This article was published in Faithfully Magazine No. 3 (Summer 2018).
Not all Christians think, pray, and worship the same. This is evident across cultures, regions, and denominations, from the High Church choirs in suburban America, to the charismatic worship in neighborhoods in major metropolitan cities. Many Christians celebrate different worship styles as recognition of the rich diversity in the kingdom of God. Others uphold their preferences in worship as most holy, while denouncing other styles as heretical.
One of the most notable cultural divides in American religion is found in the distinctions between the Black Church and the White church. Aside from historical practices that made racial segregation a social norm and that defined many churches, one of the most depicted distinctions between the Black Church and White church is the style and level of emphasis on worship. Stereotypically speaking, Black churches are known to be more lively in their praise and worship services and more conversational in preaching. White churches, on the other hand, are thought to be less charismatic in worship and more lecture-based in sermons. Of course, these distinctions are based on generalizations, as different denominations, Black or White, can be more or less charismatic and lively.
Yet, what society understands as distinctions between Black and White churches has mirrored understandings of blackness and whiteness overall, and reinforced power dynamics that demonize Black culture while upholding White culture as normal. Black churches, for all that they are celebrated for, are often demonized for being less sophisticated and theologically sound than White churches. Furthermore, Black churches are too often portrayed in the media as being entertainment centers rather than spiritual spaces.
In college, I got to know several African-American students who were interest-ed in going into ministry. In talking to them, many critiqued their Black Church upbringing, suggesting that it lacked real spiritual depth and that their styles of preaching and practice were good for entertainment, but bad for spiritual growth. Furthermore, many pointed out the spiritual and moral flaws of Black preachers as evidence of the failures of the Black Church. Aside from the obvious fallacy in equating personal moral failures as synonymous with Black churches, many of these critiques were based on a Eurocentric analysis of what makes church theology sound. In addition, the sentiments of many of these Black students expose some of the misconceptions of the Black Church that are perpetrated by the media.
What follows are two major misconceptions about Black churches.
Black preachers and churches lack morals
The media too often portrays Black preachers as being buffoons, sexually promiscuous, and money hustlers. One of the best examples of this is the show “Preachers of L.A.,” which aired from 2013-2014. The show was criticized for many things, including the negative and damning portrayal of Black preachers. At best, programs like “Preachers of L.A.” single out the exposure of the flaws of Black churches and at worst paint Black churches and preachers as completely morally bankrupt. Like “mainstream” White churches, Black churches represent the communities they serve and speak to the pain and suffering of their congregation and the broader community. They represent the sins of the world as well as the strengths of God’s people. They are not any different from White churches in regards to the severity of their sins or the fatality of their flaws, but are unique as safe community places for members who have felt hopeless and rejected by society because of their blackness.
Black churches lack theological depth
Even without the severe sensational-ism of the media on the immorality of Black preachers, there is a perception that Black churches are not deep theologically and in-stead are useful merely for entertainment. Black Gospel music singers like Kirk Franklin consistently sell out albums, but Black preachers are rarely seen as true spiritual leaders. Gospel choirs turn out large crowds for entertainment purposes, but rarely are Black theologians taken seriously and studied for spiritual growth. Similar to that of society overall, Black people are valued for their entertainment marketability, but not taken seriously intellectually or spiritually. When people list great spiritual theologians, they name White thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or C.S. Lewis, who both possessed brilliance and spiritual depth, but are not the full representatives of the great theologians of their time. One of the great Black theologians that gets constantly over-looked is Howard Thurman, whose writings have influenced social movements and understandings of spiritual disciplines.
These misconceptions are based on sweeping generalizations that mirror the narratives surrounding African Americans in our broader society including being uneducated, immoral, and mere entertainers. Furthermore, these viewpoints of Black church-es ignore the historical and contemporary richness that Black churches in America have exhibited.
In the book Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We are Stronger Together, Pastor Tony Evans argues that the Black Church has offered one of the clearest examples of biblical Christianity in American religion because the history of racism and oppression forced the Black Church to deal with and find solace in and solidarity with Scripture. Persecution forces Christians to find a special understanding and connection with scriptures, which is why Christians in the Middle East have a unique understanding of, and connection with Christ.
The Black Church should be celebrated and recognized for its value in contributing to and impacting American Christianity and for being an institution that has energized and sustained Black communities for centuries. It has given communities hope and inspired trust in God when the apartheid state of America told them they were of little value, and raised up a generation of deeply committed followers of Christ. The Black Church has true value and we should recognize it as an integral and influential part of the Christian experience in America.