One of the more popular shows on BET (Black Entertainment Television) is the gospel music talent show Sunday Best. Hosted by gospel music legend Kirk Franklin, the show airs on Sunday evenings and offers itself as the gospel music equivalent and alternative to popular talent shows like American Idol and The Voice. In one sense, the show serves as a brief respite from the otherwise sexually suggestive and often explicit music regularly offered by BET. Yet, ironically, the popularity of the show also reminds us that black viewership maintains a sensitivity to spiritual things.
Unfortunately, the show Sunday Best has taken what should be used in worship, namely gospel music, and transformed it into trivialized entertainment and an opportunity for vanity and pride. No, I am not a fan of the show, though my mother-in-law and apparently many others are. What the show does remind me of, however, is that there really is a such thing as Sunday Best.
The show Sunday Best may be a recent phenomenon, but the idea of Sunday best is not new. The black church has offered its Sunday Best throughout its history. Consider what is best on any given Sunday in the traditional black church:
1. Sunday Best Dress | In today’s Christian culture where there is an increase in the casual, almost laissez-faire, approach to God and worship, the traditional black church reminds us that in coming to worship we should seek to offer our best (2 Sam. 24:24). One the ways the church does this is in the clothes that are worn. When I was growing up, my closet didn’t contain many clothes. But the clothes I had were in three categories: school clothes, play clothes, and Sunday clothes. These three were not to mix. The best of the lot, however, was always saved for Sunday. We were taught to offer God, not the left overs or the after thoughts, but our best. And it began with the clothes we wore. Unfortunately, our present generation has lost that sense of Sunday dress. Today, we come to church in baggy jeans and hoodies. While I don’t think we should make a huge deal out of one’s dress (so long as it is modest – 1 Tim. 2:9), when I see the seasoned saints coming into the sanctuary dressed intentionally in some of their finest attire, I am reminded of the gravity of worship and the intentional thought that should go into worship each Sunday, as we offer to God our best.
“The black church has offered its Sunday Best…”
2. Sunday Best Fellowship | In our age of instant gratification and people insisting upon everything fast and easy, the traditional black church reminds us that the best things often take time, including worship of God and the communion of the saints. The black church traditionally has not been pressed for time. Before there were mega-churches with multiple services, people did not watch their clocks and anguish over how long service was running. Sunday was for fellowship. And there was no better fellowship than the fellowship of the saints. In fact, after service, fellowship meals were had either at the church or at homes, and someone always invited the pastor over to make sure he was fed between services. Why? Because there was an evening service. Sunday was for fellowship. And fellowship was always best on Sunday.
3. Sunday Best Welcome | In the traditional black church there are no strangers. I have belonged to and served in black churches in several states. I have visited many more. I can honestly say that I have rarely ever felt a stranger. In fact, in most of the smaller ones I have been asked to stand, give my name and state what church I come from. The black church has always had the welcome mat out. While many white churches in the South were barring the doors of admittance to other ethnicities, the black church has welcomed all without regard to race, color, or nationality. The pastor of the church in my youth would offer the invitation at the end of the sermon by saying, “The doors of the church are open.” For the black church this has not been an empty platitude. When the black church says “the doors of the church are open,” she means it.
4. Sunday Best Forgiveness | They tell us that Americans are a people of second chances. We love to give our fallen heroes a chance to redeem themselves and make up for our disappointments in them. Yet, no institution in America has exemplified this more than the traditional black church. Those who have lived and loved within her walls have seen and experienced the wealth of the treasury that is forgiveness. The black church is not just the place of second chances, or third chances, but she has seemingly taken our Lord’s admonition to heart and has been willing to forgive her fallen leaders seventy times seven (Mt. 18:21-22). The hallmark of the gospel is forgiveness. And we are never more like Jesus than when we are forgiving. Consequently, one could say that the traditional black church, in this sense, has been the most like Jesus, and continues to be so.
5. Sunday Best Music. When people think of the traditional black church, they generally think of two things: preaching and singing. And of the two, the latter is probably the most notable. The black church has long been the bastion of great singers and performers. Some of the most notable performers in the history of R & B music got their start singing in church. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, and R. Kelly, these and many more, got their first taste of the stage by performing in church. Today the black church continues to be a place where the talented and gifted are given a platform and where the musical production inspires all who hear. The fact that a show like Sunday Best can be so successful is due in large measure to the quality of music the black church has and continues to produce. In fact, Sunday Best happens any given Sunday in the traditional black church.
Obviously, like anything, we can take a good thing to extremes. And what may have started off good can quickly turn bad. Unfortunately, when it comes to some of her best virtues, at times the black church has abused them to her own detriment. Her best dress has often degenerated into a fashion show and has caused some to experience angst or undue pride or pressure over their dress or the dress of others. Her best welcome at times has caused her to open her doors so wide as to not be willing to close them when discipline for sin and correction is necessary. Her best forgiveness has at times made a mockery of the ministry and has allowed men to continue in pastoral and deaconate positions for which they are no longer morally qualified (just look at Thabiti’s recent article for an example of this!). And her best music has at times made an idol out of the performer, and thus what is best for Sunday has been turned into a commercialized Sunday Best.
Yes, the black church has much for which she could be criticized. And as you know, on The Front Porch we don’t hesitate to offer our loving critique. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that she has much to commend her as well. In fact, what she does best she usually does on Sunday. Perhaps we should look to her again and see if she can’t encourage us to consider being at our best as well. As a son of the black church, she has inspired me to do my best for the Lord, and not just on Sunday.