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Having spent a week recently as a participating fellow of the inaugural Princeton Theological Seminary Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI), I have come to the disheartening conclusion that the black church in America is in trouble.
In using the term “black church”, a term which I personally despise but will apply quite liberally in this article for the sake of establishing the aforementioned thesis, I’m referring not necessarily to black believers in Christ who are members of Christian churches whose congregations are comprised predominantly of black members, but of what is actually being taught or, in this case, not taught to those members from the pulpits of the churches they regularly attend.
To be sure, this is not your grandparent’s black church and perhaps not even your parent’s.
In this new age of heightened “black consciousness” (and it is “new” only in the sense that it is a regurgitated philosophy being introduced to a new generation of impressionable prospects) in which blacks, including professing born-again black Christians, are encouraged to and, consequently, have in fact become enamored and even obsessed with, the question of what it means to be “authentically black”, the black church has apparently forgotten that there is going to come a day when we will no longer exist as black persons in the physical or temporal sense, and when that time comes we will then be faced with the very real and unalterable question of what to do with this Jesus in whom we have professed to believe during our sojourn here on earth.
In that most defining of moments, even more so than on the day you were born, when you are standing alone in the presence of an omniscient, omnipotent, holy and righteous God, you will find yourself experiencing a consciousness that is more real than anything you ever experienced before, and that what you once referred to in nebulous, politically-correct terms as a “God consciousness”, will all of a sudden not a “consciousness” but a very tangible reality (Romans 14:12).
The undeniable reality of God was once a core pillar of the black church and, by extension, the black family, but not anymore. The foundational doctrines surrounding God’s divine nature and character, that is, that He is not only a God of love, mercy and grace (what are sometimes referred to as God’s positive attributes), but also a God of holiness, wrath and justice (or God’s negative attributes) which, back in the day, if you will, were heralded from the pulpits of black churches so thunderously and with such authority as to actually frighten a person into believing in Jesus (because they were so scared of going to hell) have been all but abandoned in exchange for a populist relativism that no longer views the Gospel as exclusively salvific for the soul, yet manages to keep the pews full and the offering plates overflowing.
It is no longer the unadulterated Gospel of Christ that is being preached in black churches today, but a “gospel of convenience and comfort”, which affords its congregants the flexibility to construct a personalized, extra-biblical view of God as measured against their own personal, albeit unbiblical, experience. Hence, the Word of God, the Bible, no longer is the definitive, authoritative source it once was in defining for black Christians who God is and how we are to live our lives before Him (and before one another). Instead, what has become more important than conveying “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) for the transformation of our hearts toward the likeness of and in obedience to Christ (Romans 12:1-2), are the racial and societal constructs and influences such as those proffered by black liberation theologian Dr. James H. Cone, because they are deemed to be more of a threat to our state of “authentic blackness” of which we’re so damned proud, you know, as if we had anything to do with being black to begin with.
But, I digress…
The primary reason the Bible has carried such weight throughout generations of the black diaspora is because it was taught as and, subsequently, believed by millions of our ancestors to be the definitive, unchanging, effectual and, yes, redemptive Word of God – the one true God – the God who is not only with us in our suffering but who, in His sovereign omnipotence, is powerful enough to deliver us from our suffering – if He so chooses (Daniel 3:17-18). To our ancestors, the Bible was unquestionably the authoritative spiritual template by which we were to model our lives. Why? Because the Word of God did exactly what it promised. Consider the words of Jupiter Hammon, a lifelong slave and the first African-American to publish a work of literature, who expressed,
“The Bible is the word of God and tells you what you must do to please God; it tells you how you may escape misery and be happy forever. If you see most people neglect the Bible, and many that can read never look into it, let it not harden you and make you think lightly of it and that it is a book of no worth. All those who are really good love the Bible and mediate on it day and night. In the Bible, God has told us everything it is necessary that we should know in order to be happy here and hereafter. The Bible is the mind and will of God to men.”
The Bible gave us hope and reoriented our ontological perspective of life through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. That’s pneumatology. But, see, for the most part, we don’t bother dealing with concepts like pneumatology or any other “ology” for that matter in the contemporary black church, because we’re more concerned with “feeling” the Spirit than learning who the Spirit is and how He operates relative to our progressive sanctification in Christ (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
As a Bishop in the AME Church, Daniel Alexander Payne required responsive reading of the Bible in every local church’s public meeting, believing that “the colored race, who had been oppressed for centuries through ignorance and superstition, might become intelligent, Christian, and powerful through the enlightening and sanctifying influences of the word of God.” Following the Bishop’s leadership, efforts were made to encourage education in the Scriptures for both men and women and to use such knowledge as the basis for reform and self-improvement among the masses of African-Americans.
Generally speaking, however, the theological paradigm of far too many black Christians is experiential, not doctrinal. As long as they are connected to a church where the “right” music is played, the “right” style of prayers are said, the “right” kind of preaching is offered and the “right” level of praise is expressed (“right” meaning that which leads me toward a feel-good experience), then, hey, we’re good to go. But if I don’t “experience” God in just the right way, then, there must be something wrong with the preaching, not me.
It is sad to think that most black Christians go to church in order to experience God rather than to truly know Him. And God can be known (Jeremiah 9:23-24; 2 Peter 3:18; John 17:3). To know God is to actually study Him and that requires theology not “feelology“. The word ‘theology’ literally means “the study of God”. Doctrines such as pneumatology, soteriology, Christology, theodicy, the nature of sin and so on, should not be limited only to seminary or divinity school students, but introduced in local black church congregations as well during Sunday morning sermons, Sunday School and Wednesday night services. But, on second thought, if that were to happen there would undoubtedly be accusations that the black church is simply “trying to be white”, as if aspiring to become more theologically informed about the nature of God is somehow race averse.
Of the myriad of problems within the black community today that are blamed on white people, the spiritually destitute condition of the black church is not one of them. Nope. Sorry, but, you can’t blame this one on George Zimmerman. Blacks are more educated and enlightened now than they’ve ever been – and that’s exactly the problem. We “know” so much so that we don’t need the God of our parents and grandparents anymore. I mean, why bother with that stodgy old antiquated God with all His rules and regulations when we can create one of our own who allows for “acceptance” of all people and behaviors regardless of the sin in one’s life because, after all, “God is a god of love”, right?
There is a lot of preaching going on in black churches today but very little, if any, teaching in sound doctrine. In fact, I would argue that black churches need fewer preachers and more theologians; men who are expository in conveying the Word of God in such a clear and concise way that those who hear the account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3), for example, are equipped with more than just an awareness that God created the universe in seven days, but how the Creation story and, conversely, the entire Old Testament helps us develop an accurate Christology of Jesus Christ. African-American theologian, Thabiti Anyabwile holds to a similar view in that,
“Pastors must be trained in sound doctrine and practice. This does not necessarily mean seminary training, but it should always include training in a local church learning from and serving alongside faithful pastors. As the church once again becomes the main training center for affirming and issuing the call to prospective pastors who labor to preach the entire counsel of God, revitalization of the church will occur. My prayer is that the Lord of lords and King of kings will be pleased to revive us, to turn today’s watered-down “faith” back into the enduring faith once for all delivered to the saints, and give us a holy zeal for His glory above all things.”
The state of the black family in America is a direct reflection of the state of the black church in America and vice-versa. All you need to do is hold up a mirror to one in order to discern the condition of the other.
And the image being reflected is not a pretty one. In fact, it is quite ugly indeed.
Think about it.
You may now resume your fixation with the George Zimmerman verdict.
Anyabwile, Thabiti M. 2007. The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2827-2