The Black Church at a Crossroads

Is the “black church” at a crossroads? Dr. Alton D. Pollard III, Dean and Professor of Ethics and Religion at Howard University School of Divinity, thinks it is.  In a recent article published in the Huntington Post, entitled Fifty Years Later: The Black Church Since 1963, Pollard argues that the traditional black church in America is in an identity crisis and must define again her mission and message if she is going to be relevant in the coming years. Fifty years on from 1963, the seminal year in the Civil Rights Movement, Pollard argues that the church has regressed and is in disrepair. 

According to Pollard, “The state of affairs in African American churches is as unsettled as those of larger society. Among Black mainline denominations meaning, mission and memberships are in disrepair. Non-denominationalism and non-affiliation are the new church growth sectors. The litmus test for inclusion in the church grows weary and unsteady in the face of a host of contested and expansive values ranging from family, gender and sexuality to culture, ethnicity and social class.”

Apparently, Pollard believes the church has lost ground because it fails to be as inclusive as the nation around her desires to be. An advocate for same-sex marriage, Pollard appears to want the church to become relevant by becoming more open-minded. However, history has shown us that the church that becomes more open-minded actually finds itself closing more church doors. Mainline traditional black churches, like their white comrades, are not losing ground because they stand on biblical convictions, but because they refuse to.

Today, many people want to down play the importance of theological conviction. However, the history of the church consistently tells us that where and when the church was strongest, she was also theologically clearest.

Recently, I was invited to address a class at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), home to some the foremost historically black seminaries in the country. The professor of the class I was visiting greeted me warmly and informed me that he was retiring after nearly 30 years of teaching. He explained that his greatest frustration over the years has been watching the erosion of the theological conviction of the schools.

Today, ITC stands for little except the embracing of everything. For years, the school has been in a precipitated decline with no foreseeable way of halting its slide. The professor lamented how this loss of theological clarity has led to a confused leadership and the inability to articulate a clear vision for the future. Essentially, in reference to his school, the professor was saying to me what the Bible says about Israel during the time of the Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” ITC is one of the theological training grounds for leadership in mainline black churches. Regrettably, the church that is served by institutions like ITC should expect a similar fate.

I believe we can agree with Pollard’s assessment of the current terrain of many mainline churches. However, his prescription for healing what ails the church is toxic. He suggests that the church needs to do more of what got her to this position in the first place. According to Pollard: “Black churches must direct their still formidable resources to public policy advocacy and education, to engaging the complex underlying structural and systemic forces that work against community building.” This direction is exactly what Phil cautioned pastors of in his recent article!

I am not a physician, but even I know you don’t heal yourself by doing more of what made you sick.

Actually, the cure for what Pollard believes ails the church, is sitting in her midst. It is on the lap of most parishioners and in the hand of most preachers. The cure is the Word of God, rightly understood and unapologetically proclaimed. It is the Word of God set free to condemn sin where sin is found, and comfort where repentance is sought. It is the Word of God revealing the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the only way of salvation.

Pollard raises a lot of questions for the church. Many of his questions are legitimate. However, his answers are the same ones that pushed the church to the place he presently laments. More social action and political involvement may put the church back in the headlines briefly, but it won’t put it back in the center of God’s mission on earth. For that she will need to recover, first and foremost her biblical and theological convictions, before she can truly have social and political ones. If she would, like Josiah, recover and restore the centrality of God’s Word (), she might just find the true prophetic voice that has been conspicuously absent and which we all long to hear once again.

34:1 Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them. And he broke in pieces the Asherim and the carved and the metal images, and he made dust of them and scattered it over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali, in their ruins all around, he broke down the altars and beat the Asherim and the images into powder and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had cleansed the land and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God. They came to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him the money that had been brought into the house of God, which the Levites, the keepers of the threshold, had collected from Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin and from the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 10 And they gave it to the workmen who were working in the house of the Lord. And the workmen who were working in the house of the Lord gave it for repairing and restoring the house. 11 They gave it to the carpenters and the builders to buy quarried stone, and timber for binders and beams for the buildings that the kings of Judah had let go to ruin. 12 And the men did the work faithfully. Over them were set Jahath and Obadiah the Levites, of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to have oversight. The Levites, all who were skillful with instruments of music, 13 were over the burden-bearers and directed all who did work in every kind of service, and some of the Levites were scribes and officials and gatekeepers.

14 While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the Lord given through Moses. 15 Then Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan. 16 Shaphan brought the book to the king, and further reported to the king, “All that was committed to your servants they are doing. 17 They have emptied out the money that was found in the house of the Lord and have given it into the hand of the overseers and the workmen.” 18 Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it before the king.

19 And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes. 20 And the king commanded Hilkiah, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Abdon the son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, 21 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

22 So Hilkiah and those whom the king had sent went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tokhath, son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter) and spoke to her to that effect. 23 And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 24 Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah. 25 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore my wrath will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched. 26 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 27 because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 28 Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.’” And they brought back word to the king.

29 Then the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. 30 And the king went up to the house of the Lord, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. 31 And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. 32 Then he made all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin join in it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. 33 And Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel and made all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord, the God of their fathers. (ESV)

Tony Carter
Tony Carter serves as the Lead Pastor of East Point Church. Tony is married to his beloved, Adriane Carter, and their marriage has bore the fruit of five wonderful children. Holler at him on Twitter: @eastpc

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