The black church has long stood as a pillar in the black community in the United States. For centuries, it has served as the theological, political, and social center of black life in America. But there are growing concerns from within about its present health and future prospects. As debates rage about an enduring legacy of racism in the United States and Christians’ response, Thabiti Anyabwile, who pastors a church in a black community in southeast Washington, D.C., has written a heartfelt plea for spiritual renewal in Reviving the Black Church: A Call to Reclaim a Sacred Institution (B&H Books). John C. Richards Jr., founding editor of Urban Faith magazine and author of The Tenacity of Hope, spoke with Anyabwile about why he celebrates—and critiques—the institution that has nurtured him over so many years.
What motivates you to write about the black church?
I want to see all churches become as healthy and vigorous as possible–especially African American churches. The Lord has given me something of Paul’s longing for his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3, ESV). I want to see African Americans brought into God’s kingdom in as great a number as possible. For that to happen, the churches that serve African American communities have to be alive.
There’s a pitched battle for the soul of the black church, and the visions for her future are not compatible. As far as I’m concerned, the only sure way to revival is making the Word of God the very heartbeat of the church. If the Word is central to all we think and do, revival becomes more likely. But if we use substitutes for God’s Word—however well intended—our churches will continue to lean toward sickness and death.
Some say the black church is dead or dying, while others think it is alive and well. What explains these contradictory perspectives?
Some people measure the health of the black church by political standards, while others use theological standards. Eddie Glaude Jr., a Princeton professor who has proclaimed the death of the black church, pointed to the loss of the church’s prophetic voice in advocating for social and political causes. But some of those responding to him, who see vitality in the black church, focus on its gathered worship. Depending on where people sit politically or theologically, they tend to bring forward different measures of vitality or health. At that point, you’re not even having the same conversation. You’re talking about what the black church is, politically and theologically, before you even get to whether it’s dead or alive.
Some black churches have a reverence for Scripture but don't know it very well. How can we in the black church overcome biblical illiteracy?
The solution to biblical illiteracy is to put the Bible at the center of the church’s life and help those people understand its teachings. As a preacher steadily plods through Scripture, opening up text after text in the sweep of redemptive history, then hopefully people will say, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” If you’re able to accomplish that, then you have not only taught them something, you have also rooted them in the Scripture in a deeper way.
Your critique aspects of modern gospel music. What's gone wrong?
The musical creativity of the black church is unparalleled. Its ability to engage the whole person through music is unrivaled. Even today, it’s hard to find many R&B stars who haven’t been shaped, touched, or informed in some way by the musical traditions of the black church.
But even though there’s much to commend and preserve in gospel music, there are things that need more consideration. The biggest area that needs work is the singing of the Word. Colossians 3 speaks about us teaching and instructing one another as we sing. It notes that Christ dwells in us richly as we sing to one another (3:16). I worry that, in our theology of music and singing, we don’t think enough about the fact that we’re supposed to be teaching one another in our congregational singing.
A lot of traditional gospel music is very good—even if it isn’t theologically sophisticated. It’s just rich and solid, and it has a deeply biblical view of the Christian life. In the black church, we sing about scriptural themes. We sing about our suffering with joy and hope. We sing about the coming of the Lord. We sing about the blood of Jesus. We take older hymns from outside our own tradition and put them in our own key and style. That’s rich.
If you look at some of the contemporary gospel music that’s been released in the past 20 years, you see a similar creativity, but the content isn’t scriptural. We need to make sure that we’re singing the Bible. There’s a lot of work to do to de-emphasize entertainment and emphasize edification.
Historically, blacks have been excluded from formal theological training, and many black pastors were self-trained. Now, with higher seminary attendance, we often see a disconnect between a pastor's training and certain feature of black-church life. How can we narrow that gap?
The problem comes out of the African American church tradition. Most of our pastors were in some kind of apprenticeship in preparation for the ministry. They would sit under another pastor or have a “spiritual father” who would pour himself into them.
More than ever, we need to marry seminary training with training in the local church. We need to make sure that seminary education has deep roots in the church’s life so that head, heart, and hands are being shaped. Seminary is great for impacting the head, but it isn’t always great at inflaming the heart or teaching what to do with the hands.
If you, as an aspiring black pastor, attend a predominantly white evangelical seminary, you risk ending up distanced from the black evangelical context you came out of. There are pros and cons to that. It’s incredibly helpful to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise experience. The downside is that it’s easy to become very critical of the black church, because you learn things you hadn’t learned in the black church. You can stop appreciating things that ought to be appreciated.
And sometimes you lose the cultural rhythm. Some of that is beneficial. Some black pastors learn a different sermon style in seminary that makes their preaching clearer and more Word-centered. But if you’re unable to communicate with a congregation, all that training can go to waste.
