What We Can Learn From The Black Church When We Are Pushed To The Margins
At dinner the other night, our family sat in earshot of a group of people discussing presidential politics. They were older, Caucasian, and rather conservative in their political leanings. It was clear that they, like many Americans, are uninspired and—in their words—disheartened by the current party presumptive nominees for this year’s election. Their reflections echoed aged sentiments of prestige, shared beliefs, and religious privilege once represented by the Oval Office.
I mentioned to my wife how nice it must have been for generations past, and cultures unlike ours, to enjoy a political system concerned about their values and attentive to their voices. Our forefathers experienced a rather different portrait of American presidents and politics, one that left them living not in the center, but on the margins of American culture.
This is no bitter slight to American history so much as it is an acknowledgement of the new disequilibrium so many American Evangelicals are feeling in the wake of a cultural shift.
More accurately, it is like an earthquake; the changing political and cultural landscapes of our nation are peaking to new levels on the American Evangelical Richter scale. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at the National Conference on Preaching in Washington, D.C. The theme of the conference was “Preaching and the Public Square.” One could sense the palpable concern that the American Evangelical pulpit is drifting closer to the margins of societal sway. It is losing political influence and moral capital.
The days of the supposed moral majority are well behind us, and the reality of the mushy middle is clearly upon us. We are learning that America is not that bastion of Christendom we once alleged. Our politics betray us, our values surprise us, and our new cultural norms indict us. In this I see no concern for despair. These may be the Church’s finest days.
My proposition is simple: Evangelical churches in America can benefit from the testimony of other Christians who have long lived on the cultural margins, from a people group who wielded no political influence or economic superiority—a people who functioned largely as a subset, or minority in the larger American Evangelical story. In their history abides a witness; a recipe for thriving ministry, and an illustration of the gospel’s power to make buoyant a church relegated to the periphery of national significance.
My claim is that the gospel of Jesus Christ enables us to live in the world, to prosper therein without being loved by the world. Our current cultural dissonance can actually prove helpful to our proclamation. But how should the church proclaim her unique gospel message in a culture that no longer widely affirms her leadership? She can do so by not associating Christianity proper with its mistaken Western twin: white privilege. She can declare hope amid despair, and eternal values in light of temporal struggles. In America, I know no better witness of this than the historic black church.
For years, the black church in America has preached from the margins of American society. Her ministry has flourished in proclaiming and preserving biblical truth, growing vibrant, transformative churches, and raising future generations tethered to hope. She is not perfect by any measure, but her method of preaching is worth consideration by the larger church in America, which finds itself moving to the perimeters.
What aspects of her witness encourage our resilience? Let me share three.
#1: Social Suffering and the Proclamation of Hope
The first aspect is a renewed appreciation for the gift of suffering. For too long, American Christianity has meant white American colonization. To Christianize basically meant to colonize. This is not to dismiss the moral foundation of our laws, or the great good the church has done, but it is meant rather to focus on the great privilege certain ethnic groups of the church have enjoyed to the exclusion of others.
History is the single greatest witness that white evangelicalism has enjoyed political, social, and economic privilege that African and Latino Americans have not. In many instances, Christianity proper has been confused with the expansion of white cultural privilege. Almost every American president before John F. Kennedy claimed some Christian roots.
Our American Evangelical heritage praises the likes of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans, James Thornwell, and subsequently the rise of Evangelical denominations, many of whom either owned slaves or condoned its institution. It likewise ignores voices like Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, and L. K. Williams.
We rightfully cherish the legacy of great American revivalists like Charles Finney, D. L. Moody and Billy Graham, but simultaneously ignore their partnership with American segregation. American Evangelicalism at large does not know what it feels like to live on the margins. We can sense that day is quickly approaching.
Conversely, African American Christians have almost always lived on the fringes of American culture.
They have been despised twice, both by the land in which they live and the broader church with which they have associated. And yet, they yielded not to despair. At the turn of the 20th century, when oppressive race relations created untenable living conditions in the American South, a great migration occurred.
