Thursday, February 15, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 6

My good and faithful brother Eric asked me to put forward a bare-bones Christ-centered solution for disentangling "blackness" and "whiteness" from "church." If I understood his comments correctly, there is a good and natural question about how to jettison idolatrous notions of blackness and preserve a recognition of the imago dei in black folks. He asks: "what aspects of the image of God in browner skin tones will/should remain when "'black'ness" is Reformed?" A great question.

Trusting Eric's discernment, I've probably reached the point where I need to get past lament and offer some thoughts aimed more clearly at solution. And to do that, I want to be as "bare-bones" about it as I can. And to do that... let me simply ask and answer the question, "Ideally, what kind of church would I really, really like to belong to or pastor?"

Here are my answers in descending importance. "I would really, really like to belong to or pastor a church where":

1. The gospel of Jesus Christ is faithfully preached each Lord's Day and consistently applied to the Christian and non-Christian. I would love to belong to a church or pastor a church where the teachers "bring da Word," rightly divided, in season and out of season, where the Gospel is proclaimed and protected by leaders and members who search the Scripture.

2. People love radically. Across class, ethnic, language, political, citizenship status, gender, generational and every other natural division. A church of deep and wide fellowship between members, not just on Sundays but daily from house to house and in the workplace. Rejoicing together, mourning together, bearing with one another, receiving the weaker brothers, laying down liberties. A church where the watching world says, "Yep... those folks must be Jesus followers. Surely God sent Jesus to save the world. Look at how they love!"

3. The saints are called up into heaven or call heaven down in prayer. Put me in a church where the people of God call on the God of the people day and night with fervency, expectation, and joy.

4. People are growing and are concerned to help others grow. The fruit of the Spirit are evident and lasting. The brances are abiding in the True Vine. Bible knowledge increases, but so too does obedience to what the Bible teaches, and all without arrogance or being puffed up.

5. Clear, healthy, loving distinctions are kept between those professing faith in Christ and those not professing faith. I'd love to belong to a church that owns its responsibility for knowing the spiritual state of its members and for calling its members to live holy lives depending upon God's gracious aid.

6. Members are zealous in doing good. A church where members are first focused on the needs of the body and secondly the community. Where there are no limits to their generosity, compassion, and commitment to serving others. And the one good they do at all times is spread the Good News to every creature.

7. Family worship is modeled and practiced by all with families. Where Christianity is not a solo sport and nor is it a public, pay-per-view event but is practiced in homes when no one is watching but the children and the Lord. Where seeds are planted and watered by fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and God gives abundant increase in the conversion and discipleship of young people.

8. Missions is a high priority budgetarily and in individual personal decisions.

Okay... this is the church I'd love to join or pastor. Right about now, the old joke is ringing in my head. "If you find a perfect church, don't join it. Because if you do, it won't be perfect anymore." There are probably other things I'd consider in some measure, but I think this is the meat. And I think this would be a bare-bones, Christ-centered corporate body. Now, to return to Eric's question....

Nothing is said in this list about culture or ethnicity. How much of our cultural identity (black, white, Asian, etc.) needs to be put aside and how much retained? We need put aside everything that hinders the 8 items above, in my opinion. If these 8 things are more or less indicative of the agenda of Jesus in the Church, His body, and if anything associated with our identity hinders any of these eight things, then our "identity" has crossed a very wide and important line.

I receive a fair amount of email from good white brothers in the Lord asking, "How much should I be willing to do to accomodate non-white attenders and members in the church?" And I get an equal amount of mail from good black brothers in the Lord asking, "How much of my culture should I give up in order to join predominantly white churches?" (Notice how both questions arc in the same direction... blacks joining white churches. I almost never get these same questions from the vantage point of whites joining black churches).

The answer in both cases is the same, I think. Accomodate or give up as much as is necessary to live like Jesus in the church, as much as is necessary to live out these eight things (or some similar but better defined list).

Make no mistake. The cost of doing this is quite high--especially for ethnic minorities joining predominantly white churches (again, that's the direction most of this conversation takes. I assume there may be similar costs for white brethren joining predominantly black churches; I just don't have any real data). We might measure the costs on an increasing scale that looks something like this:
  • Mild discomfort at being "the only one."
  • A sense of alienation triggered by "foreign" or "white" music styles, sermon illustrations, or jokes
  • Loss of genuine fellowship and friendship with other Christians at the "white church"
  • Family mildly, half-jokingly questions your racial identity or loyalty to the community
  • Family and "friends" reject you as "too white"; loss of significant friendships and relationships in your native community and your "white church"
  • Troubled self-perception; internalized self-hatred as an ethnic minority
  • Isolation, misunderstanding, fear and in some cases depression
  • Parents watch their children experience pains of confused ethnic identity
These aren't strictly linear or stagewise. Not everyone experiences the same thing or the same degree of intensity. But these are some of the real costs.

