Since its inception, the Black Church has had to deal with a plethora of issues which has caused it to evolve into a unique entity in the United States of America. Furthermore, the Black Church has been the bedrock of those who were living in an oppressed condition. Moreover, with the uniqueness of the black church, there has also arisen a unique challenge in the black church. These challenges can be divided into three categories. Theologically, the church had to find identity within the context of the Holy Scripture. Politically, the church has had to give people a sense of opportunity in the midst of a society that did not offer much political leadership to our people. Educationally, the church has been the sole provider of knowledge for those who were not able to those who could not afford the privilege of attaining an education. These historic truths have played an enormous role in the life of the church. Furthermore, it is these same factors that are playing a role in the Black Church today. The question arises, how these concepts contribute to the growth, expansion, and productivity in the life of the Black Church. In this paper, the writer will use the term “black church” to refer to the general community of those in the African American community of believers who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This paper will take a brief look at the Black Church, and its contribution to the life and Experiences of the African American.
Before we take a brief survey of the different concepts found in the introductory paragraph, it is important that we say a word about the faith espoused by those in the African American culture. It is often heralded from the African American Pulpit that” Religion was/is the heart of the black community.” Dr. Colleen Birchett in her composition, Family Ties makes a statement of the existence of the church in the black community, “the black church has stood at the center of the black community, with arms wide open, whether it has been as the “invisible institution” in the “hush harbor” in the “wee “hours of the mornings during slavery…” (Birchett, 2006) Many of the saints talked about believe that it was the “ole time religion that brought them over.” When we discuss the concept of faith in the black community, it is not a mere abstract concept that has no relations to the practical reality. As we shall discuss, most of our theology was not really a systematic formula, but rather, it was something that was real and had enormous implications in our daily life. This report will examine the concepts that have helped to fashion the church to be a place of integrity in the urban community. Furthermore, the report will discuss the problem in the different fields of the church. It noteworthy that I mention, we do not expect to find an answer right now, but we begin to skim through possible solutions that shall be tested as providence will allow.
What is the black church? What do we believe about God? How does God interact with his people? Is God a mere transcendental being? Is he at work in this world? What does God have to say about our oppression & our oppressors? Such questions reflect our experiences on these western shores. Thus, the guiding principle in understanding this section is the awareness that most of our theological framework sprung from our cultural experiences in America. Most of our theological systems understood God as the divine rescuer from trouble. These presuppositions arose from the biblical record. There has been a large tendency for many fundamental evangelical to speak of the Black theology of Liberation as a belief that is nowhere valid in the canon of Scripture. However, as we shall see in this section, our theology grew out of our awareness of God who is present in our circumstance in life. Furthermore, our faith reinforced the values that were passed down through the generations of our history.
In order to discover a fundamental solutions to the problems that is transpiring in the Black Church Theologically, we must state the problem? I remember speaking to my Pastor one day, and he stated to me that the church has changed. This changed has not been positive. It seems that many of our younger generation are growing in a time where the idea of God seems to be so vague. The question that arises is simply, “what is the root of this problem?” In his scholarly book, The Sacred Art: Preaching and Theology in the African American tradition, theologian/scholar, Olin P. Moyd deals with the great influence of the black preacher in the proclamation of the Gospel, He suggest, “the preaching empowered an oppressed black people to run twice as fast even though they only covered half the distance of white Americans. This practical preaching also empowered an oppressed people to work twice as hard as white Americans to maintain any position that they might have achieved.” (p.82) The source of strength was found in the preaching of the preacher who preached “practical” messages that were supposed to benefits the hearers to grow and become more aggressive in their desire for: Social, Political, educational, and human rights. The religion of the Africans was enriched in messages that encouraged people to go beyond the potential and reach for their goal. To the contrary, there seems to be a greater number of preaching on prosperity & social Gospel among our Christian leaders. Could this be the reason for the decline in the spirituality and social ethics of the Black church? This could be the reason why many young men are so loss in social and spiritual sin. As time progress, it will be the goal of the writer to seek out more reasons for the decline in the theological soundness of the black church. However, it must be noted, that the church has always been an institution that dealt with the idea of practical theology. That is: theology that examined life from the perspective of the social environment. Furthermore, James Cone adds a greater confirms this source of Black Theology by stating “Black theology arose as an attempt to stem the tide of the irrelevance of Christianity by combining Christianity and blackness, Marin and Malcolm, black Church and black power, even though neither side thought it was possible.” (Cone, 1984) Thus, theology in the black Church has had an enormous impact on the way we live our lives in the urban community. This Theology allows for the affirmation of the sacredness of human personality.
