article "the" before it. At this point... angels are beginning to fear to tread this path!

And along with what kind of reform, I suppose there needs to be some argument for why reform; what's the problem(s) said reform needs to address. After all, how you define the problem will have much to do with what solutions appear feasible.

That there is at present very little consensus on what the problems are, what the African-American church should be, and then what reforms are needed... makes this a thorny issue. Al Sharpton's Black church is very different from Ken Jones' church which is very different from Tony Evans' church. We could go on. And if we did, we'd then be confronted with the question of where is leadership for reform going to come from? The perennial questions: where are we going and whose got the map?

This is the first in a series of reflections. The posts, Lord willing, will consider the question of reforming the African American church in particular. But because I believe that any reform of this nature must learn from other "branches" of the church, I do hope that non-African Americans will join in and contribute.

Let me end this post with a brief problem statement that I'll unpack in a future post(s), Lord willing. Put simply and bluntly, without nuance that will follow later, at the risk of offending many, but with the hope of provoking reflections and energy commensurate with the eternal life and death scale of this question:

The problem with "the African American church" (writ large) today is that by almost any historical definition she is not a true church.

Okay. That's a sweeping statement. It doesn't apply to all African-American churches by a long shot, but I think there's cause to think it may apply to most, otherwise the calls for reform wouldn't be as consistent and near universal as they are.

Let me end with what some might regard as an equally sweeping statement about "the African American church" when she was at her best. Put simply and bluntly, without nuance that will follow later, at the risk of offending many, but with the hope of provoking aspirations commensurate with the eternal life and death scale of this question:

"The African-American church" was once the home of the purest form of Christianity practiced on American soil and she can be the fulcrum of reform in not only the African-American Christian world but the larger Christian world as well.

Welcome to the discussion. Jump in with both feet!


bookpress said...

This post and the previous ones have been very interesting. I look forward to seeing more of your thoughts and insights on the topic(s). Any chance we are seeing the genesis of a new book?

ajcarter said...

My brother and my friend,
I do believe you have asked the question that may launch a thousand ships. As you know, I have more than a passing interest in your comments and I look forward to the "nuances" you plan to share. As you write, I will also try to comment on my blog about the same issue.

Great question. Let's see if we come up with some good answers.

Non nobis Domine

wwdunc said...

Brother Thabiti,

Your topic is extremely close to my heart, having grown up from the cradle in “the predominantly African-American church” (in fact, in the oldest predominantly African-American denomination, among predominantly African-American churches). I was ultimately ordained a minister of the gospel within this church tradition but voluntarily left, in part, because I saw my denomination as hopelessly corrupt and beyond recovery.

So, I look forward to seeing how you will proceed to answer this question. Personally, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it seems to me that perhaps these old denominations (both Caucasian and Black) need to topple because, having served their purpose in former generations, they have now drifted far from the biblical ideals of their founders and, therefore, cease to be true churches. On the other hand, I still see hints of the same racial bias and condescension of white Christians towards Blacks that prompted the creation of “the Black Church” in the first place (especially so, in my opinion, among white, conservative Christians). Feeling of white superiority would ultimately drive out Black people once again, forcing them to start a new set of Black churches (I hope my white Christian brothers and sisters will remember that white racism was the reason for the formation of “the Black Church” in the first place.).

I’m also interested in how you will answer this question because there is a sense, I think, in which the “problem” in the “predominantly African-American church” is a result of white American racism. Let me explain: Black churches were founded by people who, for the most part, were self-educated or barely educated because of their status in a racist society. They did what they could with what they had (and, by the grace of God, they accomplished a tremendous amount: witness all the churches and colleges and seminaries started by Black people in the second half of the 19th century). As Blacks began attending predominantly white schools and seminaries, it was the more “liberal” schools which accepted Blacks. The “Bible-believing” schools and seminaries were mostly racist; Blacks were not allowed. This situation existed well into the second half of the 20th century. The result (at least, as I experienced it in my old denomination) was two-fold: ministerial leadership in woeful need of adequate biblical and theological training, and ministerial leadership that is well-trained but liberal in theology—competent but unbelieving.

I think it would be ironic, indeed, if white conservative Christians, who had access to Bible-believing schools and seminaries, suggest that the Black Church is no longer the “true church” when these same schools and seminaries they attended would not allow Blacks to attend so that they could get solid, biblical training with which to build solid, biblical churches. It’s kind of like knocking someone down in the mud and then blaming them for being dirty.

Having said all this, I believe “the predominantly African-American church” can be reformed only if profound spiritual change—a Reformation—takes place in the hearts of those who hold the reigns of leadership in Black denominations. Barring that, the only solution I see is for God’s people to come out of those denominations and start new, Bible-based denominations or associations. But, unless white Christians get over their air of racial and theological superiority, Blacks might as well go it alone.

Wyeth Duncan

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the bold step -- to address what really needs to be addressed, and to dare to invite "outsiders." May the winds of a Great Awakening blow, with true charity and its fruits in the African-American Church. May we become a true church in essence, worship, preaching, leadership, mission, and community, and in the means by which we all get there, including persecution. May we be given grace.


Anonymous said...

