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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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The Black Church Is Alive (“Don’t Call It a Comeback”)

May 03, 2010

A longstanding debate about the relevance of "The Black Church" has resurfaced recently. In February Princeton University religion professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. penned an op-ed piece for The Huffington Post titled "The Black Church Is Dead." This created a firestorm of sorts amongst black professors and clergy while the matter was debated even further on blogs and social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

A group of black professors collaborated in a response on Religion Dispatches, an online magazine, aptly titled "The Black Church is Dead-Long Live the Black Church," concluding with a reply by Glaude. Adding another dimension to the controversy, Glaude and Josef Sorett, a religion professor at Columbia University, discussed the supposed death of the black church in a video conference that was posted on Bloggingheads.tv On April 16, 2010 Samuel G. Freedman wrote an article for The New York Times that explored the ongoing dispute from each perspective and provided helpful historical substance.

This is undoubtedly a sensitive and complex subject. I recommend visiting the above links to better understand the issue as it has been articulated of late. Given the traction that it has already received it is impossible for me to elaborate on every element of the conflict in this small space. However, I feel compelled to offer my perspective; not as absolute truth by any means, but an insightful-and I hope helpful-opinion nonetheless.

The black church may be sick, but it isn't dead. It isn't even on life support. It isn't on palliative or hospice care either. No, it is alive.

Contrary to the opposition, seemingly at least, the black church is alive because Jesus Christ is alive and active in the world today. Call that outdated, narrow-minded Christian orthodoxy if you will, but it is or should be at the heart of this matter. At its core the church isn't merely a non-profit organization or, conversely, a for-profit corporate entity. It isn't a center for motivational, self-help seminars. It isn't a social club. It isn't a nightclub either. It is, however, the vehicle-the people, not the building-that God has provided for those called "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."[1]

Of course, though, this is the main crisis that Glaude and others have raised as a point of contention with the black church. It is the chasm between what ought to be and what sadly often is[2]; that is, the truth about God's church and the reality that it regularly struggles against and at times succumbs to. Martin Luther King, Jr., although issued as challenge to the prejudices of white Christians and their churches, once raised similar criticism:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.[3]

Point taken.

Anyone who belongs to the black church or the church universal-in that as a Christian they are bound together with other believers by their profession of "one faith, one Lord, one baptism"[4]-would concede that while God is perfect God's church is far from it. No one is arguing that the black church is literally dead rather that just that it is obsolete, irrelevant to, unconcerned with, and disconnected from its historical service rendered to the least of these.[5]

Essentially, as the argument goes, the black church today has sold itself down the river to the devil in exchange for a few pieces of silver. It has sold-out, embracing the health and wealth gospel[6] ("name it and claim it"), subjugating women[7], and erecting gigantic edifices of bourgeoisie worship. It has gained the world and lost its soul. Birthed out of the muck and mire of oppression, there are those who would claim that the black church has now become an oppressor itself, exploiting and neglecting its own. The most recent senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and former homiletics and New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University, Brad Braxton[8] has commented similarly:

In order to remain relevant in the next century, the black church also must balance empowering persons for everyday living by seeking more breadth in our social outreach ministries. We have always fought for social justice. For centuries, we vigilantly led the crusade to defeat "the enemy without." That enemy has primarily been white supremacy and its many insidious implications. Yet, as we move to a new millennium, the black church must openly acknowledge that our primary foes may no longer be external, but internal.[9]

The black church has many internal problems that need to be addressed seriously, swiftly, and biblically. It would be irresponsible to suggest anything less. According to a popular hip-hop track, "Jesus can't save you, life starts when the church ends."[10] But, I, for one, am unwilling to render it deceased. No, contrary to the burgeoning opinion of some, the black church is alive. This debate about the black church ought to be one of impact not existence. The black church is here to stay, although I would be among the first to admit that it needs to roll up its sleeves and get dirty in reacquiring its prophetic voice and walking shoes; which is to say, we are called to gain life by losing ours in service to those around us. The same goes for the church universal.

This debate needs to be reframed. Scholastic jargon and intellectual panache simply won't do. Surmising that the black church is dead (meaning insignificant) necessitates biblical, decidedly Christian responses. It takes more than broad discussions of African American religious history to adequately explore how the black church understands the missio Dei; that is, the reality of its modis operandi versus the truth about how it has been called by God to function.

Moreover, it makes a huge difference in what one's core spiritual beliefs are in addressing this issue constructively. As a philosophical humanist, atheist or skeptic otherwise it seems that one might always aspire to declare the death of the black church because there was no belief in it or the existence of the God who made it in the first place. If you love the black church[11], however, I mean really love the black church, because you love Jesus and understand its place in the economy of God's kingdom, then you have a fundamentally different foundation from whence to begin a conversation. You can be critical of the black church and the church universal, but it is done out of love and an ardent belief in God that says things can and will get better.

For that reason, the next time someone tries to convince you that the black church is dead let them know that they are mistaken.

There will be no pronouncement of ashes to ashes and dust to dust today. There will be no eulogy delivered, no postlude hammered out on the organ. There will be no funeral.

Don't call it a comeback either. The black church has been here for years and will continue in its mission to be salt and light in an unseasoned, dark world.

It is far from perfect, but Jesus Christ was and is. Therefore, because he lives so too does the black church.

What Jesus said speaks volumes to this debate: "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."[12]

Don't believe the hype. The black church is alive!


[1] Ephesians 4:11-13.
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1981), 40.
[3] Ibid, 64.
[4] Ephesians 4:4-6.
[5] For current contributions to this end see Anthony B. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Thabiti M. Ayabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2007).
[6] See Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Name It and Claim It?: Prosperity Preaching in the Black Church (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2007).
[7] See Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (Berkley, CA: University of California, 2003), Daphne Wiggins, Righteous Content: Black Women's Perspectives of Church and Faith (New York: New York University, 2006), Teresa L. Fry Brown, Can A Sistah Get A Little Help?: Encouragement for Black Women in Ministry (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2008), Vashti M. McKenzie, Strength in the Struggle: Leadership Development for Women (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001).
[8] http://bradbraxton.com
[9] Niles E. Goldstein, ed., Spiritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America from Young Spiritual Leaders of Many Faiths (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 1999), 150.
[10] Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind," The Blueprint 3, Roc Nation, 2009 (CD).
[11] See-to be released on June 5, 2010-William H. Crouch, Joel C. Gregory, What We Love About the Black Church (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2010). This volume will include contributions from Cynthia Hale, Ralph West, J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Cynthia Hale, and other leading black pastors.
[12] Matthew 8:22.


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