While at a city wide meeting concerning African American needs, I heard a middle aged woman express her ill feelings about the modern day African American church and it’s role in community engagement. She had some personal resistance towards the modern day African American church. She felt that many others of the African American community have demonstrated a growing resistance towards the church as well. So she thought it was critical for the African American church to understand this, and not assume merely because of related core concerns, that all the community is open to Christianity.
After quietly reflecting on her words myself, I believe my sister was right. There is indeed a growing resistance in the African American community towards religion; particularly against Christianity. Due to it’s white washing, Christianity is seen by some African Americans as the “White Man’s Religion”. Also, young African Americans and some other influential leaders are feeling that the African American church hasn’t been effective at meeting their core concerns, things like dignity, identity, empowerment, and significance.
This kind of growing resistance has caused the African American church some disfavor, with some rising voices hashing out harsh and critiquing comments on the institution. This has not helped younger African Americans nor many others who are unacquainted with a more profound understanding of African American History, to see the historical significance of the African American church. They may not see it this way, but their attempt to shame the African American church only points to some ignorance of historical church history, more specifically; the work of the African American church. I thought of about 5 reasons for why every African American rather Christian or not, should have nothing but a respectful gratitude for the historical work of the African American church.
1. Its origination and existence in American Slavery.
- The African American church has it’s roots in Christ, but also in American Slavery. Some slaves believed the message of life and freedom in Christ through faith in Him, and embraced the suffering Messiah that would ultimately save them not only from their sins, but also from their oppressors. These kind of conversions were happening all over the south in the 18th century, and in some states, slaves were allowed to have their own churches; giving birth to the African American church. Slaves would meet together and teach each other the scriptures and found great hope through stories like Moses and the Israelite’s, the slaves could understand these stories better than their oppressors could. They learned of the suffering Servant, who was Himself “stricken and afflicted”, and suffered death on the cross to satisfy the wrath of God. This lead to a great intuitive theology of suffering that existed among all Christian slaves, and it enabled the early African American church to persevere through the centuries with the hope of rest from their wick oppressors. The African American church should not have survived the evil it endured, but they pressed on believing that God was righteous, and it was better to suffer for righteousness than to suffer without God.
2. It’s commitment to the core concerns of African Americans
- Since it’s formation, the African American church has always been committed to the core concerns of it’s people. In a time when the white majority dominated their lives with the evils of Slavery, the African American church was the only institution that was committed to the hope of freedom. In a time when African Americans were tortured, lynched, raped, and oppressed by “black codes” and Jim Crow laws, The African Americans church was there speaking to them for their right to life, dignity and protection. In a time when African Americans were segregated from public life with the white majority, discriminated in education, the work force, and even religious life; the African American church was there to speak for their rights for equality, opportunity, and empowerment. There is no other culture, people group, or institution that has been committed more consistently to the core values/concerns of African Americans than the African American church! The best African American churches did all this and still preached that Christ was their Lord, and ultimately their home and allegiance was with Him.
3. It’s platform for the civil rights movement, business, and leadership
- The African American church was the bedrock for the civil rights movement. Before any other religion involved themselves, the majority of the movement consisted of African American Christian ministers. These practical theologians banned together to achieve the integration of schools, barred unequal barriers that made it difficult for African Americans to vote, and caused the outlawing of discrimination based on skin color in areas such as hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public places. And where were their headquarters? In Washington D.C? No, not in D.C., but in their churches. The African American church made it possible for African Americans to own businesses, and also raise up leaders, many who would contribute opportunities to their own people.
4.It’s victories in giving African Americans better opportunities
- The fact is this, because the African American church created the civil rights movement, African Americans now have many opportunities that they would not have had if not for those colored Christian people who fought for them to have it. African Americans now can attend public schools, train for jobs and obtain them, attend colleges and ivy league universities, and even hold a position as high as the president of the United States! This is not to say that African Americans are completely free of discrimination, but to say that we have been given an amazing load of opportunity that our ancestors did not have.
5. It’s redemptive imperfections
The African American church of the 21st century has seen many changes, both culturally and theological. Because of this, there are some African American churches whose primary focus has stopped being the gospel of Jesus Christ, but instead things like wealth, prosperity, and spiritual gifts have become the central focus. There also has been many occurrences of sexual infidelities that has brought shame to the church. There has also been controversies in some of its churches that have pastors whose salaries are in the hundreds of thousands; in some cases even millions. Also, as I have already said, many African American churches are loosing their effectiveness at addressing the core concerns of their communities.
So what do we say to this? Well we should say what we have always known; the African American church ( along with white churches, Hispanic churches, Asian churches and all others) are sinners in need of transforming and renewing grace. Every ill, sinful, and disgusting thing I described has already been seen in the history of church. Christians believe the church should always be reforming, repenting, and realigning ourselves with God’s Word. The beauty of being in Christ is not only receiving the redemptive grace that saves us from God’s judgement, but also receiving the redemptive grace that enables us to be conformed to the Person of Jesus Christ; every Christians goal of maturity.
So finally, be reminded of the historical work of the African American church, be grateful for how you have benefited from it, join me in studying it, and resolve to keep reforming this beautiful institution.