Many black ministers-in-training are turning on the black church. Here’s why they should give it a second look.
by Charlie Dates
It just happened again. There he sat in my office looking for answers. He is a young twenty-something black male freshly graduated from a predominantly white evangelical Bible college. He is also an aspiring theologian and pastor. He grew up in the hood and came to faith in a black church. But before college was over he felt a strange disorientation, a tug to disavow the black church.
His story is not uncommon. His tribe seems to increase with each passing spring semester at graduation.
He had been asking to meet for a while. He wanted to talk about some of my research on the health of black preaching in late 20th century Chicago. Now anybody who has interest in my narrowly themed dissertation becomes a welcome companion. I thought we were going to talk about Parson and narrative discourse in preaching. I prepared to tell him about how the black Chicago neighborhoods became black ghettos through governmental experiments like “The Neighborhood Composition Rule.” I wanted to tell him about how black pastors bravely fought systemic injustice; recognizing it as a responsibility of the righteousness they preached. It turns out the conversation was different.
While studying theology at his small Bible college, he started to run up against the not so subtle jabs aimed at the black church. His professors and his peers wondered why someone so bright would return to the “simplistic, unsophisticated” preaching of the black church. Far be it from them to name it heresy, but some of them came close. Black churches, he was told, don’t disciple well. Their preachers lack integrity, and their theology is overrun by prosperity teaching. He started to believe it. Before he knew it, he was a critic of the black church in which he got saved. And worse, he condemned the same preaching through which he met Christ.
I’m not exactly sure when it happened or how, but the movement is gaining steam. It is drawing young black aspiring pastors, theologians, and churchmen away from the black church. I felt compelled to say something. So I began urging young black preachers: Don’t let your newfound training turn you away from the black church! One brother replied asking I say more. So here it is.
By the grace of God alone I serve a growing, vibrant black church in Chicago, Progressive Baptist Church. I am young, sometimes restless, but not reformed. At our church, we are doing the hard work of church revitalization. We are developing ministry that neither alienates the elderly-traditional crowd nor ignores the younger-incoming crowd. For 96 years our church has demonstrated its passion to disciple its membership. More recently, we have turned our focus outward and it is bearing fruit. A hallmark at Progressive is the decidedly expositional, Spirit-filled preaching. We are a local, thriving black church in the hood. And we are not an anomaly.
I received my formal theological training at a predominantly white evangelical divinity school in the Chicago suburbs. It had its cultural blind spots, but it held to the same Bible I came to know and love in my black church back home. Not soon after orientation I noticed that some of the brothers were not going to black churches. Of course attending a black church is not a requirement for being a black man in America, but I found it strange that many of them preferred white churches to black ones. Some of them felt like black professors were inferior to the white professors and a few made fun of books published by black preachers. They couldn’t learn from black preachers or professors. You can only imagine my uneasiness with their depreciation of the heritage that so planted and nourished the faith of countless generations—including my own!
Present day problems
These days I run into an increasing number of young black aspiring pastors who loathe the black church. Turned off at the sight of old deacons and trustees, they would rather plant a church in the inner city than candidate and pastor one already established. This is part of what one Illinois pastor has called “Gospel Gentrification.” I understand the impulse. Church planting is a biblical imperative. Unfortunately their motives for planting are often tinged with arrogance and a disdain for the older, established churches.
Lest I be accused of black church tribalism let me be clear: I recognize some glaring weaknesses of the black church in America, especially my own. One reason why a growing number of young men are opting out of the historic black church is because they cannot find the financial and denominational support to plant within the black church. There are notable exceptions of course. Eric Mason is one of them. He is turning the tide in Philadelphia by helping young black men locate resources to plant without denouncing the black church in the process. He is not alone, but there are too few like him.
Another challenge is the arduous process of church revitalization. This is no easy task. The patience, fortitude, and stamina required to overcome traditional encumbrances are significant. And yet there is no other way to turn an old ship.
I recognize that not everyone is wired for this work. However, those whose personalities don’t lend to such revitalization ought not demean a church they are unwilling to help. These are the days when we miss Bishop College. From one institution came the likes of James Meeks, Ralph West, Jeffrey Johnson, Major Jemison, E. K. Bailey, Karry Wesley, Melvin Wade, and a great many more. As her last graduates reach middle age, the black church in America has no equivalent replacement to train her succeeding generation of pastors. Where can young, black, aspiring pastor-theologians go?
Schools like Bishop College handled the issues of orthodoxy, social engagement, and disciple-making in the context of the black church. These days it seems like you have to pick one of those issues to the exclusion of the others before deciding on a school for formal training. And this is hurting young black aspiring pastors.
Three reasons to return
Yet in the face of these real challenges, I want to provide three reasons why young black preachers should not turn away from the historic black church.
1. You likely need her more than she needs you.
The savior complex is tempting, but it’s dangerous. Some of the young men I meet leave the black church because she didn’t compare to their newfound non-black church experience. Their mission is to show the black church how to do church right. They say, “Her theology is not robust. Her message is too ‘socially conscious.’ Her leaders lack moral integrity.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Leadership Journal
Charlie Dates is the senior pastor at the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois.
This article was adapted from a post that originally appeared on ProgressiveChicago.org.