Friday, February 09, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 3

Can the predominantly African-American church be reformed? If so, almost certainly it will require a revival of sound, biblical preaching.

The last post explored the assertion that by any historical definition of "true church" the African American church (writ large) is not one. At the top of the list of woes contributing to this situation was this critique:

The Word is not rightly preached in most African American churches. That is, the biblical Gospel is wholly absent in far too many churches. Forget about a commitment to exposition... topical rules the day and ironically, many African-American preachers sound like white plantation preachers (only it's not "slave don't steal massa's chicken," it's "black folks, you gotta vote democratic down the line or God wants you rich"). Different lyrics, same tired tune.

This is by no means an original observation. There is a trail of African Americans lamenting the woeful state of black preaching, including some of African America's greatest church statesmen.

For example, Bishop Daniel A. Payne, one of the most influential and tireless bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church described the preaching in his day this way:
First, then, the preaching of the Gospel. What do we understand by this? Various are the answers given. Some there are who believe it to consist in loud declamation and vociferous talking; some in whooping, stamping and beating the Bible or desk with their fists, and in cutting as many odd capers as a wild imagination can suggest; and some err so grievously on this subject as to think that he who hallooes the loudest and speaks the longest is the best preacher. Now all these crude ideas have their origin in our education, for we believe just what we have been taught. But if any man wishes to know what is preaching the Gospel, let him not ask of mere mortal man, but let him find his answer in the teachings of Him who spake, and whose wisdom is without mixture of error. Hear him in the matchless sermon on the Mount, teaching us to find blessedness in poverty and meekness, in peace and righteousness, in mercy and purity, and to find exceeding great joy in persecution for righteousness sake. See with what divine skill he expounds the moral law, and carries its application beyond the outward and visible conduct into the interior and invisible workings of the human soul. Behold Him either in private houses or on the sea shore, or in the temple, by parables of the most striking beauty and simplicity, unfolding the great principles upon which the moral government of the universe is based, enlightening their understandings and warming their hearts with the sunbeams of eternal truth. This is preaching—preaching of the highest kind. We will do well to imitate it.... ("Who Is Sufficient for These Things?", 1852).

Payne's assessment of African-American preaching prior to Emancipation was that it was largely a product of education (read, miseducation) and full of "loud declamation and vociferous talking." He is, in effect, calling for preaching that takes Jesus as the model, that is preaching that is expositional, doctrinal and application oriented.

Dr. Frances J. Grimke, for 55 years the pastor of the prominent 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and long-time activist in the cause of racial equality, assessed the African-American pulpit of his day in these words: "If we turn now and examine carefully the character of the pulpit ministrations of the Afro-American pulpit, its three leading characteristics will be found to be emotionalism, levity or frivolity, and a greed for money." Does that ring a bell for us?

Grimke went on at length to describe the emotionalism, frivolity and greed he saw. Consider this long description of emotionalism and its effects (I'd highly commend the entire sermon, "The Afro-American Pulpit in Relation to Race Elevation," 1892):

First, it is emotion. The aim seems to be to get up an excitement, to arouse the feelings, to create an audible outburst or emotion, or, in the popular phraseology, to get up a shout to make people “happy.” In many churches where this result is not realized, where the minister is unable by sheer force of lung power, and strength of imagination, to produce this state of commotion, he is looked upon as a failure. Even where there is an attempt to instruct, in the great majority of cases this idea is almost sure to assert itself, and become the dominant one.Now, where emotionalism prevails, three things will be found to be true: First, there will be little of no instruction from the pulpit. The minister whose sole or chief aim is to get up a shout, to excite animal spirits, will not give much time to the study of God’s word, or to the instruction of the people in the practical duties of

Second: Where emotionalism prevails there will be a low state of spirituality among the people, and necessarily so. Christian character is not built up in that way. It is a growth, and comes from the knowledge and practice of Christian principles. If the body is to grow, it must be fed, and fed on wholesome and nutritious food. And the same is true of the soul; and that food is God’s Word, line upon line, and precept upon precept. There is no other way of getting up out of the bogs and malarious atmosphere of selfishness and pride, and ill-will and hatred, and the many things which degrade and brutalize into the higher regions of love and purity and obedience and felicity, except by the assimilation of Christian principles, except by holy and loving obedience to the will of God. We cannot get up there on the wings of emotion; we cannot shout ourselves up to a high Christian manhood and womanhood any more than we can shout ourselves into Heaven. We must grow up to it. And until this fact is distinctly understood, and fully appreciated, and allowed to have its weight in out pulpit ministrations, the plane of spirituality upon which the masses of our people move will continue low. Shouting is not religion. The ability to make a noise is no test of Christian character. The noisiest Christians are not the most saintly; those who shout the most vigorously are not always the most exemplary in character and conduct.

