Thursday, February 01, 2007

Reforming the Black Church: Institution or Individual?

"The Black church in America is an enigma. It's an institution who existence is unlikely and unpredictable. How could African-American men and women embrace the same Christ that their oppressors professed? Despite the worst intentions of many and because of the best intentions of others, the Black church, as an institution, is arguably the most indomitable in American history" (On Being Black and Reformed, p. 46).

Those words grew out of the understanding that the predominantly white church and predominantly black church in America are inextricably tied together. Without the evangelistic efforts (good) and the sinful prejudices (evil) of the White church in American we would not have a "black church." It could be argued that there would be not African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church if the Methodist had not been racist in their practices. There would be no National Baptist Convention (NBC) or even Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is their white sister organizations had been operating in brotherly love and kingdom principled. But alas, they were not and thus we have a segregated church. The pasts of white and black Christians is tied together. And I believe so are their futures. This is why I believe to ask the question of reform in the one is the beg the question of reform in the other.

Now, in his second post on Can the Predominantly African-American Church be Reformed, our brother and friend Thabiti has written some hard and true indictments of the black church. Without a doubt, his assessment will be met with some opposition, and yet his thoughts do not come out of mid air, but are the result of experiencing these errors and examining them in the light of the Scriptures. When I read Thabiti's assessment I find myself agreeing with him, even though something inside me did not want to. Being a son of the black church, I love my heritage, and yet I know all too well the errors that have plagued our churches and Thabiti have hit many them square on. And yet, I remain hopeful, not because I think it is possible to Reform the predominantly African-American church but because I believe Reformation is possible and is happening in Black Christianity.

The Black Church in America is institutionalized, make no mistake about it. What I mean by that is that it has been long established, it has its traditions (good and bad - though mostly bad on the theological side) and has found success in accomplishing many of its goals. It is a self-sufficient entity and therefore, while it may be willing to adjust from within, it is not likely to make any sweeping changes because of theological pressures from without. Thus, to look on it at face value it may appear that reforming the black church in America is not likely. However, I would suggest that reforming the predominantly black church should not be the goal. The goal should be to bring Reformed Christianity to black Christians. If I thought the goal should be the reforming of the institutionalized black church (e.g. the NBC, AME, and COGIC), I would despair at such a monstrous task. But I don't see the task as reforming the institutionalized church, but rather that of reforming Black Christianity. I am convinced that the prospect of reforming Black Christians is not only doable, but has already been done. I am a living witness.

When I state the goal as reforming black Christians more so than reforming the black church, I mean that our goal should be the introduction of reformed theology to individual men and women, boys and girls, more so than the introduction of reformed theology to the established, institutionalized Black church. I believe that if we can, by the grace of God, get Reformed theology in the hearts and minds of black individuals, then we will either begin to see a change in the historical black church, or we will see another "black (reformed and biblical) church" rise up along side her. Whatever the case, the key is the individual not the institution.

11 comments:

wwdunc said...

My experience from within the ranks of the AME clergy tell me that if Reformed theology was embraced by "people in the pew", a reformation would indeed take place, but it would ultimately lead people out of established Black churches. That makes me feel a little bit sad, but maybe the raising up of a new "Black Church" is what has to happen.

Scotty J. Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scotty J. Williams said...

I'm really feeling your point on Reforming individuals. This past summer I did some work in an NBC church with the intent of bringing about reform only to find that the institution is set in stone with its issues and Bapticostal Arminian theology (though there are some Reformed brothers working in it). I agree with Wyeth though, I feel that what might need to happen is that a new "Black Church" might have to rise up. When I was in Switzerland a brother in the Lord mentioned this possibility to me, and I've been thinking about it as of lately.

God bless you mo frer,
~Scotty

Eric said...

Carter:

It's both/and for me. Following the SBC Conservative Resurgeance, I think an institutional reformation (lower case "r") is possible. It would mean that individuals within the PNBC-type ranks would need to plan a reformed takeover (as did Patterson, et al for the SBC) and then much patience. However, as an SBC insdier, I also know that bringing the Reformation to the SBC has met its challenges. Not to mention, as the Resurgeance goes, the hearts of the leaders of many individual churches have not been changed. So the face of the SBC is conservative, while many of its churches are still liberal. Even so, as with the case for Hillcrest, as similar to Greater Union (CA), a Reformation can take place simply by the calling of a Reformed Pastor to a traditional African American church in which an ability to articulate theological belief beyond inerrancy, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and salvation by faith is absent. Changing churches or changing individuals can change an institution from the ground up. It will take a lifetime, but it is a hope. Keep up the discussion!

ECR

LouLove said...

Okay Carter, its time to weigh in. I agree with you in terms of the goal. Changing the institution is a large if not presumptuous task. However changing the individual or changing Churches is not quite so challenging though it has some obstacles.

But let me add this; change will not happen from the outside in.

Wyeth's point is well taken with regards to raising up a "new Black Church". But let's be real for a moment shall we?
This new Black Church must raise up from within Brothers. Black people who were introduced to Reformed Theology while outside the Black Church and remain outside of it, have little if any impact on any other Black folk. They are suspect at best.

Any Tom, Dick, Creflo or Eddie after spending some time in a Black Church can tell Black people anything and they will eat it up.
That is precisely how the "Word of Faith" movement and other erroneous doctrines find themselves rooted in many Black Churches. These false brothers do not know good theology but they know our people a lot better than we do and they have more patience.

The Black Church and Black people are in big trouble and have been for many years.

What we need is less critique and more missionaries, more dedicated Brothers who are daring enough to leave the good hidden life of the White Church and get their little Reformed hands dirty by either coming and helping the struggling brothers who are trying to see some things happen in the Black Church and community or by planting a church themselves. And if there is not a Reformed Black Church in your area and you are not inclined to start one, then MOVE to where one is.

