Monday, March 05, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 7

Well, it's time to revisit and complete this series of posts. Lord willing, in this post, I'll offer some preliminary thoughts or proposals to advancing reform. In tomorrow's post, D.V., I want to make a case for why the African-American church may be the fulcrum in a much larger reform movement.

Here's what I'm assuming in the strategies below:
A. We want churches committed to the faithful preaching of the gospel and the teaching of sound doctrine.
B. We want pastors who are well-suited for the task, who have a high view of pastoral ministry and the local church.
C. We are laboring intentionally for not just the African American church but the entire church, which means our focus though starting in one ethnic church is ultimately multi-ethnic.
D. We want to reform the church such that her practice is increasingly in line with the Word of God, her people increasingly reflecting the likeness of Christ, her mission is all nations in scope, and her witness vibrant and loving.

How do we go from where we are today to where we'd like to be? Here's a brief list of proposals--five P's of Reform: Pastors writing, Pastor training, Popular education, Partnerships, and Planting churches. I welcome everyone to jump in with thoughts--a lot of thought and exchange is needed on this issue.

1. Solid African-American pastors must write. This, I think, is the cornerstone of the reform strategy. Historically, African-American pastors have not been writing pastors. Lost to us, then, are volumes upon volumes of sermons and addresses that would be helpful in defining and defending the faith and shaping the church. In that void has stepped writing academics, almost all of whom are advancing a theologically and socially liberal agenda. They've created a certain zeitgeist that downplays the biblical gospel, elevates social and political concern, and reduces the local church to a service organization. All of this is wrapped in a rather selective reading of African-American history and provides the default understanding of the Black Church. Unless the Lord raises up pastors committed to writing (sermon manuscripts, essays, lectures, even blog posts) we won't have a legacy to leave following generations and we will not counter the prevailing message in any sustained, critical, and effective way. Right now, if you're in seminary somewhere and you want to read works by African-American authors, 75% or more of what's available to you will not be evangelical or Reformed. But if we can leave a written legacy of collected sermons by sound expositors, critical works engaging the issues of our day, sound pastoral instruction and reflection, commentaries, etc., we can define for subsequent generations what 'good preaching,' pastoral ministry, sound exegesis and interpretation, and the mission of the church looks like. That's done by writing. We must write.

2. We must take over pastoral training. This can happen in a couple of ways. First, we must recover the idea that it is the local church that trains pastors. The professionalization of the pastorate has meant that men are shipped off to the local HBCU divinity school or seminary and received a thorough-going liberal education. If theologically conservative, evangelical and Reformed pastors would reverse this trend, perhaps the easiest way to do so is to organize and operate internship and pastoral training programs housed at the local church. The advantages are numerous: 1. Cost would at least be comparable if not cheaper than sending the would-be pastor off to school; 2. could more easily train the non-traditional student (the 40 year old with a family to feed); 3. the training would occur in the practical setting of the local church, so folks could both learn and see the church at work; and 4. the instruction would be consistent with the theological distinctives of the local church. I understand that this would be more difficult in denominational settings with specific educational requirements. But those who have the lattitude to do this should consider it prayerfully. If we could organize 6-12 such churches around the country, we could slowly begin raising up a crop of pastors for succeeding generations. We should check out Capitol Hill's internship program, Bethlehem's pastors' institute, and Sovereign Grace's pastors' college--three models for equipping future generations.

In addition to the above, we need more solid pastors to consider teaching posts at area seminaries and universities. Not as alternatives to pastoral ministry, but as an extension of that ministry. Honestly, I need more faith to be able to imagine that historically black divinity schools and seminaries could experience the kind of resurgence we saw in the SBC a couple decades ago. I believe, and I'm asking the Lord to help my unbelief. But reform must also happen at these schools.

3. Popular education. We need to figure out a way to provide air cover for those soldiers on the ground laboring for reform. That "air cover" comes, I think, with popular education. How many of you reading this post came to a Reformed understanding of the faith through Ligonier Ministries--their radio broadcast or TableTalk magazine? My journey began there. Well, how does Ligonier see themselves? As providing education somewhere between Sunday school and seminary. In other words, it's a solid effort to reach the average Christian with educational resources that create the ambient atmosphere for growth and change. We need to do two things, I think. One, we need to figure out a way to get more Ligonier material and other material like it to our congregations. We don't have to replicate everything. Use the good stuff already out there; introduce our people to great teachers and their resources rather than letting the local Christian bookstore stock their shelves with the cotton candy that sells and passes as Christian literature these days. Two, on some issues really pressing to African-American churches, we've got to figure out a popular education and dissemination strategy for addressing those issues. The Miami Pastors' Conference and the annual conference in Chicago are good starts. We've got to promote these and add other opportunities (again, I think written is critical) for the average Christian to be exposed to reform issues.

