THE BLACK CHURCH—“FOREVER IN THE PATH—‘REVISITED’”

In 2002 the then editor of the MESSAGE Magazine Dr. Ron C. Smith, requested that I write an article on the Black Church.  As we discussed the direction of the article, we decided that it should take a forward looking focus.  The thinking was to address the future challenges that the Black Church faced?  This was of particular concern to me because at the time I was serving as a Chaplain on the Campus of Andrews University.  Ministering to the millennial generation, along with raising two young adults made this an issue of concern that I faced constantly.  And so that is the direction of the article you about to read.  

I am placing the article in my blog by request and because of the recent exceptional PBS presentation on “The Black Church.” As I watched the programs I began to wonder what I had written some years before.  It was not until I actually found the article on my computer that I realized how old it was.  The piece titled, “FOREVER IN THE PATH: The Future of the Black Church,” was published as the lead article in the January|February 2003 MESSAGE Magazine Issue (ISSN 0026-023).  Remember, the article was written in 2002, so many of the references are relate to things that transpired almost 19 years ago.  But I believe you will find, as I did, that many of the same issues are still challenges that the Black Church faces today.  I hope you will enjoy it.

C. Eric Lincoln has said, “A good way to understand a people is to study their religion for religion is addressed to that most sacred schedule of values around which the expression and the meaning of life tends to coalesce.  Religion, seriously considered, is perhaps the best prism to cultural understanding.”[1]

            The study of the Black Church is critical in understanding the true character of Black people.  It was one of the first independent institutions organized by Africans in the Americas during and after slavery.  Born out of struggle and oppression, the Black church has been the vanguard for social, economic, political, emotional and spiritual liberation of African people.  It has produced the most eloquent and educated visionaries who advanced the movements of freedom for Black people throughout the centuries and gave them dignity when all other American voices were noticeably silent.  It has maintained its place at the center of the Black community as its only consistent advocate for justice and equality.  Alone, it has been willing to sing ‘the Lord’s song in a strange land.’

As we view the past with gratitude and wonder, we must ask ourselves, what does the future hold for this enduring institution.  What are the issues that are still left unanswered, and the mountains still left to climb?  What are the potential problems that will test the Black Church in the future?  I would like to suggest ten challenges that the Black church will have to face.

Political or PropheticHistorically the Black Church has maintained its political independence in order to fulfill its role as the moral conscience of society.  The Black Church never affiliated itself politically with one exclusive party, but rather took the position of affirming those issues that advanced the cause of the Black community.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to urge the Johnson administration to push legislation for public accommodations, voting rights and economic justice, while later criticizing it for its policies during the Vietnam War. 

When Jesse Jackson ran for the presidential nomination of the democratic party, his partisanship signaled a change in the relationship between the Black church and politics.  No longer would the church be seen as an independent voice, but rather an advocate for a particular political persuasion.  Today, ministers have run for public offices from the local to the national stage as democrats, republicans and independents.  Other Black Churches find themselves beholden to particular politicians by accepting state and federal funds. The potential threat of losing government aid, should they criticize the administration who funds them, has silenced some churches and caused others to become advocates for their political friends.  While we all were horrified by the events of September 11, very few prominent Black religious leaders have publicly questioned the Bush administrations rapid movement toward war with Iraq as King was willing to do with President Johnson.  And those who have, have sounded more political than prophetic.  How will this growing trend toward the political arena and partisanship impact the Black Church’s ability to maintain its prophetic role in society.

Generation Gap-Younger vs ElderThe recent controversy over the movie ‘Barber Shop’ dramatically demonstrated the strained relationship between the generations.  Many of the millennials (this generations youth), only recognized the name ‘Rosa Parks’ because of their familiarity with the rap song of that title performed by the Hip Hop rap group “Outkast.”  This disconnect with Black history and the Black struggle has caused tremendous concern from the parents and adults of this generation’s youth.  Historically the Black church has been at the forefront of reaching out to the younger generation and developing programs to meet their needs.  But this was done in an era when most youth were brought to church by parents, who were involved in the church themselves.  With the growing trend toward teen pregnancy and single parenthood, more of our youth are growing up unchurched and irreligious.  They have no knowledge of, or affiliation with today’s church or religion in general.  Some don’t even own “church clothes” and are unfamiliar with basic church liturgy or hymns which we once thought every Black person knew.  The absence of church role models is being filled by Hip-Hop and Gangsta Rap artists.  The deaths of Tupac and Biggie were as significant to many of our youth, as the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were to their parents.  How will the Black church face this growing generation gap?  What will the Black church do to reach young people where they are today?  Will the church need to embrace unconventional methods and rethink its approach in order to reach a growing generation of the unchurched and irreligious youth?     