I encourage black churches not to simply outsource ministry training to white seminaries. Many churches have assumed that sending a kid off to seminary would prepare him for ministry. But think about how the gospel spread in New Testament times: None of the apostles went to seminary. They all were discipled. They followed Jesus and learned at his feet. Those apostles taught others. It has been the Lord’s plan that preparation for ministry happen heart-to-heart, as older, seasoned pastors pass on not only the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), but also a way of life that conforms to those sound words. The black church has to get back to that.
You devote a significant portion of the book to biblical manhood. Why?
Because the broader culture is losing its mind regarding gender and identity. Turn on the news, and almost every day you’ll see a view of manhood and womanhood that is incompatible with the Bible.
The church, and increasingly the African American church, is buying into the broader culture’s understanding of these things. In many corners of the black church, when you talk about biblical manhood and womanhood, people treat you like you’re a dinosaur from the 1950s trying to do the Leave It to Beaver thing. They regard you as oppressive to women and to people with same-sex attractions. If we understand our callings as Christian men and women—and what we’re called to form in Christian families and marriages—then we will make great strides in solving the many social problems we face within the African American community.
Prior to being in ministry, I spent my life working on social policy and addressing community-based problems. In the social sciences, you almost never get a research consensus. But there is one thing in social science literature that seems incontrovertible: Children do better in every measure when they are raised by their married, biological parents. A good, healthy marriage between a man and a woman who have children together—what we call the traditional, nuclear family—is still the best social-welfare program. It is still the best way to improve the well-being of children, family, and communities.
If there is any institution that’s going to strengthen black families in a way that leads to real flourishing from God’s perspective, it’s going to be the local church. I argue for manhood in the book, not in any way to diminish the importance of biblical womanhood. But it does seem to me, for better or worse, that so much of the well-being of families and communities hinges on the cultivation of godly, responsible men. That, it seems to me, is where Satan has decided to wage his battle most fiercely.
For a long time, the black church has had to cope with violent manifestations of racial prejudice. During the civil rights era, white supremacists bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four innocent children. This summer, we witnessed the racially motivated murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston. What will it take to overcome racial prejudice and prevent these kinds of tragedies?
The black church exists because of racism. We must be clear about that fact. The beginning of the independent denominational black churches is generally traced to a prayer meeting in Philadelphia, where Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and a faithful company of black Christians were forcibly removed by white leaders from a recently segregated space in the church. This, after those same African Americans helped finance the building of the new facility. White Christian prejudice gave rise to the black church. Its continuance is an indictment against white Christians failing to repent of these sins and prove their repentance by their deeds.
Nothing short of deep contrition and repentance will begin to repair the breach. Part of that repentance must include renouncing the very categories of “race” and “whiteness,” so that we can finally embrace our common descent from Adam and Eve and our common identity in Christ. There’s a schizophrenia in the church that sometimes has us thinking of ourselves in primarily “racial” terms, and at other times in simple Christian terms. That two-ness leaves room for racism and interrupts our unity.
Steps are being taken to heal the divide. Recent confessions and seasons of prayer at the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly and in the Southern Baptist Convention are hopeful signs. If white churches found a distinctively Christian and prophetic voice for addressing racism, then racists would have fewer places to hide. Progress has been made over the past 50 years. But we must remain vigilant.
What is your hope for the black church?
A lot of folks ask if there even should be a black church, or if it’s dying or fading away. After all, we see a greater emphasis today on doing multiethnic ministry. Megachurches have chipped away at black church membership. Mainline black denominations are losing members. And there’s lots of anxiety about whether or not millennials are leaving the church.
Still, there are historical and theological reasons for believing the black church will stick around—and that it should stick around. Historically, the black church will continue because we are not done with racism in the larger church. So at least for now, the church has to retain its separate character for the gospel to move forward. And we need not apologize for that.
There are also theological and missiological reasons. The Lord will gather a people from every tribe, language, and nation. That includes African Americans. As far as I can see, there aren’t many ethnic churches saying, “Hey, let’s go reach our African American neighbors.” So for the gospel to go forward, particularly in the hard urban neighborhoods, African Americans are going to have to take the lead.
My hope for the black church is that she gets healthier—more zealous for the gospel and the Word of God. I hope she learns the habit of healthy self-critique, and to practice it publicly, without shame. One thing that stymies the black church is this aversion to talking about our weaknesses publicly. Outside communities have often exploited our self-criticism to hammer us rather than to help us, so I understand the aversion. But the inability to reflect critically on the black church is weakening our community. I’m hopeful that we will be able to have those conversations as brothers and sisters, to disagree charitably, and to place our emphasis on the essential things. And there, I see progress.
In a word, I’m hopeful for revival. I’m hopeful the Lord will pour out his Spirit on the black church, renew her again, add to her number, strengthen her, make her beautiful in holiness, and make her compelling in a dark world. We have every reason to believe that our God, who rose from the dead, can raise her up to newness of life.
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