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 Faithmagazine 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.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Interview by John C. Richards Jr.