4. Partnerships. We must partner with "non-Black churches" (I hate the label!) in the pursuit of reform. There are like-minded brethren across the ethnic spectrum that we should be locking arms with in this effort. My guess is there are not two better persons to talk seminary reform with than Al Mohler and Paige Patterson. Shame on us if we don't learn from them. I've already mentioned Piper, Dever, and C.J. as models for training pastors. We've got to beg, borrow, and steal from their work to speed along our efforts. The FUBU (for us, by us) mentality among African Americans is killing us! We need to recognize it as immature, proud and antithetical to the unity of the body of Christ. And after repenting of it, we need to get on with the gettin' on and learn from, accept resouces and help from, and trust others.

5. Plant churches. Here, I mean the establishment of more multi-ethnic churches that leave behind some of the baggage we're laboring under in historically ethnic churches. We need a both/and strategy. On the one hand, we should work for reform in predominantly African-American churches. And on the other, we should be unapologetic in the creation of new churches that better reflect the unity and diversity of the body of Christ across ethnic lines. We should oppose replicating in new churches the issues and problems we all currently lament.

And while we're on church planting, not every group that goes out from our churches should be seeking to start a new church. Part of our "church planting" strategy (perhaps the major part?) in countries like the U.S., should be sending teams from predominantly white, Asian, Black, or Hispanic churches to join already existing churches made up predominantly of some other ethnic group. We don't want to overwhelm another congregation with a mass of folks and cause them to feel "invaded" or "taken over." But, a slow trickle of folks to another congregation, integrating their lives there, diversifying the local body, contributing to the health of a congregation would be a good strategy in my mind.

Thoughts? Help? Partners?


pastor lance said...

hey brother elder,

wonderful thoughts that can be accomplished with a bit of effort, lots and lots of prayer and some pointed and sustained cooperation. a number of these thoughts are embodied in a new ministry a few of us are starting to promote reformed theology and practice within the black church and community.
Lord willing we can keep up the convo and perhaps have more time to explore this at twin lakes in april.
the Lord's peace

FellowElder said...

Bro. Lance,
Thanks for the comment. I'm a big fan of what's in teh works with the Council of Reforming Churches. Count me in! I'm looking forward to the time at Twin Lakes.

K. Elijah Layfield said...


This post is as close to my heart as it can get without my having written it myself. I long to labor for this type of vision in planting a church in Atlanta. If you ever have any free time, I'd love to e-mail you some of my burden to glean from your wisdom and insight.

Your unworthy brother in Christ,

TBI Apprentice, Bethlehem Baptist

Anonymous said...

'We are laboring intentionally for not just the African American church but the entire church, which means our focus though starting in one ethnic church is ultimately multi-ethnic.'

Amen to this and all of the above ... A question though, to Thabiti and to Pastor Lance if he has time. Do you have any thoughts on how I, who am a member in a largely homogenous church, in a very very mixed city, in how do I and my family encourage the leadership (and members) of such a church to look outside their own class and ethnicity to the multitude outside, particularly when they are enjoying success in reaching their own ?

Is the only answer to plant ?

To be fair they are making some efforts, but the majority of their work and resources are to people of a similar background to those already in the church.

And yes we are already on our knees !!

In His Service

Colin Thomas

Anonymous said...


I would like to thank you also for your blog post on this issue. I want to thank God also for the advice you gave me in an earlier post.

It is vital that we have written documentation of just current men who are laboring and preaching Christ.

You have provoked me to look at some past AA pastors and preachers and write some autobiographical sermons. Piper is a great resource I have found; as he has spoken on Owen, Wilberforce, etc. This is one of the ways I believe reform can occur.

In the end this is the advancement of God's great glory. So thank you.

Also can you provide information on the Council of Reforming Churches?


Thorne said...

Great comments.
I have a question - What do you mean by reform? Reform to what? I would love to hear you talk more about where you think the church needs reform and what it is about the present church that makes it necessary for reform.
I appreciate your thoughts.