Brother in Christ...If I'm dead to sin, dead to the things of this world and alive to Christ...With all due respect, I'm not going to set conditions by which I'll be able to love you...Your statement "But, unless white Christians get over their air of racial and theological superiority, Blacks might as well go it alone", says less about "whites" and more about you....Racial injustice is a terrible thing, people groups all over the world have suffered...Guess what? Welcome to a fallen race, the human race...
Is it white supremacy? Or maybe black inferiority?
I tell you from my heart, the only Supreme one is Jesus Christ, other than that we are all just filthy rags in need of a Savior...
chuck cobb

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I really think that "What the world needs now / is love, sweet love..." (Ignore the lyrics to the rest of the song.)

Many of us pale-hued brethren don't know quite where to start in terms of how to help out, after the obvious stuff like praying. Also, some of us are completely terrified of doing/saying racist stuff, and being tagged as a racist. It's much more comfortable to sit around in all-white surroundings and talk about how evil racism is than to risk being called prejudiced because of an insensitive remark. All this adds up to a strong disincentive to engage in personal relationships where we might fail. It's fear of man.

As a white dude, I want to see all the churches of God built up. But since I am passionate about particular aspects of God's character, like His using the weak things of the world to shame the strong (and so forth), I would love to see the "white" churches shamed into repentance by the Black church that the white churches once spurned and rejected.

I want to help. But how?

wwdunc said...

My brother, Chuck,

I hope I didn't offend you by simply being frank. This is how I honestly feel. I write out of what I've seen and observed - what I know about black people, and what I've learned about white people.

I don't see the two sides coming together unless whites truly deal with blacks as equals. For whatever it's worth, I think you should know my wife and I are members of a predominantly white church where we are active and where we are lovingly accepted. I have nothing but good to say about how we've been treated at our church (There are also a few other black families in our church).

Our church works for us because we've learned how to relate "cross-culturally". In other words, we've learned to relate to whites. I think this is because of our educational and work experiences. We've had lots of exposure to whites. Most of the whites I know don't know how to relate to blacks, they've had little exposure to blacks, they don't know how to talk "our language", etc. When blacks and whites come together in the church world, my observation is that it's always the blacks that do most of the accomodating and compromising - we adjust to white people.

The majority of blacks that I know would not be able to function under these circumstances. That's why I say that in any movement of Reformation, if whites don't change, it would be better for blacks to go it alone. I think I'm just being realistic.

Wyeth Duncan

Anonymous said...

Brother Wyeth,

My heart and wish would be able to return to a 1st century church..So understand that I'm not only seeing past a black person's injustice but I'm looking at reform from a pre-Catholic-Protestant viewpoint..
If we are going to be "Pure" in church, shouldn't we return to a purist mentality based on a biblical model? See Simeon (called the black man) from Acts...
Citizens of heaven will not be wringing hands over cultural differences and the ability to speak in ethnic nuance will they? Our language should be based on what God's definitions are...
Wyeth, I can never purport to understand or feel the residual suffering passed down from generations that had to endure the wickedness of men who held others in slavery. But I also will never know the residual pain of descendants of the Holocaust..I only know that the Gospel calls me to "press on" and look ahead to the prize which lay before me...
I can tell you that I love you and I am trying to do my part to be the hands and feet of Christ.
I see injustice(based on sin and it's darkness) and do you know what I do to address it??
I lead our youth to the inner city of Atlanta once a month to love and spread the joy of the Gospel with children who are in need of a hug, an encouraging word, a meal, fresh clothes..These kids are 100% black and I hurt for there lack of hope and for their broken hearts...I don't hurt for them because they are black. I didn't do a demographic study to see what ethnicity it would be that we minister to.. I simply knew that this area of town was the #1 precinct in ATL for crime, prostitution, drugs, murder and that it is a dreadful, dark place...And people need Jesus...So am I not pleasing the Lord?? Should I try to please man more? be it white, black or yellow???
Anyhow, I wish you the best in your walk and pray for me as a brother...that may never try to learn or change to a culture other than a Christian culture...
Peace and Grace,

Anonymous said...

Brother Duncan,

Do you have any good resources on how white brothers should learn to relate to black brothers and sisters? Some of us are just totally adrift on a sea of ignorance.

wwdunc said...

Brother Chuck,

I thank God for what you and others are doing to minister in inner-city Atlanta.

As to resources on relating cross-culturally with Blacks, I don't know of any (there may be some out there, but I don't know about them). I can only suggest what God has done for my wife and I: We've gotten to know and love people who were not like us. We consider my predominantly white church our "home". We've spent time with white people, been to their homes and eaten at their tables (and have had them at our home and our table). As a teacher, I've taught some of the children of people at our church. I've grown to know, trust and love our white brothers and sisters in Christ.

I think that's what it takes on this side of eternity, with all the "baggage" that comes from living in a fallen, racially-conscious world. We must spend time with those not like us and get to know them. I personally have prayed that God would help me to get past cultural baggage and past injustices and truly love whites, and God has done that.

I think what you're doing in the inner city is a good start.

Anonymous said...

According to the conservative form of Christianity that you love so much, your ancestors are godless heathens who are in hell. I'm not sure why you love conservative Christianity so much.

FellowElder said...

Thanks for commenting. In fact, many of my ancestors were "godless heathens who are in hell" as you put it. Moreover, some of my close relatives, never mind ancestors, are heathens who are in all likelihood experiencing a tormenting eternity. However, it's not "conservative Christianity" that claims this, it's Jesus in biblical Christianity that teaches this. If Christianity is true at all, and it is, then those who die outside of Christ in their sins are lost for eternity. God is just in all His ways. Let Him be true and every man a liar.