Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 8

The short answer is "yes."

The longer answer is: "but we can't start by assuming that what is popularly referred to as the 'Black church' is a true church by any historical definition. So, yes, but reforming her is closer to reviving her and may mean the end of the 'Black church' is we know her."

But having said all of that, the people of God have every reason to trust that He will beautify and reform His people, His church. And there are encouraging signs of reform already available to us.

Tyrannus Hall is a pastor development initiative launched by Elliott Greene. The effort is currently working in four cities across the United States. We should pray that others would create similar efforts and that much support would be given to this work.

The Council of Reforming Churches (site under development) is a new cooperative organization dedicated to networking like-minded people and resources in the cause of strengthening the local church. Many of you will know Anthony Carter who blogs at Non Nobis Domine and brothers Michael Leach and Lance Lewis. They are laboring together to launch this effort. Networks of reform-minded African-American pastors are rare, in my experience. There are lots of personal relationships, but these can only benefit from a more organized symposium of sharing and learning.

The growth of conferences with this concern and theme is encouraging. Ricky Armstrong's efforts with the Miami Pastors' Conference at Glendale Baptist Church and Lou Love's and New Life Church's annual conference in the Chicago area are two events that have been growing. In addition to these, I'm hopeful that more reform-minded African-Americans will participate in the host of conferences offered by our brethren in predominantly white organizations (see Challies' list of conferences).

This is a sampling of what I pray are early tremors in a seismic shift in the church world.

But why should anyone care that the African-American church be reformed?

There are many reasons I suppose. Folks will have varied interests. But here is the one that grips me.

In the first post, I suggested that at its best, African-American Christianity was perhaps the most complete expression of Christian discipleship in American history. We put it this way:

"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."

I really believe that bit about the "fulcrum of reform." Though it's rarely spoken, in many people's minds, the African-American church is the weakest member of the evangelical family. She's like that cousin who can't seem to stay out of trouble with the law, who lives a wanton life and always looks to be bailed out by the rest of the family.

I don't know if she is the weakest part of the family, but I do know that even in her weakness she is a powerful behemoth. The problem, in my mind, is she exercises that influence in all the wrong places and for all the wrong causes. If we could steer her back to the Gospel, back to biblical faithfulness, back to a concern for discipleship and growth... the landscape of American Christianity and culture could change quite dramatically.

In earlier posts, I've lamented the too-close connection between racial identity, culture and the church. I still think that's a problem to be addressed. But looking at the diamond from another vantage point, there is great opportunity here as well. African Americans, particularly Hip Hop and youth cultures, exert a lot of influence on the cultural scene in the U.S. and worldwide. While riding through a quiet street in southeast Asia a couple weeks ago, what did I see tagged on the wall of some villa? Grafitti styling of "G-Unit" and "50 Cent"! Even in the Middle East Hip Hop has pull!

The destiny of the wider church and world culture is more connected to the spiritual condition and outlook of teenage and 20-something young people in Brooklynn and Long Beach than we can imagine. Now, if we care about the "culture wars," especially those involving young people, if we're concerned about slowing the tide of materialism, violence, and sexual immorality, for example, we must be concerned about the state of the African American church. I can't think of a platform that has as much ready potential for engaging these issues and the cultural trendsetters than the African-American pulpit. But she has to do so from a position of biblical integrity and strength, not a pragmatic position that settles for "gettin' along" with the culture.

I think the benefits of reforming the African-American church are exponentially more than we can imagine. She is a great fulcrum for change... but she desperately needs fixing.


Anonymous said...

Excellent series Thabiti,
Thanks so much for writing them.
I was directed toward your blog via Phillip Fletcher's new blog (Christ Glory Alone).

I am glad to see you mention brother Michael Leach -- he doesn't know it yet but he is my mentor. He is doing excellent work at not just calling for Reform among the African-American Church but for the Church in its entirety.

He has inspired me to do work in this area & I have since conducted several audio discussions on the topic:

Black Calvinism
The Origins of Racism
Did God Make Them Black?

These are some great, honest discussions.

Michael Leach says that one of the keys to getting not just the African-American Church but the entire Church back to a Reformed perspective is more teaching on what it means to be "in covenant". This division between black & white Christians is no less an error than was the division between Jewish & Gentile Christians in the first-century. We need to realize Christians are to be identified not primarily by their ethnicity but by their confession of the faith -- by the "convenant" into which we all have been re-born.

Thanks again, I hope I can help.
In Christ alone,

Anonymous said...

"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."

On what grounds do you make this claim?

FellowElder said...

Thanks for dropping by and asking a really good question. It's a statement that shouldn't go uninspected.

I make the statement on a couple of grounds, if you'll allow me to speak in general (too general?) terms about "the African American church".

I'm making this comment about the church between the rise of independent black churches (1770s by most accounts) and 1830 (before the radicalization of the abolitionist movement). That church:
1. Held the gospel with a clear conscience;
2. Held a consistently (and universally) high anthropology which can't be said of the "white church" (again, generalizing);
3. Was quite active in missions to the Caribbean and Africa;
4. Practiced church discipline and membership pretty regularly; and
5. Worked out a strategy for social engagement from a gospel center as opposed to a later social gospel, etc.

Off the top of my head, those would be my reasons for stating that. I think other churches pretty much failed on 1 and 2 when it came to the African question, and all of the churches would drift on 3-5 beginning in the 1800s.

Hope that helps.