Years ago I was invited to preach at a black church. I declined the offer, thinking that my style and personality might not match the expectations of the people in the pew. Later on, after I’d taken up a position as pastor of a local church, I did preach for the Latino congregation that rented space from our church. Maturity had set in by then, and I enjoyed my experience. Coming to metro-Detroit I’ve found that the majority of Disciple churches in the area are either black congregations or they are pastored by African-Americans. I’ve found my colleagues to be welcoming and supportive. So, when a colleague from Detroit invited me to bring my choir and preach at a revival scheduled for this fall, I knew that this was something I should, without any hesitation, do. What I didn’t realize back then, but have come to understand more recently, is that the congregation won’t expect me to be anything other than myself.
Although Sunday mornings remain largely segregated, that may have more to do with the role that the church plays in ethnic minority communities. For generations these churches provided social cohesion, support, and leadership opportunities. Culture maybe changing to the point where there are now other avenues by which community leadership and solidarity can be expressed, but these churches remain strong centers for the community of color. For those of us standing outside these communities, it is helpful to understand not just who they are, but what we might take away to enrich our lives of faith.
What We Love about the Black Church is authored by two white Baptist pastors who now hold academic posts. Crouch is President of Georgetown College of Kentucky and Joel Gregory teaches preaching at Truett Seminary at Baylor. Both men have had ministries that have crossed the usual boundaries, and their experiences have led to great appreciation for the distinctives of the black church. The authors don’t claim to be basing their reflections on research, but simply upon their own experiences as white Christians with the black church. write:
We simply write as two seasoned ministers who affirm our own personal histories in the white church, yet we have become more fully human and effective ministers because of our experiences in the black church (p. xvi).
The book contains not just the testimonies of these two white pastors, but also the responses of black pastors. This, in my mind, proves very helpful, because the respondents are able to acknowledge problems within the black community that the authors might be reluctant to broach. This is especially true of the role of women in church leadership.
All told there are twelve chapters, which range across topics from preaching to the role of the “first lady”; hospitality to encouragement; freedom of expression to the power of touch. In each chapter the two authors take turns sharing their own stories, after which there are two responses from among the twenty-two contributors. Since I’m Disciple, I’ll acknowledge that one of these respondents is Dr. Cynthia Hale, pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Each chapter ends with a set of takeaways, things the majority culture could learn from the black church experience.
One of the most poignant stories in the book is Joel Gregory’s experience of being embraced by his black colleagues after leaving Dallas’ First Baptist Church and seeing his marriage end. While his white colleagues stood aloof from him, the black church reached out and encouraged him, showing grace where none was present in the majority culture. This empathy for the dispossessed, of course, is deeply rooted in the African American experience of oppression and prejudice.
My sense is that most white Christians will have a sense of the black preaching style and even the freedom with which worship is experienced. While these chapters are insightful and helpful, most likely the chapters that will prove most helpful are the ones that talk about honoring elders, respecting the spouses of clergy, and the power of touch. With the later contribution, however, one of the respondents, a woman pastor, reminds us that there are issues of gender equity and respect that need to be addressed. Min. Leslie J. Bowling-Dyer reminds us that any enthusiasm one might have for the “lean,” the typical male greeting, needs to be tempered by making sure that this isn’t practiced in a way that undermines male-female partnership in ministry and full mutuality in all aspects of church life (p. 73).
It needs to be noted, in light of the reaction given to statements made by President Obama’s former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, that liberation themes are very present in the black church, and have always been there – even though they’ve been given further definition by theologians such as James Cone. In fact, Wright is mentioned several times in the book with great affection and respect – this in a book authored by two white evangelicals (even if they’re not the ones writing about Wright). As the Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart puts it:
The black church has had to minister to the whole person because it rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation. Consequently, the black church has typically focused on a much broader agenda, by addressing issues related to racism, poverty, economics, civil rights, and injustice, as well as issues of personal piety, holiness, ethics and righteousness (pp. 108-109).
Reality has meant that the church must engage in more than simply nurturing piety. It has been called upon to speak to the broader culture and provide opportunity for leadership.
That last mentioned element of the black church experience – offering a place of leadership when there have been few other opportunities, so that even a school janitor can be a respected Deacon in the church – may be one reason why such respect is given to the pastors and their spouses. It was interesting to read Joel Gregory’s reflection upon the use of titles and formality within the black church, in light of the increasing informality in our white churches. He writes that while the shedding of titles is supposed to make pastors more accessibly and human “something has been lost in translation over time” (p. 118) Such is not the case with the black church where pastors and their spouses are addressed as Reverend, Pastor, Doctor, and in the case of a pastor’s wife, Mrs. Smith or Sister Smith, and if first names are used, they’re not used without the title. At a time when white pastors lament their increasing marginalization, perhaps one way of remedying this problem is to “give people the respect they are due, because old-fashioned manners have modern-day import” (p. 119). That may well be true, but as the respondents remind us, use of praise and respect needs to be equitable, and not reserved only for a chosen few. And, as the Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble reminds us, this especially holds for women clergy, who too often do not receive equitable treatment within the black church. It is inappropriate to address male clergy with titles such as “Doc, Reverend, Pastor, or Esteemed Bishop, while reference in the same setting is differentiated toward the female counterpart as Sister or worse, by use of her first name” (p. 122).
This is a unique and helpful book. It is a needed reminder that we can all learn from each other. At times the two primary authors tend to highlight the contributions of black churches in a way that leaves white churches in negative light. They are also less likely to critique the black church experience, which is why the responses play such a helpful role in giving a full sense of the back church experience. The authors are to be commended, not just for writing the book but choosing to engage the black church and its leaders as equals in the ministry of Christ. As one who is more and more engaging black colleagues, this book has proven extremely helpful in understanding their experience, and offering encouragement to broaden my experience in my own setting. Take and read, you will be blessed, especially if you take the step of crossing the boundaries between communities.