Should the church involve itself in the political arena of the community? Many people have had differing opinions on Politics in the church. However, among the black church, there has never been a need to debate over the issue of whether the church should be involved in the political field. The church felt that it possessed prophetic commission to be at the edge of political developments. In fact, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, in their insightful work on the Black churcn, introduced to the readers certain dialectic models; one such model was the priestly and prophetic functions. They described this model in this way, “Priestly functions involve only those activities concerned with worship and maintaining the spiritual life of members; church mainetence activities are the major through. Prophetic functions refer to involvement in political concerns and activities in the wider community; classically, prophetic activity has meant pronouncing a radical word of God’s judgment. Such descriptive information emphasizes the missions of the church as it relates to its prophetic duties. Such factors were largely seen in this year’s election with the sermon by Dr. Jeremiah Wright from the Trinity United Church of Christ out of Chicago; with his message of doom of America and the racial attitudes toward the less fortunate. The black Church took upon themselves the role of the Old Testament prophets, who condemned the world for their inhuman treatment of the African American. Another factor to the political status of the church was simply that, “the influence of the black Church was such that various factions sought to influence the black vote through its leadership on the theory that the church functioned substantially as a political organization.” (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990) Thus, the Black church became a great source of political leadership in the community. This influence empowered black people to understand that they were not just second class citizens. To the contrary, the political agenda not only influenced the way people voted in their community, but this process also took place inside the church. The Lincoln & Mamiya observed again in their informative book. Thereafter, for close to a hundred years, from the failure of reconstruction until the passage of the voting Rights Act of 1965, the Black Church became the main area for black political activity. Excluded from the mainstream electoral process, black people voted and chose their leaders in their churches, selecting pastors, Bishops, trustees, deacons and deaconesses, the presidents of the conventions, women’s auxiliaries, and the like.” (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990) The authors concluded that this methodology of politics within the black church served as preparation for many leaders to assume position outside of the church. Of course, this was necessary during the context that the writers pointed out, but this has had some negative implcations on the church today. Because of this politcial method; the people have fel t it needful to assert their authority over those whom they placed in office. This has meant the mistreatment and even mishandling of good leaders in the Church. Therefore, the challenge to the black Church today is to rethink our politcal postion in the community and within the church. Furthermore, we should continue to serve as a prophetic voice like that of Bishop Henry McNeil turner of the A.M.E. Church, who “raised a considerable controversy thorugh his black nationlist liberation theology which began with the premise that “God is a Negro.” (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990) Though he is considered to be a controversal figure in history, his agenda moblized blacks to have a sense of pride in who they are as a people can never be written out of the history books. However, we must rethink how we do politctics inside the church.
We conclude our observation by looking at the Christian education department of the Church. This element has been important in shaping the biblcal identity of many black people. Alvin Lewis in his insightful book Strategies For Educating African American Adults comments, ‘After the end of slavery, Black people continued to pursue Christian education within their churches as well as in other social environments” (Lewis., 2006) This statement is vital to our understanding of the need of Christian education. As we noted in our theological discussion, there is a need to have a message that affirms who we are distinctlly. Robert A. Bennett, contributor to the African American religious Studies comments in his article Black experience and the Bible:
The black experience in America is not the Jewish –christian experience in ancient palestine. But as the tale of sorrows of a people awaiting delivereance, the Black narrative has a message consisent with the biblcal witness though not to be found in that witness. It is a testimony of its own, distinct from Scripture even as it would proclaim its word to us in biblical images and in the catogries of scriptural revelation. (Bennett, 1989)
Thus, to properly educate the African American Adult, one must understand that we are a people who have a presence in the Scripture, but that is not our only witness to our identifcation, but we have a distinct history that has helped to shape our faith through many difficutl circumstances. Thus, a proper structure should seek to educate African Americans about scriptural princples. Furthermore, Chritian edcuation should seek to share pracitcal princples for living in this society. I must further add, that there is a need to rethink the Christian Education methods in the urban community; because we are dealing with a new generation. Thus, we should discove different methods of educating our people in a religious way.
Thete is a great challenged being hurled at the Black Church in this Urban community, and we have obligation to meet the challenges that are being place upon our shoulders while remaining ture to the God that has chosen us. This essay is the foundaton to this study. As time goes on, it is the goal of the writer to continue to study the church, and to further expand the thought written in this paper. The key message that needs to be stated is that the black church is a unique entity that has the responsibility to minister to the community that they serve, and remain a light in the midst of a dark age.
Bennett, R. A. (1989). African American religous Studies . Black Experience and the Bible , 130. (G. Wilmore, Ed.) Durham & London: Duke Universitity Press.
Birchett, C. (2006). Family Ties: Restoring Unity in the African American Family. Chicago, illinois: Urban Ministries, Inc.
Cone, J. H. (1984). For My People: Black THeology and the Bllack Church. Maryknoll,, New York: Orbis Books.
Lewis, A. (2006). Strategies for Educating African American Adults. Chicago, Illinois: Urban Ministries, Inc.
Lincoln, C. E., & Mamiya, L. H. (1990). The Black Church in the African American Experinece. Durham and Londion: Duke University Press.
Moyd, O. P. (1995). The Sacred Art: Preaching and theology in the African American tradation. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.