Rich man, Poor manAndrew Hacker in his book, “Two Nations” begins with the premise that in America we are becoming two separate communities, one Black, one White, separate and unequal.  While this reality remains true between the races, it is becoming just as true within the Black race.  The expanding Black middle class, which makes up ½ of all Black households today, is moving further away from its poorer underclass brothers and sisters.  The recent CEO appointments of Richard Parsons-AOL Time Warner, Kenneth Chenault-American Express and Franklin Raines-Fannie Mae, highlight this new Black movement into the economic mainstream.  The Black church was once the incubator for most of the economic, educational and professional advancement in the Black community.  The opportunities created and developed through the gains of the civil rights movement have made that less of the case today.  The Black middle class have been the chief beneficiaries of these gains in the Black community and are beginning to flex their economic muscles.  Well to do Blacks who once were prevented from moving into moderately wealthy communities are now finding their options to be limitless.  Buppies are moving out of the hood into upwardly mobile suburban enclaves and distancing themselves from the poor neighborhoods of their parents.  Atlanta, Greater Washington D.C. and other large metropolitan areas are developing Black housing communities for the professional middle income Black family.  Black congregations are beginning to follow this Black suburbanization and several mega-churches have sprung up in these new buppy enclaves.  Will this growing economic separation within the Black community serve to further alienate us and cause greater distrust, jealousy and resentment?  Has the talented tenth forgotten the challenge of Dubois to uplift the community?           

Heaven Bound or Earth Ground-The latest growth trend in the Black community is the mega-church.  Mega-churches with memberships between 10,000-25,000 members are springing up all over Black America.  The mega-church with its multifaceted programs, businesses and in most case media ministry, has brought with it the temptation toward kingdom building on earth.  Some of these huge costly structures reside in poor, crumbling Black communities.  While some are involved in elevating the economic conditions of the communities that surround them, others are not. Will this tendency toward kingdom building detract from the greater good of community building?  Will celebrity swallow up the churches true mission of service?  Will this further exacerbate the indifference and alienation felt within the Black community between the haves and the have not’s?  What of the ethical issues of stewardship and accountability?  If the church is to represent Christ as community, how does the Black church reconcile this extravagant excess in a time of economic extremity.  Can the church truly justify the investment of resources needed to operate and maintain these multiplying mega-churches?

Mono or Multi-culturalism-When Tiger Woods declared himself ‘Cablinasian,’ he reflected a growing trend in the African American community toward multi-culturalism.  More people of multi-ethnic origins are rejecting the one drop rule in determining their ethnic identity.  The 2000 census saw an increase in the number of individuals who opted to identify themselves as multiracial instead of African American or some other race.  Interracial marriages, once a taboo, are now on the increase.  The music industry has capitalized on this growing tendency by combining unlikely and divergent music styles which appeal to today’s generation of music consumers.  Gospel music has also followed this trend by combining Hip-Hop, Rap and Contemporary Christian with Traditional Gospel.  What implications will this new trend toward multi-culturalism have for the future of the Black church?  How will this tendency impact the unique personality of the Black church and its way of expression?  Will the Black church need to expand its arms to embrace the idiosyncrasies of other cultures and heritages to remain current in an ever-changing ethnic landscape?  Will this multi-cultural change make the need for the Black church unnecessary in the future?  And if it does remain, will the Black church of today, recognize the church of tomorrow?  

Denominational or Non-denominationalThe Black church has always utilized various organizational forms while maintaining its unique identity.  The split of the AME and AME Zion churches and the various Baptist branches confirm the fluidity of the organizational structures that the Black church has been willing to embrace.  However, these changes have for the most part happened within the traditional denominational structure.  Today, more churches are opting for independence and are carving out their own set of doctrines, beliefs, sacraments and organizational structures.  Non-denominationalism appeals to the post-modern mind which tends to reject organizational affiliations which they view as being confining and restrictive.  How will old line Black denominations respond to this growing tendency toward organizational independence in the church?  How will this non-denominational tendency impact the future of denominationalism among Black churches?  

Conservative or Charismatic The rise of Neo-Pentecostalism also challenged the traditions of conservative Black churches.  Neo-Pentecostalism has contributed to phenomenal church growth in urban areas where many conservative mainstream churches were dying, unable to proselytize new younger members.  The AME church under the leadership of Dr. John Bryant Jr. and the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship led by its founder Paul S. Morton are examples of two mainstream conservative denominations who have embraced neo-Pentecostalism, resulting in exponential church growth.  The movement has also been effective in attracting a wider socio-economic base than its more conservative parent organizations whose appeal has generally been to the middle class and above.  They have been successful in building a membership that represents the broad socio-economic spectrum of the Black community.  They have also been successful in blending high spirituality with socio-political activism, much in the tradition of the Black church.  High emotionalism, spirited worship and speaking in tongues have accompanied neo-Pentecostalism.  Yet in most cases the move toward neo-Pentecostalism has come under fire from more traditional church members.  Lincoln and Mamiya observe, “The Charismatic movement represents a powerful potential for the revitalization of the…church, but it could also produce a serious schism with the whole church ending up as the loser…The challenge which neo-Pentecostalism poses…is a challenge most black churches must inevitably address.”[2]    How will traditional, conservative mainline Black congregations respond this new trend in the church?  Will the charismatic movement ultimately be to the churches benefit or detriment.