My white brethren need to understand that these are real costs experienced by the brave who would live, love and labor together across ethnic lines, and that a staunch, uncritical adherence to "white" (misread, "neutral") cultural styles is inflicting unnecessary harm on their brown brethren. My black brethren need to trust God that the potential costs will be met (if not in this life time, then in glory) with staggering rewards and crowns of rejoicing. More of my white brethren need to experience these costs and take these risks of faith by joining predominantly black churches instead of driving by half a dozen to find the nice suburban white church. More of my black brethren need to actively seek non-blacks to be a part of their spiritual family. All of us need to risk as much as we can for a vision of a reformed church where all nations are welcomed and loved.

The cost is high, but great are the rewards if we by God's grace can live this way.

I've stayed away from discussing corporate worship (music styles and singing) in pretty much all the posts I've written on race and culture and the church. Eric politely called me on it :-) I've stayed away from it because (a) it's emotional and explosive for many, often leading to unproductive conversations, and (b) I don't think it's really the issue that matters most. In other words, if we really wanted to live like Jesus would have us live in the church, we'd figure something out. We wouldn't mind singing something from 16th century Europe or Latin America or a hymn in Swahili from East Africa (groups ranging from Selah to Donnie McClurkin have figured out how to do this) as long as it celebrated and exalted our one Jesus.

I'm musically illiterate, but I sing just about everything except that rock stuff (I don't get it... where's the beauty?). I've learned to enjoy most classical. Hymns of the Reformation are cool. Mahalia Jackson is still the queen. Fairfield Four... Gaithers... Mercy Me... Budy Jewell... Peter Tosh... Dinah Washington... Marian Anderson... Kathy Trocolli... Phillips, Craig and Dean... Albertina Walker... Kurt Carr. This is a partial list of the artists I'm looking at in my bookshelf right now. Half the folks aren't "native" to me, culturally speaking. But there's much I've learned to appreciate. And learning to appreciate is another way of saying learning to love. And perhaps that's what's missing in our churches when it comes to Christ-centered reform and questions of culture... we've not yet learned to love the way Jesus loves.

At the end of the day, my hunch is that our churches are not integrated--not because our cultural heritages are so intractable and music styles so divergent--but because we're not even trying. We have all the omnipotent aid of heaven to sustain us in our efforts and an omniscient wisdom to guide us in our thinking. There's really no excuse; we're complacent in our cultural enclaves. It's to the church's shame that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball before the church has integrated. It's to our shame that Brown v. Board integrated public schools before the churches have integrated. It's to our shame that the military beat us to it by several decades. It's to our shame that unregenerate men have made more progress on at least co-existing in the same space than the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ has made on loving across boundaries.

I want to join a church so deeply marked by those eight things above that cultural reforms in the church, if not easy, are at least considered an essential part of what it means to be the body of Christ. What parts of the imago dei in darker hue will remain? I suspect the parts that have nothing to do with hue... but with love, peace, reconciliation, and union with Jesus. I also suspect that will be costly.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very helpful discussion. I am finding it convicting and at the same time, invigorating. It seems that the tensions cut both ways - there are problems with being different, and problems with being the same. Perhaps one could state the principle this way: affirming our unity in the Body on things that we share in Christ; celebrating our own cultural and ethnic differences as filtered through the Kingdom's cultural lens. May we continue to refine and mold this Holy Culture!

Unrelatedly, Kathy Troccoli sure does take me back. Those were the days - "Everything Changes?" Whew. 1992 here I come!

Lance said...

interesting posts brother elder.

indeed these are challenging times ahead of us.

here are some issues I've mused on and would welcome your input.

1. is part of the 'black church' thang the notion that the 'black church' exists mainly to help black people make it in the face of an indifferent and sometimes hostile dominant culture? moreover if that's the case does that mean that the god the 'black church' serves is simply a tribal deity whose main interest and will is securing our temporal well-being? if that's the case than should we not proclaim the God of Scripture to black people even if it moves them from their historical heritage?

2.can we have an authentically Christ focused, based and saturated church culture that does not in some way bear the fingerprint of an existing human culture?

3. is asking black folks to give up the 'black church' and black church culture much like asking Americans to detangle their americaness from their expressions of evangelical faith?