What is often lost in the discussion of the massive exodus is its church network. Whole churches moved from the South to the North. In Chicago, churches like The Olivet Baptist Church and The Pilgrim Baptist Church hired full-time social workers to meet migrants at the train stations. It is no wonder that by 1966 more African Americans lived in Cook County than the entire state of Mississippi. What is a wonder is that the church fashioned a new community in Chicago to acclimate the new migrant mob.
Churches grew by the trainloads. In this is an illustration of how the black church handled social suffering. They preached hope. I do not mean a generic, pie-in-the-sky veneer of hope. I mean an authentic expectation in the goodness of God amid difficult circumstances. From their pulpits to the restless and fatigued souls of America’s disinherited was heralded the truth of God’s redemptive power in the face of suffering.
I suggest that the American church at large can learn from this. As the nation changes and disavows distinctly righteous ethics, as it relegates the church to the perimeters of social influence, we should find ourselves proclaiming hope. We are not a people who lose hope. And hope does not disappoint. The proclamation of hope does not minimize suffering, but it maximizes glory.
I find today that people need an unrelenting hope that results exclusively from the gospel. This hope is not based upon the right now, but has its expectation rooted in the not-yet. We are saved in hope, longing for something we do not yet see. Our preaching should possess that thread of hope.
#2: Gracious Preaching and Truthful Grace
How we tell the truth in our changing cultural times might be as important as telling the truth itself. A hallmark of black preaching is its refusal to deny truth. It maintains a rigid grasp on biblical truth and doctrine, even when its admonition has not been culturally popular.
Now is not the time for the church to avoid the uncomfortable task of heralding truth in the public square. The way we proclaim truth is what needs particular attention. The social issues that divide American culture abound. God’s ideas are clear in His word. The clarity and sufficiency of His word is not debatable, but our packaging is.
Our task is to tell the truth graciously. Jesus himself was full of grace and truth. It is a dynamic combination. This dynamic coalescence admonishes us that grace must be truthful and the truth must be gracious. I find myself preaching to a historic African American church now growing younger. In our Chicago church context, several of our Millennials are theologically orthodox and socially liberal. It is a wonderful and sometimes curious hybrid. They have dear gay friends, and they come to church without fail. They fight for justice, considering the gospel imperative. They are not feminists, but while respecting gender differences they want equal pay.
From all indications, and for nearly 100 years, our church has unwaveringly declared and rightfully divided the word of truth. Political correctness is not our measurement, grace is. In preaching the full counsel of the redemptive historical narrative, inevitably everybody’s sin gets exposed. While researching the history of black preaching, I noted that in almost every sermon studied, there is some explicit reference to the reconciling work of the cross, its grace to forgive sin, and its demand that we live into our high and holy calling. A church on the margin will need to respect the humanity of the sinner while proclaiming righteousness.
#3: Celebrating Eternity
Frank Thomas, the notable scholar on the subject of black preaching, signals celebration as one its defining characteristics. Thomas’ contribution is a gift to those who find themselves in the crossfire of a changing cultural landscape. Fundamentally, the gospel is good news. Its message generates great joy.
Preaching of the gospel that celebrates Jesus Christ and the joy He gives is a must in American churches today. Those who encounter the church don’t need another political action committee or a depressing autobiography about what America once was. They need a celebration of what will be for the Christian.
In light of this, we cannot portray Heaven as a better, more moral paraphrase of suburban America.
A church on the margins will have to call its hearers past pavement-level joy to celebrate a more perfect, eternal joy in the right now. The black church is often caricatured in screenplay for its exuberant and emotive expression. I guess when you have lived on the margins for so long, with few friends in high places, and been the subject of scorn, the gospel provides a comfort indestructible by systems of human oppression.
When their churches burned to the ground by the flames of legalized racism, they sang about a new home over in glory that is “mine.” When their neighborhoods were left unsupported and their humanity disrespected, they preached that the sufferings of this present time are incomparable with the glory to come. And in their sermons were the groans awaiting relief.
In one sense, it matters who gets the White House in January, but in a higher, heavier, holier sense it does not. God will still be on the throne in heaven. James Lowell was right: Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above His own.
These could be the church’s best days. The changing cultural shift may be heaven’s gift of prying our fingers from the temporal to the eternal. The church on the margins might become the church that fulfills its mission.