Monarchy or DemocracyBecause of the independence of the Black church, and its central position in every facet of black life, the single most important figure in the Black community was the minister.  Traditionally the Black preacher was the most eloquent and educated person in the community.  This gave him a unique position at the center of the community spiritually, socially, economically and educationally.  He was often seen as the leader and spokesperson of the black community.  This expansive power lent itself to a leadership style that could be described as a monarchy.  In many cases the Black preacher led the church with the power of an emperor, directing everyone and answering to no one.  While this leadership style may have served the church well in the past, today’s black laity is more educated and talented than ever before.  This reality will only increase in the future.  How will the church relate to its newly educated, multi-talented and upwardly mobile black laity?  What implications does this have for the leadership configuration of the Black church in the future?  

Gender IssuesBlack women have been and continue to be the backbone of the black church.  Today they make up between 66-80 percent of the church’s membership.  There are 2.5-3 females for every male member.  While there have always been female preachers in the church dating back to slavery, historically women have assumed a supportive role in the patriarchally dominated church.  Today more and more women are answering the divine call to ministry and are enrolling in seminaries across the nation.  While some denominations have been quick to fully embrace women in ministry, others have been hesitant to ordain women and allow them the full privileges to minister as their male counterparts.  Those who have been ordained and are pastoring congregations, find themselves limited administratively by the glass ceiling of gender.  How will the black church address this bias which continues to stymie women based solely upon their gender.

Media or MenThe introduction of technology has forever changed our understanding of how we view the church.  The media has created a new innovative way for the Black church to reach people who would never have stepped into their sanctuary.  It has made religion convenient and accessible to everyone.  Preachers, healers and teachers of the word have become celebrities overnight, and churchmen have become media icons.  Church events which once appealed only to a small specific audience, now sell out stadiums around the nation.  But is bigger better?  Does the impersonal nature of media ministry prevent the church from truly ministering to the needs of people?   Does the inaccessibility of today’s televangelist send the wrong message to humanity of an unapproachable God?  Jesus was always accessible to all people, thus the woman with the issue of blood was able to touch Him and find healing.  Is the church in danger of losing its human touch?  How will this disconnect be exacerbated by the technological advances of the future.         

There are several other challenges that the church will undoubtedly face.  The society of tomorrow will hardly resemble the communities of today.  How will the church face the uncertainties of the future?  By remembering the only indispensable entity for the church’s future success.  That indispensable element is not found in an idea, program or philosophy but instead is found in a person.  As long as Jesus Christ remains at the center of the Black church its future will be assured.  James Weldon Johnson put it best in the last stanza of the Negro National Anthem:

“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”    

Five ingredients that every church will need to face the future.

1. Christ-Act 4:12 says “Neither is there salvation in any other…”  Jesus must remain at the center of the church.  While cultural, worship styles and various approaches to ministry have their place, nothing must overshadow Jesus Christ.  He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  If the church desires to reach a generation of youth who believe in ‘keeping it real’ the most ‘real’ being the church can offer is Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ must be Lord. (Phil. 2:9-11)

2. Compassion/Charity-John 13:35 says By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one for another.  There is no substitute in the Church for love.  As children of God, it is what we owe every person (Rom. 13:8), and it has the ability to compensate for any of our shortcomings (1 Peter 4:8).  Love must be the motivating factor in our service to God (John 14:15) and to humanity (John 21:15-17).  While the gifts of healing, prophecy, apostleship and others have their place in the church, the greatest gift is love. (1 Cor. 13:13).

3. Creativity-While principles are constant, standards do change.  The church must be willing to be innovative without being inconsistent.  The Apostle Paul’s approach was to …“become all things to all men, that I might …save some.”(1 Cor.9:22).  Tradition is not sacred.  The church must be opened to new ideas and new approaches for reaching and ministering to people.

4. Collaboration-the Black church is not owned by any one group, or community.  The leaders of today must be ready and willing to pass the torch of leadership to the next generation.  Jesus chided His disciples when they tried to reprimand someone who healed in Jesus’ name, but was not following them.  He told them, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” Luke 9:50. Each generation must be allowed to reinvent the church to meet the challenges of its age.  Programs, procedures and protocols must never take precedence over people.  New wine must not be forced into old wine bottles (Matt. 9:17)

.5. Cooperative Leadership-The principle of administration espoused by Christ was servant leadership. (Matt. 23:10-12).  Spiritual gifts are based on the notion of cooperation and servanthood.  The Church is called the body (1 Cor.12:27), with Christ as its head (Eph. 4:15).   Paul’s use of the body to illustrate how the church should be organized and function, gives us a clear mandate to work collaboratively.  If the Black church of the future is to reach its full potential, it will need to embrace cooperative leadership.  


[1]C. Eric Lincoln & Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, p. xi

[2]Ibid p.388

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