Thursday, June 07, 2007

On Being Black and Reformed

Ok. As you can see I’m taking some big, big liberties with the title of this post. Let me say from the outset that I have no intention of even attempting to re-write brother Anthony Carter’s fantastic book on the subject. I may be stupid, but I don’t think I’m crazy (at least not yet). Second allow me to plug the brother’s book. By all means if you haven’t gotten a copy please do so and add it to your summer reading list for you won’t be disappointed. Thirdly, I must tell you that for this particular series of posts I just couldn’t come up with a better title. For the issue I want to address is what might it mean for church to be both black and reformed. Fourthly, let me again stress the need and value for us to purchase and read our brother’s book ‘On Being Black and Reformed’.

To begin let me give a definition of the black church that not all may agree with. The church exists for the worship and witness of the living God as expressed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. As such every church that exists among a particular people does so to represent our Covenant Lord to those people in His saving work wrought by Jesus Christ. An integral and indispensable aspect of that witness is the reality that the church is the house of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. The church is the truth corps of heaven with the twin duties of preserving and promoting God's truth regarding His Person, ways, will, character, nature, along with what He's revealed about His word, mankind, sin, salvation, holiness and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The black church therefore isn't black in that our collective experience as a particular people group shapes the mission, character and truth of the church, but black in the sense that it is responsible for faithfully teaching and living the essential truths regarding Scripture, God, mankind, sin, salvation, the person and work of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to black people. We do not own God’s church and thus don’t have the liberty to define or re-define it to suit our particular socio/cultural needs of the moment. The following biblical example should suffice for us to recognize the validity of this point. It regards attempts to squeeze the ancient church into a Jewish mold. Jewish believers wanting to retain all aspects of their culture imported both the moral aspects and the ceremonial aspects of the law into New Covenant Christianity. You hear this in James’ statement to Paul recorded in Acts 21 “And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law;

These Jews had no intention of giving up their God-given culture, nor were they being taught to do so by the apostles who remained at Jerusalem.
However, the church would not have had the impact it did upon the Greco-Roman world had she forced the growing Gentile believers to embrace fully Jewish culture. We know that some Jews wanted to extend the observation of the ceremonial law to Gentile converts but the apostles and elders moved by the Spirit would not have it (see Acts 15). There are also clues that some Jewish believers within Gentile churches may have wanted those churches to have a predominant Jewish flavor. Once more the Spirit speaking through Paul refutes that notion (see Rom. 14). These examples can provide some important insights to those of us to sprang from and love the black church. Namely, the Scriptures teach that no one group can claim cultural hegemony over the church. Not only is it unbiblical to attempt to force one’s culture on others, but it might also be unwise for us to be too focused on retaining each and every aspect of our ethnic culture within the church. Moreover, the extent to which we demand that our particular culture dominates the church may be the extent to which we limit the spread and expansion of the gospel.

As we enter the 21st century I’d like to pose some questions for those of us who came from, love and long to see reform in the black church.
The first and perhaps most surprising is this: Should we begin to think in terms of a post-black church era? Is this the time to start thinking of re-defining the church apart from dominant ethnic labels? Granted, some of our other brothers and sisters may not be thinking this way, but why not take the lead? While thinking through your answers (and I’d welcome your responses and input) consider this: if we’re to continue having a black church who gets to define ‘blackness’?

To Him Who Loves Us…
Pastor Lance


Jim Pemberton said...

I'm an occasional worship leader at different churches in my area and on the mission field. It helps that my ethnic and cultural background is mixed enough to make me sensitive to the needs of vastly different congregations. As such, the issue of worship style with regard to the segregation or integration of any given church is of interest to me.

When a pastor looks out at the faces in his congregation, he needs to ask how his manner of speech can best communicate to them. Likewise, a good worship leader in the selection of music and the style of litany toward unified worship. If the group is culturally homogenous, then communication is arguably easier than in a more heterogenous congregation. However, we know that people of every ethnicity will surround the throne of God in that day to come. It behooves us to start with the culture we see in the pews and strive to transcend it.

Q. A. Jones said...

very, very timely post Pastor Lance! I keep telling myself I need to finish reading Tony's book - I gave it to my aunt in Camden - need to pick up another one.

appreciate the encouraging words on my blog.

I plan to write about this some on my blog - but I believe we make the culture issues more complicated than they need to be.

The issue isn't how culturally this or that the Church is - but how faithful she is to living out the Word of God. This kind of church will never place ethnicity at the forefront of who She is because She knows that Christ is all and in all. Ethnic expressions in worship, etc. will be a natural by product of the church - because of Her make up. But, a Church living out the Word will have a worship that does not take more stock in Her expression than She does Her Lord and His truth - He will overshadow any and all things because His Word will reign supreme.

