Black and white believers who are like-minded in theological belief are not of one mind about the term evangelical.

It could be called the “e word” in most black churches—a term either unknown and unused, or so loaded with negative connotations it is handled delicately or avoided altogether. The word: evangelical. And to the surprise of many Christians who pride themselves on the label, the baggage carried by evangelical can form a barrier to fellowship with minority believers who otherwise share their beliefs.

“What [evangelical] stands for theologically is where most blacks in traditional churches would be,” said Clarence Hilliard, pastor of the Austin Corinthian Baptist Church near Chicago. “But most are not familiar with the term. They talk about being ‘born again’ and ‘Bible believing.’ ” Where the term evangelical is used, there is often “a lot of explaining to do,” said Hilliard, who is also first vice-president of the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA).

The problem arises with the cultural and political positions commonly associated with evangelicals—conservative, right-wing, Republican. Right or wrong, the black community’s perceptions of evangelicalism inevitably include Jerry Falwell’s statements on South Africa and evangelicals’ embrace of the Reagan administration, which most minorities denounced as woefully inattentive to social-justice issues, black leaders say. So even those willing to use the term explain it carefully.

“I am an evangelical,” said Melvin Banks of Urban Ministries, Inc., in Chicago. “But the term can be divisive in the black church, and I try to make clear when I say that, I am talking about the supremacy of Jesus and his work on the cross for salvation—not the other issues.”

“If white evangelicals want to relate to black people, they must deal with issues black people find important,” said Hilliard, issues such as employment, housing, and health care. “That has not always been the case, or at least blacks have not perceived a concern there. We seem to come from different directions on those issues.”

History Of Separation

Beyond semantics, the term evangelical also touches the historic separation between black and white churches, according to theologian William Bentley. In the early nineteenth century, both generally shared a common language and belief. But as the polemics on social issues increased, especially over the traditional evangelical church’s initial support of slavery, “by default the black church left evangelical terminology behind,” Bentley said. In the 1930s and 1940s, the fundamentalist-modernist debate, which helped form the foundation of the modern evangelical movement, bypassed the black church.

“Up to the forties and fifties, evangelicals stuck to the Scriptures, but rigidly excluded [blacks] from their institutions,” said Bentley, who was one of the first blacks to attend Fuller Theological Seminary, enrolling in 1955. This is reflected in the number of blacks and other minorities employed by evangelical institutions (see accompanying article at right). At the same time, he points out, blacks found acceptance in generally liberal schools and seminaries.

Should evangelical be dropped from the Christian vocabulary? Not at all, says Bentley. “But we need to pour new content into the term,” something he believes a younger generation of black leaders can help accomplish. “The term can become more acceptable and common in the next ten years.”

What is needed, said Banks, is to “build into the word evangelical an inclusiveness to make others feel comfortable.” And this is best accomplished on a church-by-church, person-to-person basis, black and white leaders agree.

World Agenda

Today, increasing numbers of black Christians are graduating from the evangelical institutions that Bentley and others first integrated. Familiar with both the predominantly white evangelical community and the black church, they must be “bicultural and bievangelical” to minister effectively, said Glandion Carney, dean of chapel at Warner Pacific College and minister-at-large for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. “The agenda is no longer black or white; it is a world agenda.”

Carney sees the slowly growing numbers of blacks and other minorities in traditional evangelical ministries beginning to stretch the definition of evangelical, to the movement’s benefit. But tough questions still remain. “Is being evangelical now primarily a by-product of a culture, a set of values that are primarily American and right wing, that may not embrace the whole gospel,” he asked, or is it being “a counterculture, which is in a position to reflectively evaluate the culture?”

“We are guilty of lazy thinking,” said Crawford Loritts of Campus Crusade for Christ. “We make decisions in terms of likeness and sameness. Until we realize our destinies are tied together, that the Great Commission belongs to the whole church, we will never come to grips with a sense of our need for one another.”

By Ken Sidey.

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