The Coming Reformation of Black Churches

You know the quip: “I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet.” Nor do I play one on TV.

But I think I see something coming, and I’m really encouraged by it. Now, no prophet enjoyed a universally good reputation and no prophet ever had everyone receive his words. When they did, they were false prophets and their words fell to the ground. So I don’t expect everyone to see what I think I see or to agree with me that it’s good. That’s fine. Time will tell.

But I think we’re beginning to ride a spiritual wave that will wash over African-American communities and churches. There’s a reformation (or, if you prefer, a revival) on the way. I think it’ll crash against the banks of Black life with the tidal force of a tsunami.

Let me tell you what I think I see coming.

1. An army of young African-American men who love the church and Christian ministry.

For as long as I’ve been a Christian (or alive really!), getting African-Americans deeply involved in the life of the church has been a challenge. It’s not unique to Black churches, but it’s certainly a challenge. But there’s a generation of men under 40 who are zealous for the glory of the Lord, sacrificial in service to the church, and eager to have their lives count in the advance of the kingdom. Some of these men want to be pastors and leaders. But many of them don’t. They have callings in other areas but they have a great love for God’s word, the truth, and seeing others embrace it. The rising generation of African-American Christian men will possess the kind of honest grit and humble transparency that will take them to other men in need of the gospel.

2. A legion of young African-American women who are radical for Christ and their place in kingdom work.

What excites me is that the rise of strong brothers does not mean the diminishment of strong sisters. Everyone knows the Black church has survived on the shoulders of Black women who have been the foot soldiers. The young sisters coming along are every bit the soldier as the seasoned hat-wearing sisters of older generations. But they’re also sharp theologically, evangelistically and domestically. My grandmother always “had a little talk with Jesus.” These young sisters have that talk with Jesus then they hit the streets and the blogosphere and their living rooms to tell others about this Jesus. They read Grudem and Bavinck as well as DuBois and Carter—and they apply it. I’m seeing sisters driven by the Great Commission, wanting to be faithful disciples and to make others. It’s glorious putting them next to young brothers!

3. A latitude born of post-Civil Rights freedom and mobility.

This coming generation has an open horizon that their parents dreamed of, worked for, but didn’t quite see. They stand on the shoulders of those who went before and as a consequence they can see farther out and span wider places. They can be self-consciously African American without being self-conscious about being African American. They have an ability to cross ethnic, cultural and class boundaries with greater frequency and ease than any generation preceding it. They are respectful of previous paradigms of blackness, but also creatively redefining it and holding it in dialogue with other identities—most important and primary being their identity in Christ. Because they’re free to be Christians, without proving they’re Black Christians, they’re actually better at both being Christian and “being Black.” Both identities are getting expressed in increasingly missional ways. They’re using their freedom to advance the gospel.

4. A group of leaders serious about biblical, evangelistic, doctrinal exposition.

Write it down: The future of Black preaching is expositional preaching. I mean real exposition, real exegetical, faithful, applied, intense preaching of what the text really means in light of the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ. The clock is ticking on the entertainer posing as preacher, the lecturer posing as preacher, the phrase-turner posing as preacher, the dramatist posing as preacher and the story-teller posing as preacher. In a generation the historical forms of Black preaching will be all but extinct. This coming group of men will be word men in such a way that the word gets center stage in their preaching—not their gifts of humor, flare, and so on. These men will preach Jesus relentlessly—not as a passing reference or obligatory ending vaguely connected to the text, but as the sum and substance of every text. Languishing churches will be revived. Planted churches will flower. Erring churches will straighten. The dry bones will rise and live!

5. A move back into cities.

Right now, the great migration to northern cities is being reversed. Large numbers of African Americans have been moving back south and often to southern cities. In addition, significant numbers of African Americans remain in central city areas. The present energy in church planting, for example, is largely directed at the borders of cities and crossroad neighborhoods where various kinds of people meet. The churches that still occupy those neighborhoods are largely African American. As we move forward, more and more men are going to go beyond the crossroads back into the heart of African-American areas and as they do so they’re going back into the heart of African-American people. Those that continue to serve multi-ethnic areas will largely be led by African Americans, who will have along with Hispanic and Asian brothers the largest cache of cultural capital and skill in negotiating diverse spaces.

6. A serious glocal reach.

The coming reformation will feature equal emphasis on local service to the community and global, cross-cultural mission. “Church”as Sunday morning show will be over. Church will increasingly mean daily discipleship and living out the faith among neighbors and coworkers. Gathering will continue to be critical, but intentionally scattering will be the work of the church as “church work”is disdained. Increasingly these churches will re-involve themselves in cross-cultural missions. That international reach will drastically change the internal dynamic of local congregations. Churches will staff for mission. They will feel more organic and less structured. They will be entrepreneurial and committed to theologically- and biblically-informed innovation. But they won’t be faddish. There will be enough discernment to know the difference. A lot of this will be enabled by the fact that so many of the leaders coming up have not been “churched”in the traditions and habits that once served a purpose but now drain energy and life. It isn’t that they’re hyper-critical or very critical at all of the traditional Black church (however you define it). It’s that they have the advantage of an inside-outsider perspective. They can see more and reach more.

7. A passionate pursuit of vital godliness and holiness.

I’m seeing lots of young people who are simply impressive in their desire to live godly lives, to battle sin like Christians, to be conformed to the image of Christ. Their faith isn’t privatized the way their parents’and grandparents’were. They prize accountability as good and necessary, and they’re learning to resist the fear of man. They don’t have a form of godliness, but godliness itself. They’re running hard after the Lord and in increasing measure finding that He has already run to them.

Watch the waves as they rise and crest. There are brothers and sisters inside the curve or tube and they are going to break all over the African-American community. Put your wet suit on and get in the water with them!

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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