Pick up any text on the history of the Black Church, or listen to any speaker with an appreciation for the history of African America, and quite likely you will read or hear some version of “the Black Church is crucial to preserving the culture of the Black community.”
To be sure, there was a time when the Black Church was not only custodian to our cultural tradition but also progenitor of it. We can trace the Blues, R&B, and other music genres to the soul-deep music of the church. Our finest orators and singers had their start in a local church. And long before African Americans began to establish civic and political organizations, the Black Church served many of the functions these organizations now occupy.
But praise God! The history of African America includes advances in every area of civic, historical, and cultural productivity. We now have a range of political organizations serving the needs of African-American communities. African Americans not only sing and rap, in increasing numbers we now own record and management labels. Cultural and historical organizations now take the lead in collecting and distributing the history of African Americans. Now a greater number of academicians study and write about our history and culture than ever before. Without question, there is more to be done. But in God’s providence, despite great odds, the culture of African America has weathered the storms and continues in vibrant force today.
All of this begs a question. What responsibility does the Black Church have now for preserving Black Culture? Or, to put it differently, is it time for the African-American Church to adopt a different posture toward African-American culture?
No organization exists independent of some culture. Human beings are cultural beings. We shape culture all the time, and culture shapes us back. See Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. It’s this “shaping back” tendency of culture that requires the Black Church to step back far enough to evaluate some difficult issues.
For example, to what extent have traditional approaches to Black preaching helped or hurt Black preaching today? A good number of my preaching colleagues defend—sometimes angrily—the cultural tradition of whooping in preaching. Their defense most often centers on the cultural legitimacy of the practice. Usually absent is critical reflection on the usefulness of the form in this present time of need. In an effort to continue and preserve “Black sermonic style,” have we lost some ability to engage Black secular communities? When public discourse has risen to new levels of rigor in African-American academic circles and new heights of creativity in African-American hip hop circles, can the church be an incisive, prophetic, and helpful voice if its approach to preaching remains locked in centuries old tradition? Has the “whoop” gone hoarse? If everyone around us now speaks differently than our forebears of two hundred years ago or even fifty years ago—and they do speak differently—can the Black preacher continue to speak in a preaching vernacular largely alien and sometimes off-putting to a growing unchurched Black community? If we stiffen in the posture of preserving the culture’s historical sermonic style, we may find ourselves unable to be a preservative salt in today’s culture.
Or, take as another example, the church’s history of social and political engagement. Unlike its White evangelical counterparts, Black churches march into the political thicket and identify closely with political candidates and political parties without concern for tax-exempt status. At one point in history the church was the only institution African Americans controlled. So it became necessary and natural for the church to act in matters critical to the well-being of the entire community. But the institutional character of the community changed. Black mutual aid societies, lodges, and political groups like the NAACP emerged and got in on the political action. They even took the point in the struggle, leaving churches to provide foot soldiers and spokespersons. Eventually we began to speak of the Black church’s political importance in romantic historical tones: “The Black Church has always been….” The church became custodian to that legacy. That legacy has become so prominent and fixed in the minds of many that it’s worth asking, “In what way do continuing efforts to preserve Black political history and culture impact the church’s biblical mandate to make disciples today?”
If the Black Church never commented on another political election or policy issue but still made disciples, it would continue to be a biblical church.
Perhaps that sentence sounds like heresy to you. If so, is it not at least in part because we’ve come to so expect political engagement from our churches that we think of political engagement as very close to the church’s mission? That way of viewing the church is culture’s “shaping back.” We know that because not even Jesus launched a political campaign or commented on Roman public policy. Except for commanding His disciples to “give Caesar what is Caesar’s” (an implicit endorsement of harsh Roman tax policy), our Lord kept His face fixed like flint on Calvary, the gospel, the salvation of souls, and the renewing of the image of God in those who believe. His kingdom is not of this world. If it were, he would command his followers to fight and His Church to create theocracies. But He doesn’t.
While the Savior left the Church no political marching orders, He did have something powerful to say about the relationship between culture and the mission of the church. In one of His many verbal sparring sessions with the Scribes and Pharisees over the commandments of God, our Lord proclaimed, “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matt. 15:6). It wasn’t that the Scribes and Pharisees knowingly dishonored the word of God. Quite the contrary, they sought to keep the commandments of God by enumerating practices and requirements of their own invention. They built an entire religious culture that shaped how they then viewed the word of God. In the process, they gave more attention to their religious culture and perspective than they gave to God’s actual commandments. Thus Jesus rebuked them for making the word of God “of no effect.”
Our cultural ways of “doing church” can actually rob God’s word of its power! So, it’s worth asking whether the Black Church has arrived at a point similar to the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Has the culture of the church so shaped our point of view that it nullifies the word of God? In whatever way it has, we need to drop the cultural practice and return to the priority of God’s powerful word.