Monday, May 12, 2008
Between Three Worlds - A New Thing
It’s 2008 and you awaken from the your coma to a flurry of fleeting media attention and visits by dozens of family and friends thanking God that your back. After doing a bit of catch up (you believe it when told the Birds still haven’t won a Superbowl but are convinced the fam is just playing with this talk about a black man on the precipice of the presidency) you ask about church. ‘How’s Holy Mt. Zion and pastor Jones?‘ The saints exchange glances with one another before one of them is designated to tell you ‘new thing’ God is doing. She begins by breaking the news that pastor Jones went home to be with the Lord in 1989. You listen patiently as she explains how the church had a ‘wilderness’ experience until God sent a young man to pastor the church. No matter, once cleared by your doctors you prepare for your first service of worship in almost 30 years.
Riding to church with friends and family you notice that Holy Mt. Zion has moved. The grand stone building that served the working class community for years was vacated when the church moved into new digs located in an industrial park across town. That’s not all that’s changed though. Pulling up to the new edifice you notice something. The church formerly known as Holy Mt. Zion Pentecostal Church is now Empowering Destiny Christian Center pastored by Apostle Johnson. You sit through the service and while some things are the same there’s also much that’s different. Although you have a lot of questions you keep them to yourself and continue to attend for several weeks.
Finally, after ‘special’ evening service that left you particularly perplexed the questions just start pouring out to those riding home with you. First you want to know why the church changed it’s name and why the new name has nothing to do with holiness. And though you like some of the new music, how did the service come to resemble one long loud gospel concert. You also want to know why the offering is such a big deal in the service now. Why is it you ask that we must recite a mantra to ‘speak our blessing into existence’ before sowing our seed.
And then there is ‘apostle’ Johnson. While you certainly want to support the man of God you wonder out loud why the ‘apostle’ needs three luxury cars and lives so far away from the church. And his messages have you completely confused and it’s not just his style. From your point of view though apostle Johnson uses the same terms employed by pastor Jones the meanings of the terms have changed drastically. It seems that before salvation was a journey from this world to the next in which victory was seen as moving to higher levels of holiness. Now salvation is preached as experiencing a sensational successful life here and now and victory is the absence of any pain, trial or tribulation. You look at your friends waiting for an answer and the only reply is ‘God is doing a new thing’. You then sink back in your seat wishing that God had stuck with the old things.
How did prosperity theology move from the fringe to occupy a central place within the black church? The reasons are many but they go back to the place the black church has played among the greater black community for centuries. First and foremost these churches captured the hearts of black folks by retaining a worship focus that spoke to black folks common desire to reaffirm our humanity. The black expression of worship has always a balm to the wounded souls of African-Americans. It helped reaffirm that we were people, created in God’s image and loved and accepted by Him. The black church by and large didn’t teach that we were accepted by the Lord because we were black, but it did confirm that unlike our experience in America we weren’t rejected just because we were black. It was as if in the black expression of worship God was saying ‘I created you black, I want you to be black and I accept the blackness of your humanity by being tangibly present in your worship.’ The new health and wealth churches latched onto old style Pentecostal worship and while making some crucial changes retained its open, emotional expressiveness that spoke so deeply to so many African-Americans.
The other reason prosperity appealed to black people was that it provided the theological basis and justification for the growing black middle class to maintain their focus and drive for material wealth and success. The historic black church had long assured African-Americans that God would never leave them or forsake them. That He was a very present help in the time of trouble. The church exhorted black people to wait on the Lord for though He may not come when we want Him to He’s always on time. These kinds of phrases and sermons sprung from a theology that believed that though life was hard and at times harsh, trials weren’t abnormal for God’s people. In fact many a time we heard that if there is no cross there can be no crown.
Prosperity theology changed that however by declaring that all believers including black folks were kings kids who need not live beneath their privilege by experiencing life’s ordinary difficulties and challenges. Moving beyond that prosperity theology taught that black people along with other believers were commanded by God to live in abundance in everyway. Not only were believers like other people the crown of God’s creation, they were destined to lead lives of incredible blessing if they would just walk in faith. But it goes deeper than that, much deeper. Prosperity theology (and don’t get it twisted this is a theology with distinct views on scripture, the nature of God, mankind, sin, salvation, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation and the atonement) appeals to our innate pride by declaring that we are like God in that we too can create our own reality. Moreover it’s a theology that tells us that our desires, dreams, ambitions, prosperity, comfort and achievement are central to God’s agenda and kingdom. Whereas survival and progress in the face of racism was the emphasis the traditional black church, success and prosperity is the message of much of the black church today.
And for that reason brothers and sisters it is badly in need of reform.
To Him Who Loves Us…