But, I'm looking forward to more posts on this subject. Preach on bro!

Jude 2-3,


Pastor Lance said...

hey jim thanks for checking in and giving input. one of my concerns is how we can tend to sacramentalize culture and carry the belief that it shouldn't or doesn't have to be transformed.

Pastor Lance said...

yo Q.

thanks for your engaging and timely post. here and at the council of reforming churches i plan to explore the idea of a post-black church that places an emphasis on being biblically directed instead of culturally directed. stay tuned and keep up the good work brother.

FellowElder said...

I appreciate the post and the excellent, provocative questions!

I'm feeling pretty post-Black church for a number of reasons I won't list for fear of hijacking your post :-). But I will share one.

Two Sundays ago I included an allusion to a Whodini song, "The Freaks Come Out at Night." Yeah, I know, I'm dating myself. The last time I used it, it struck the audience pretty helpfully, by God's grace. This time, looking out on a church filled with people from the Caribbean, Canada, the UK, the Philipines, and a smattering from the States and Africa... the illustration brought blank and confused stares.

So much for the hip hop church in the Caribbean :-). The expression was second nature for me, but completely alien for most everyone here. I'm learning all the time that "culture" and "cultural expression" is not neutral and that a minimalist approach actually fits more cultures in the end.

Even defining "blackness" has a lot to do with where you live. Pose that question here and it's far less meaningful (or meaningful in different ways) than in the States. This is why I think pan-Africanism and Africentrism break down when they try to reach across the U.S. borders. Turns out that most "blacks" outside the U.S. don't define themselves in the same terms as "Blacks" inside the U.S. But as long as we're askng who can define it, I want to stand in that line and put my two cents in :-).

ajcarter said...

Shame on you, Q!

Q. A. Jones said...

Ahhhh, I'm busted! Man Tony, you wasn't supposed to be over hear reading Lance's blog! :-)

pray for my aunt - I need to follow up to see if she read it or not - she's not a believer but very afrocentric.

but, as soon as I pick it up again - I'm going to read it in one sitting and call you to let you know I'm done! :-)

Jeremy Pierce said...

Excellent questions. I hear white people asking questions like this without having any understanding of the real cultural issues that this would involve for black people, largely because they're not entirely sensitized to those kinds of issues. I don't think movement in the direction you're suggesting is going to come as easily unless it's initiated by black churches, and yet it's rare to hear a black Christian who is actually involved with a black church saying this kind of thing. In an era when we have a black or largely black church across the road from a white or largely white church, with neither seeking much interaction with the other, we really do need to think through these questions more seriously and carefully.

wwdunc said...

Well, Pastor Lance, I certainly can agree with your definition of the church, and I especially appreciate this sentence: "Every church that exists among a particular people does so to represent our Covenant Lord to those people in His saving work wrought by Jesus Christ."

Of course, the "Black Church" (as we call it in the U.S.) has never been about doctrine, because it didn't come into existence over doctrinal issues. As we all know, the Black Church came into existence because of white racism, and has always been, more or less, about the shared experience of living and surviving as Black people in a racist white society. As these racial barriers gradually disappear, and more and more Black people feel free to venture outside the cultural safety of the Black community, the Black Church will probably need to rethink its reason for existence. But, let's never forget, it was the racism of the surrounding society which created the undue focus on race within the Black Church. In fact, the more I think about it, many (or most?) of the problems that many of us see in today's Black Church can be traced back to the cultural isolation of the Black Church and community which was brought about by this country's long history of white racism. So, whereas I see there are many things about the Black Church that need to change, I'm empathetic because I realize how it got in the shape it's in.

But, I've gone on too long. Sorry.

I'm looking forward to your future comments on this subject.

Grace to you,

Wyeth Duncan

Graham said...

As a white Christian, I'm deeply interested to hear your answer to, Is this the time to start thinking of re-defining the church apart from dominant ethnic labels?

What is needed is not to redefine our churches in terms of our ethnicities (I wonder how people would respond if I suggested that the "white church" should define itself in terms of "whiteness"), but in terms of the Gospel; that will make the white church in many, many ways much less "white", and the black church much less "black" - but both, and together, more like Christ.

Augustine captures well what is important:
"It is a matter of no moment in the city of God whether he who adopts the faith that brings men to God adopts it in one dress and manner of life or another, so long only as he lives in conformity with the commandments of God. And hence, when philosophers themselves become Christians, they are compelled, indeed, to abandon their erroneous doctrines, but not their dress and mode of living, which are no obstacle to religion . . . provided always nothing indecent or self-indulgent is retained" (City of God p697)