And if you don't have the guts to get in the mix, do what many of the white folks are doing sitting next to you in Church, "Send some cash".

Brothers could use a new copy machine or something.

Hey Carter, I know you could use some help down at Southwest, I sure could use some help at New Life.

Now I am heading over to Thabiti's blog, pray for me or him or somebody.

ajcarter said...

Hey Lou,
What did JR put in your coffee this morning? It sure wasn't vanilla cream. Whatever it was, tell her to package it up and sell it. It has the ol' man fired up!

Eric,
I think you are right when you say that it is "both/and." However, the both/and is more for those brothers who are in the institutionalized black church and not so much for those who have moved out of it or never been a part of it. To change from the inside, individual brothers would first have to change their own church (which as you and Ken know, is no easy task) and then seek to bring that change to the broader denomination. Reform in the SBC had men in top key positions in the denomination who were pushing for reform, and some even for Reformed theology. I am not sure there are men in key positions in the AME, NBC, or COGIC who are interested in massive reform, much less Reformed theology. Also, the SBC had the luxury of seminaries that once they began to reform, could produce men to go and reform churches. The black denominations do not have such luxuries.
I pray that those brothers who desire to stay are successful. The historical black church is not going anywhere. Therefore, if it is going to be with us, I pray that God would move upon it to revive and Reform it according to His word. What a day that would be!

5:00 PM

LL said...

"What we need is less critique and more missionaries, more dedicated Brothers who are daring enough to leave the good hidden life of the White Church and get their little Reformed hands dirty by either coming and helping the struggling brothers who are trying to see some things happen in the Black Church and community or by planting a church themselves. And if there is not a Reformed Black Church in your area and you are not inclined to start one, then MOVE to where one is".

CAN I GET A AAAAAAAAAAMEN!!!!

I once had a conversation with a friend in the late 80's about a new church he was attending that featured some seriously strange doctrine. since there were few if any other churches that taught this in his community he was willing to drive to another state just to attend this church.

brothers and sisters we've witnessed what is perhaps the most significant change in the history of the black church within the last 15 years in part because BLACK people were willing to drive, move and do whatever else is necessary to see these weeds grow.
My friend and others like him were willing to do what needed to be done.
What are we willing to do?

Peace
Lance

LouLove said...

"And if you don't have the guts to get in the mix, do what many of the white folks are doing sitting next to you in Church, "Send some cash"."

This statement might have been a little strong. I am not suggesting that all Black Reformed people who are members of White churches are spineless. And I apologize to the faithful Brothers and Sisters who are serving well in White Churches.

What I am attempting to emphasize is that we (Black Reformed Christians) know there is a crisis in the Black Church and Community. The very fact that we are Black and Reformed speaks to that. I am asking the same question that Pastor Lance asked:

"What are you willing to do?"

And to my good friend wwdunc who said:

"My experience from within the ranks of the AME clergy tell me that if Reformed theology was embraced by "people in the pew", a reformation would indeed take place, but it would ultimately lead people out of established Black churches. That makes me feel a little bit sad,"

Leaving "established Black Churches" (if it is really a Church, see Thabiti)that do not teach the truth should not make you sad. Especially, if you leave and go to and support a Black Church where Reformed Theology is taught or if you are seeking to be involved in establishing a Reformed Black Church.

As a matter of fact this should make you feel glad, because these are some of the ways a "new Black (Reformed) Church" will come about.

And "who knows but that you have come" to Reformed Theology "for such a time as this?"

wwdunc said...

I only sat down at the computer so I could try to write a post on my own blog (It was impossible to write yesterday while at the same time watching the Chicago Bears get beaten in the Super Bowl!), but I saw the conversation going on over here, and I had to chime in once again.

The only reason that people being led out of established Black churches would make me feel a little bit sad is because of the history of these churches and denominations. It's the same sadness I feel for the mainline Methodists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians/Anglicans and Congregationalists, etc. The historic Black denominations once sat on biblical foundations (as far as I know). They were started by godly men, and were used by God in the past to not only bring Black people to faith in Christ, but also uplift the race. To me, it's simply sad to see the once mighty fall. Don't get me wrong, the way things stand today, in some cases, it probably can be legitimately stated that the "glory has departed". Such churches should, indeed, be abandoned. Still, it's sad when that has to happen.

I'm also saddened because I know there are individuals who will never leave these churches. They know things aren't going well, they're not happy, but because of the fear of the unknown, they stay and suffer, preferring "the devil they know to the devil they don't know".

It's like this: I feel relieved today being out from under the ungodly system that holds sway in my former denomination. I'm happy with where I am (yes, even in a predominantly white church). Yet, my happiness remains mixed with sadness for the people I left behind. It's hard to explain - and I hope my sympathies aren't misplaced - but, I'm not happy to see once useful denominations die.

FellowElder said...

Brothers,
Excellent conversation! Sorry I'm so late to the party.

Just one quick thought: it might be helpful to remember that denominations are not churches. They're parachurch organizations. So, if we're really wanting to be mercenary about it, I'd say leave off denominations altogether and focus on individual education and engagement with churches with like-minded leadership. Just a thought.
grace and peace,
Thabiti

Lance said...

good points brothers,

for all intents and purposes our historic denominations may already be dead.
it could be that this is the time to engage the individual pastors and up and coming pastors of the churches in these denominations and focus on one by one church conversion through the theological conversion of the pastor.

of one thing we can be sure: within the next 10 to 20 years there will be a predominate religious reality within most mainly black neighborhoods in this country. the question for us is will that reality be shaped and informed by true reformed theology and practice or something else?
as our brother Pastor Love wrote "has God raised us up for such a time as this"? And if He has how are we going to respond?

The Lord's Peace
Lance