When most people think of the black church, a vision of hooping preacher’s tuning up to bluesy organ playing, gospel choirs robed and swaying to upbeat music, members shouting and dancing as they are moved by the spirit to do so, and everyone dressed in their Sunday’s best with the ladies wearing the biggest hats one can imagine. That is the idealized version of the black church, but it isn’t the reality. The reality is that the black church is about as diverse as any other ethnic group’s religious expression. There are the Methodists (of which I am affiliated), the Baptists (of which are my religious origins), the Pentecostals (the liveliest of the group), and more recently the non-affiliated fellowships, assemblies, and what not that is becoming the more reticent trend. The black church has certainly come a long way since the Christian religion was introduced to African tribes and new slaves arriving in the west.
Historically when we think of the black church we must think of the movements that brought about a sense of connection for black slaves and freemen in the western world. Leaders such as Richard Allen with the Free African Society, William Seymour and the Azusa movement (later adopted by Bishop Carlton Pearson), C.H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ movement (this led to splinter groups such as the Church of Christ Holiness, USA, the Assemblies of God, and several other COGIC organizations that took the name but not the leadership), and the National Baptist Conventions (USA, America, Progressive, and more recently the National Missionary Baptist and Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship).
The black church has had it’s moments of a collective identity particularly one of social and economic oppression. The local black church has until recently been the epicenter of activity in the black community. There are some churches that have managed to stay and grow within their communities even as demographics have changed and there are others that have taken up shop in the suburbs and managed to experience exceptional growth numerically yet have diminishing influence on their members regarding social and political issues. During the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow up to the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century, the black church was the driving force for education, economic thrift and development, and social justice. This isn’t the case anymore.
The black church as a collective is becoming largely discombobulated and outdated. This is evident as more black pastors begin to function independently of a denominational governing body and become celebrities in their own right. Take for instance, Bishop T.D. Jakes, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, movie and music producer and now talk show host. 20 years ago, he was a rising star from West Virginia and is now considered by many to be the 21st Century Billy Graham. There is also Dr. Michael Beckwith, motivational speaker and contemporary mystic who was featured on “The Secret” a best selling documentary about wealth and prosperity creation. There are many more that have reached the pinnacle of both religious and secular success and wealth. These represent the great change the black church has undergone in the last two centuries.
For me, the biggest thing about the contemporary black church is how stifled it is. While there is a great thrust of religious diversity in the American society, the black church has seemingly only been in mark time. What is interesting is that the more mainline streams of black religious experience are attempting to find relevance in latter day movements such as the charismatic and apostolic movements. This is more prominent on the African continent and in Latin America than anywhere else. As this is occurring, more blacks are beginning to find identities outside of the black church. More are identifying as non-believers (atheists/agnostics), Buddhist, hindu, and even turning to western African religious traditions (voodoo, ancestral worship, etc). There are also new sects such as the Black Israelites rising up in pockets of the south and the north.
It’s still a good thing to know that there is a black church. Its a powerful communication of how we as a people collectively managed to adapt to new oppressions in a new world. We took the religion of the masters and made it our own. We used a tool that was created to keep us in bondage as a way of empowering us to rise out of that same bondage. We developed a culture within a culture that is emulated by other ethnic groups around the world. We found a way to make the church of Christ an instrument of prosperity for the preacher and the community. The challenge now for the black church is to find a way to reconnect to those things that got us this far. It is time to go back to the “old landmark”. It is time to celebrate our diversity without crippling our power. I believe this can be done and know it should be done. The question now is “will it be done?”