Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 4

This weekend, I had the disquieting experience of attending a local church in my home town. It was "disquieting" for a number of reasons.

1. There was the blend of hope and history so characteristic of African-American churches. What's wrong with that? Well... at first glance, nothing. But... it was a humanistic hope and a selective history.

2. The sermon was full of truth and the preacher said some things that took real boldness and love. But... almost none of it had anything to do with his chosen text nor were Gospel links and implications drawn out. Good truth... no grounding.

3. The songs... well, it was a Black church! The songs were great. There was good theology in most of them, sung in the experiential key of black folks. I was moved. Then, the shoutin' began. One lady immediately in front of me; I placed a stiff arm in the small of her back and tucked my feet and toes under the pew. A few moments later a lady sitting next to my wife and youngest daughter lept from her seat. An older woman left the choir stand and began shouting. The pastor, a slight fellow with a big mouth (his self-description), tried to hold her up but was buried beneath her when she came down on him in piles! The most disquieting moment came in the midst of all this when my 7 year old daughter looked up at my wife and said, "It's a zoo in here!" We don't know where she got the phrase from; we don't like the overtones that she is oblivious to but we know all too well; we don't want her confused theologically or practically about what she saw and its appropriateness; we are concerned about her conception of black religious expression and identity; and, yet, the ethos feels so important, so essential to our experience.

It was a disquieting Sunday.

Perhaps it became a bit clearer for me that reforming the African American church isn't merely a matter of adopting a preaching technique or membership procedures. Those help, and I'd argue are essential. However, there's that something more. There is that something that leaps to the mind and the heart for most African Americans when you say "black church." There is an emotional memory and a certain longing for place and space that intertwines itself with the very definition of blackness itself--even when the person you're speaking with isn't a Christian or church attender.

In one sense, talk of reforming the Black church is or can be a call to re-evaluate the concept of "blackness" itself. In the secular literature, Debra Dickerson has called for just such a re-evaluation. Meanwhile, in the African-American religious literature, the concept of blackness is central, defining to the point of launching the school of Black Theology that makes an idol in black face. All the while, most black folks go on somewhere in the middle, thinking that our core notions of blackness are just fine. Don't get me wrong. I don't know many folks who aren't at least privately troubled by images of blackness in the latest rap video or prime time news. And I don't know many people who don't lament absentee fathers, youth under achievement and crime, and a host of other problems that get lumped together rightly or wrongly with "blackness."

But to lament the problematic conception of blackness where the Black church is concerned appears to me exponentially explosive... not just because of the likely reaction from the uncritical apologist of the Black church but more importantly because it conjures questions of identity that no one seems capable of resolving or addressing. "Blackness" and a certain expressive/emotional spiritually are siamese twins in the minds of most. You can't separate them without risking traumatic complications.

And yet... from my little beach side perch in the Caribbean... the surgery to separate historical notions of blackness (and all the memory and emotion it entails) from a much-needed contemporary call to church reform is critically urgent. Put another way... I left church Sunday thinking, "There's no way to reform the Black church without detangling the adjective 'Black' from the noun 'Church'." And I'm concerned that the surgical incision will cause the patient to convulse and hemorrhage in revolt against the procedure. It is quite possible that the patient has grown so accustomed to life with ailments that they'd rather the debilitating disease than the painful cure.

For the longest while I've been thinking that we need a new theological anthropology for our day, one that addresses the question of our humanity with a particular eye toward "race," culture, and the church. The historical formulations seem so inadequate to me. Our "natural" thinking seems wholly inadequate for fostering reform inside the church--black, white, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino.

Can the predominantly African-American church be reformed? Am I the only one that thinks this question is a little like asking, "Can 'blackness' be reformed?"

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is just your point restated, but Paul's answer from Galatians 6:14-16 is simple:

"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God."

Aye, there's the rub.

dave said...

Yes.Leave it up to the Lord, bro.

Shawn Abigail said...

I think every church needs to sit down about once every 5 years and ask themselves why they do what they do. There are lots of possible reasons:

Brother XYZ is famous and has a mega-church, and in his bestselling book he told us we should do it this way.

Sister ABC came up with an idea and got us all enthusiastic about it.

It’s in our Creed / Confession.

Your mileage may vary, but it works for us.

We’ve always done it this way.

We changed to show we’re not adverse to change.

Other Calvinists / Arminians will think poorly of us if we don’t do it this way.

The rich guy who pays the bills likes it this way.

All the Black / White churches do it this way.

This is what our denomination believes.


Now any of these influences could result in us doing the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons. The only reason for us to do what we do is because we are thoroughly convinced it is Biblical. Of course this should apply in all churches. Unfortunately it doesn’t apply in all that many.

Eric said...

Thabiti:

Help us think through reforming "'black'ness" by explaining how one would reform "whiteness" in the Reformed churches. That is, give us bare-bones Christ-centered worship (since that is what was critiqued to lead to the overall critque in #4) that is devoid of (depraved/idolatrous) aspects of culture. I am against the "zoo" too. But what aspects of the image of God in browner skin tones will/should remain when "'black'ness" is Reformed? I think the answer for Reformed "black" preaching is simpler to approach, for the art and science aspects of preaching are easy to distinguish, and if the science (exposition) can be given faithfully without being disturbed or supplanted by the art (style), then when can have r/Reformed "black" preaching. But corporate worship? The anthropological analysis will not be simple -- no less so than the "normative" vs "regulative" vs "Psalms only" debates largely held among the broader (white) Reformed community. Please help us think Christ-centeredly here. Thank you for tackling the tough-to-say stuff.

ECR

wwdunc said...

Brother Thabiti,

You wrote,

"There is an emotional memory and a certain longing for place and space that intertwines itself with the very definition of blackness itself."

How true that is! I have such warm memories of church when I was a young child, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel; they're merely fond memories of people now deceased, the music, folks "getting happy" - all very culturally "Black", but totally sentimental, not spiritual or biblical at all.

Then, you write,

"But to lament the problematic conception of blackness where the Black church is concerned appears to me exponentially explosive...because it conjures [up] questions of identity that no one seems capable of resolving or addressing. 'Blackness' and a certain expressive/emotional spiritual[ity] are siamese twins in the minds of most. You can't separate them without risking traumatic complications."

I can certainly identify with what you've described right here. I've sometimes feared (for lack of a better term) that certain theological/biblical convictions I've come to embrace, if taken to their logical conclusion, will lead me to reject the entire institution of the Black Church as I've always known it. To me, the thought of that feels like self-hatred, and causes me no small amount of inner conflict.

I'm glad you're helping some of us "refugees" from the Black Church work through these issues, and I appreciate the biblical distinctives you've laid out in Part 6 (I've already read ahead!).