4. can we expect a genuine, robust reformed movement within the black community if both blacks, whites, hispanics, asians and klingons refuse to join, support and work within reformed black churches? (btw the whites who've joined our fellowship seemed drawn by our twin convictions of theological and community focus)

5. finally, could you pleaaaaaaase send a brother at least a 60 degree day? it's freezing in philly and while I know that 80 in feb is unrealistic 60 would do nicely right about now.


FellowElder said...

Bro. Lance,
Good to hear from you! I'm praying for you in chilly Philly! I'm still thawing from the 17 below 0 welcome we received in Minneapolis last week! A brother was aaaasssshhhhhyyyyy!! :-)

Great questions. Some quick responses.

1. Yeah, I think so. Sometimes, but not necessarily. Always.

2. No. We are, after all, human beings. We'll have that in glory, I believe. But until then, we're still "kinsmen according to the flesh". But I think we need to wrestle with what's good and bad, essential and unessential about the fingerprints of culture that remain.

3. Yep. And very difficult in both cases.

4. Maybe... but it would certainly be limited without those joints supplying to the body. As the klingons would say: "Vlat Kablak pnach." Or, "Today is a good day to die."


Anonymous said...



(And I am grateful to be known as a friend of such a lover of Christ!)

Thank you and blessings!


Anonymous said...

(This is the same Anonymous as above.)

As I re-read the post, an idea sprang to mind. Perhaps one factor that makes "white" culture mostly invisible (and thus seem neutral) to white people like myself is no consciousness of a particular racial or ethnic identity. (This is not completely true, as evidenced by things like St. Patrick's Day and Count Pulaski Day in Illinois. But I digress.) If that is true, then perhaps one way to help detach white culture from the assumption of neutrality (though it is a risky strategy) is to recognize "whiteness" as just another culture to be redeemed and celebrated, alongside blackness. It's not as if it's currently neglected, but it should at least be recognized as such.

Just pondering.

Matt Davis said...

Came upon your site today via a link from a friend's blog. Very good discussion on a topic I am intrigued by. Many of my co-workers attend "black churches" and while I hesitate to cast judgement on their personal theology in the limited discussions I have about church with them, the tendency in general seems to lean toward the word of faith/Juanita Bynum extreme. I never know quite how to respond and make clear the theological differences and separate from that the cultural differences. At any rate, your posts reminded me of an article that appeared in the Christian Research Journal a couple years back, and I was able to find it at

ed elliott said...

I just finished reading all six parts of this post. The problem feels overwhelming.

I don’t know which is harder to solve: the theological problem or the social problem.

When my mind turns to solutions, my head spins. With all due respect (and sir I have enormous respect for you), your lamentations about Jackie Robinson, the public schools, the military, and the workplace “integrating” misses the point that when the baseball players, soldiers, school children, and co-workers go home, they go home to their respective white or black families, extended families, and friends. The natural man (per Galatians 5) is bent toward “factions” and the social breach between black and white is so entrenched in America that I can’t see a way through it, short of the Holy Spirit’s intervention, for which we still await.

You described the theological problem well. Sound, deep teaching is sorely needed.
My interest in the problems of a weak, black church began during a jail ministry. I spent four years ministering at the Alexandria, VA jail where, of course, 90% of the inmates are black. When I would ask a group of these men how many came up in the church, most would raise their hand. These men did not know the least fundamentals of the Christian faith. As they received teaching from the Chaplain and a train of volunteers like myself, many of the mens’ countenance would change as a knowledge of the Truth began to change them from the inside out

Having never been to a black church, I wondered what pervasive weakness of teaching caused these young men to completely miss the Gospel. So, I attended a half dozen black churches. They were all as you described – loud and emotional. Along with a moral critique of America and odd financial exhortations, what they had in common from the pulpit was this admonition to stop drinking, clubbing, and sleeping around. The irony was that all the young, black “Christians” I knew did all of those, then religiously attended church Sunday morning.

I do agree that the most heartening thing I’ve seen is churches like Bethlehem and Capitol Hill seeking black pastoral candidates. It strikes me that the wisest thing we can do is fiercely seek out men like Tony Evans and yourself and train them in our healthy churches and send them out into the black churches, which are like a foreign culture needing indigenous teachers and leaders.

Perhaps Southern Baptists should consider this a mission for their North American Mission Board, which has much money to invest. With NAMB money, we could create free internships to healthy churches. If the Southern Baptists really want to apologize for their sins against Black Americans, this could be a good place to start.