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Jul 25, 2013
Thinkers

Observations and Implications of African American Church Planting

Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. — Thursday Is for Thinkers |
Observations and Implications of African American Church Planting
Image: Courtesy of Carl Ellis Jr.

The Effectiveness of Ministry Based Models

From 1900 to 1960, the scope of African American cultural involvement was restricted when compared to Anglo Americans in the broader community. For example, careers such as domestics, nurses, physicians, beauticians, etc., were open to African Americans, but careers as executives of major corporations, airline pilots, academicians in non-HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) etc., were off limits. During these years, as the pastor crafted his sermons and encouraged his congregation toward a better day, most of the experiences of the entire Black community were within the theological reach of the traditional church.

As the pace of civil rights gains began to accelerate, African Americans began to move into previously uncharted cultural waters, and they began to encounter issues beyond the traditional cultural scope. However, the traditional African American church did not expand its theological reach in response to this shifting cultural ground. Thus for those African Americans who expanded their cultural involvement, a smaller percentage of their life issues were theologically informed. This not only applied to those who were upwardly mobile, but to those who were laterally mobile – those who remained below the poverty line but were increasingly disconnected from the church's theological influence. This can be illustrated by the experience of Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church – a traditional church with a rich history of pastoral involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The church continued to be the strongest institution in the African American community, but the quality of its influence went from primarily theological in 1900, then to sociological by the 1960's. Today, its influence is primarily stylistic.

Competing theologies and ideologies vied for attention throughout twentieth century African American church history, but the inability to fully address emerging issues and concerns gave rise to the need for new forms of ministry. Increasing numbers of African Americans today are reachable by churches willing to engage in creative ministry concepts.

The data reveals that between the third and fifth years of the church plant, the number of new commitments to Christ often decline and then level off. This could be due to the fact that as the church plant establishes itself, institutional functions of the church demand more of the church planter's attention, at the expense of the creative ministries that once drew in the curious. It should also be considered that the shifting dynamics of the target community necessitate the formation of new creative ministries. To overcome this, the church plant should maintain a strong emphasis on creative ministries, and flexibility in developing new ones.

Those who wish to reach African Americans must create ministries beyond the parameters and limitations of the traditional African American and non-African American church. If this can be accomplished, these church plants may reach many cultures and generations, even those who are hostile to Christianity. This is especially true given the global appeal of contemporary African American culture.

The Advantage of a Paid Church Planter

Before the turn of the 20th Century, the institutional church ordered the life of the African American community; the pastor played a key role central to the life of that community. There was little need for the church to "reach out" because it was the hub of the community – a 'gathered church' as 'opposed to a scattered church.' In other words, "If you build it they will come."

Today the traditional church continues to play an important role, but it rarely exists as the hub of the community. However, the concerns of African Americans tend not to be addressed as extensively as those of the dominant culture within the larger culture itself, so where does the African American turn to have these concerns addressed? Multiple opportunities for ministry from emerging churches now exist. Meeting this challenge requires a 'scattered church approach' – engaging in ministry models not associated with the role of the traditional church. However, this takes time; merely 'hanging out a shingle' is not enough. Today it is necessary to take the ministry to the people. The more time a church planter has for such sustained and focused creative ministry around the felt concerns of the community, the more likely the success of the new church.

Currently, it is not necessary for the church as an institution to be the hub of the community for its presence to be felt. The scattered church approach enables the church planter to become pastor of the whole community.

Contemporary Worship Styles

African American culture today has greater diversity than at any time in its history. When cultural involvement was more restricted, the matrix of Black culture was less complex and patterns of racial discrimination made demographic studies unnecessary. For successful African Americans today, most barriers to mainstream American life have substantially diminished. Therefore, cross-cultural contacts (friendships, associations, partnerships, etc.) have become commonplace. Currently most African Americans clearly identify with their own culture, yet resist being confined by it. Likewise, most successful African American church planters are aware of this phenomenon and a contemporary worship style is best suited to reaching the demographic of the targeted community.

The Significance of a Church Edifice

Identifiable church buildings are a strong part of the African American paradigm. Major exceptions to this were the storefront churches, which sprang up in the urban scene during the time of the great African American migrations. About half of these storefront churches were Holiness or Pentecostal/Holiness, and the rest were predominantly Baptists. In most cases the attendees had once lived near each other in the rural South, yet the alien realities of urban life drove many to seek comfort in familiarity of the local community they had once shared. This was found as they gathered in the storefront church.

As the new generations emerged in the urban context, the need to affirm memories of life in the rural South diminished. Increasingly, the storefront church was seen as irrelevant and outmoded and eventually, all churches lacking a church building were progressively seen as illegitimate. Partly because of this stigma, within 5 years many of churches in this survey had acquired their own identifiable buildings. Generally, it is not uncommon for African American churches to be planted after acquiring a building.

The Advantage of a Church Sponsor or "Mother Church"

A sponsoring or mother church is often a crucial aspect of successful church plant for obvious reasons. The fewer burdens a church plant has to carry in the initial stages, the greater is the likelihood that the new church will succeed. However, when the sponsoring church is of one culture and the new church plant is aimed at another culture, the burden of misunderstanding can overcome the advantages of sponsorship. This is especially true if the mother church has a dominant cultural orientation. Not intentionally dealing with the cross-cultural or dominant/sub-dominant dynamics puts the church planting effort at risk.

Transfer growth has been part of the equation in many dominant cultural church planting strategies. However African Americans who are Generation X and older tend to be much more reluctant to leave their homechurches, even if attendance requires a long drive. As previously discussed, in the African American experience the church historically played a much more central role in the community. Unlike those in the dominant culture who had a variety of available institutions in which to be involved, African Americans mainly had the church. As the hub of the community, the church was tasked to play a multifaceted institutional role. Therefore, among older African Americans there is a deeper sense of attachment and loyalty to the 'home church.'

A similar phenomenon can also apply to denominational involvement. For example, Baptist, Methodist, Church of God in Christ, etc., have a much greater historical presence among African Americans than do Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Evangelical Free, etc. If African Americans transfer to another denomination, they are much more willing to switch to a familiar one than to an unfamiliar one. Because of their much greater presence in the dominant culture, denominations less familiar to African Americans are often unaware that their church planting strategies assume an unspoken and built in demand for churches of their type; such a demand does not necessarily exist in the African American diaspora. Because this assumption for demand is not valid in an African American context, and because of the lack of reliable transfer growth, misunderstandings of the progress of the church plant or even its premature shutdown often result.

The wise sponsoring church would take full advantage of available seminars and leadership training, and seek out a professional consultant on these topics for long-term assistance.

Church Planting Teams

In an African American context, a team leadership approach to church planting would probably be more effective than the 'lone wolf' approach. However, economic realities undercut the practicality of this. The existing fundraising infrastructure that has functioned in the dominant cultural context is relatively unknown in the African American context. This issue has also come to light in para-church ministries. For African Americans, it has been much more difficult to 'raise support' than for their Anglo counterparts. It would be advantageous if a study could be done on ways to overcome this disadvantage.

Basic Planting "Boot Camp"

African American church planters should be encouraged to participate in church planting boot camps, as they promote valuable basic principles that apply universally. However, given the distinctive dynamics of today's African American context, the effectiveness of these boot camps can be multiplied with some specific training geared to African American distinctives.

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Related Topics:African Americans; Church
Posted:July 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

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Observations and Implications of African American Church Planting