Third: Where emotionalism prevails the underlying conception of religion will be found to be false, pernicious, and degrading. The conception which James gives us of religion is this: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this—To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” The conception which Paul gives is,—“Covet earnestly the best gifts, and yet show I you a more excellent way.” “Charity suffereth long and is kind,” etc. The conception which Micah gives is: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). The conception which the blessed Lord himself gives is: “When I was an hungered, ye gave me meat; thirsty, ye gave me drink; sick and in prison, and ye visited me” (Matt. 25:35), etc. Running through all these statements of principles, the dominant, controlling idea is character. In emotionalism, however, this element is entirely overlooked, or sinks almost entirely out of sight. The measure of one’s piety is made to depend upon the strength and the amount of his emotions. Thus the true ideal is shut out from view, the standard set up is a false one, and the result is not only stagnation but degradation. The ideal of religion which is held up in our pulpits, and which is cherished by the people, must be in harmony with the facts as revealed in the Word of God, if it is to have an elevating and ennobling effect upon their everyday life.

Ouch. Just scanning the popular preaching of our day, the preaching that most regard as "good Black preaching," I'd have to say we've not made much progress since Payne or Grimke. I'd have to conclude that emotionalism, frivolity, and greed are still ravaging too many pulpits.

If reform is to happen, we need men in the pulpits of our churches who are:
  • Committed to bring the Word of God to the people of God as the only manna by which they must be nourished. Teaching is needed, not entertainment. God's Word is needed, not pop psychology and the latest business fads. Now this will mean distinguishing between style and substance (and casting off "style"); faith that God works in the world by His Word; a life of serious study; reverence before God knowing that those who teach receive a stricter judgment; and great love for the people of God such that we want to see them grow up into Christ in all things. What an abuse it is to take the Word of God out of the mouths of God's people. What an unloving and hateful practice.
  • Committed to exposition. Exposition of the Scriptures should be the primary form of that teaching. Personally, I tend to think we need men to teach through entire books of the Bible. Having said that, though, even topical series should be comprised of solid expositions. We need men to open the meaning of God's Word and convey that meaning as the main point of their sermons week after week.
  • Doctrinally sound. Most revivals in church history have accompanied doctrinally rich preaching. Moreover, emotions rise and fall, so preaching to emotions or felt needs inevitably leave people "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine." We need preachers rooted in solid systematic and biblical theologies, and who bring those categories to their preaching and to their people.
  • Evangelistic preaching. In every sermon, we need men to preach the gospel. We may preach more than the gospel, but we should never preach less than the gospel. The Good News of Jesus Christ must be prominent, clear, penetratingly applied, and driven from the text. If, as Jesus taught, all of Scripture points to Him, then all of our preaching should point to Him whether in the OT or the NT, and specifically point to Him as the only fulfillment of God's promises and man's need for a Savior.
Apart from the recovery of expositional, doctrinally-rich and sound, evangelistic preaching, reform and revival are impossible in the predominantly African-American church--in any church.


Justin Robinson said...

I have enjoyed these three posts very much and can relate the majority of this need for reform in my experiences as an itinerant pastor in a rural area. The majority of the small rural churches in my area have a very familiar vein with the type of church you and these great pastors are fighting throughout history to reveal the true, "pure church" to. Thank you for this three post series and for the book that I am eager to read after it is available.

Shawn Abigail said...

I especially appreciated the last three words of your posting. What you say can apply to any local church, any denomination, or any group of Christians defined by race or culture. The details may differ, but the problem remains. In some churches powerful preaching is measured by screaming and thumping the pulpit. In others by telling jokes and interesting stories. Yes, the details differ, but the problem remains... a lack of respect for the Biblical way of viewing reality. If we viewed reality in a Biblical way, we would understand that self-control is a sign of spiritual maturity, not the ability to scream into a microphone. Likewise the importance of careful Bible teaching rather than man-centered and man-glorifying stories.

wwdunc said...

Absolutely never, in the 35 years I was in the A.M.E. Church, did I hear anyone talk about what Daniel Payne believed, relative to Scripture. Anything I ever heard about Payne was about his leadership of Wilberforce University and his advocacy for Black people. The closest I ever heard about Payne's biblical beliefs was criticism, because he believed ministers should be men of exemplary character (one writer called him puritanical to the Nth degree), and because he tried to discourage emotionalism and primitive worship practices like the "ring shout", feeling such practices beneath the worship of the one true God.

My attention was particularly arrested by the Grimke quote. It is profoundly sobering to consider this quote in light of the current state of the "Black Church". And I must question myself: Have I ever been guilty of merely playing to the emotions in my preaching or music leading? I'll have to think long and hard about what Grimke said.

Question: Is the sermon or talk from which you obtained the Payne quote in print anywhere?

FellowElder said...

What gets remembered and promoted once you're dead is interesting, isn't it? The same is often done with Grimke--his work on social issues is always touted but his view of Scripture and the ministry is downplayed or ignored.

The Payne address and quote can be found in Charles Killian (Ed.), Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne: Sermons and Addresses, 1853-1891. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Scotty J. Williams said...

Brother you are totally on the mark with this stuff. Like the others who have commented I too grew up in the Black church; I also ended up being suckered into the Word of Faith heresy for six years. I appreciate your critique for it is similar to the one I have made about the Black Church over the years. Many thanks for quoting Bishop Payne because he gets a bad rapp in the Black church for his views. I recently had the privilege of doing a lecture series on church history at a National Baptist Church in Minneapolis and I brought up Bishop Payne's views on the ring shout. After talking about this I got a lot of negative comments save the comment of one man who seemed to favor Bishop Payne. God Bless you my brother on your deep and good work in reforming the Black church. Semper Reformanda!