Friday, May 02, 2008
Between Three Worlds - Our Story
By the end of WWII several strands of American Protestantism were evident on the religious landscape. Among them were the classical evangelicals identified by David Wells in his latest book ‘The Courage To Be Protestant’. Another group of Protestants who exerted a significant influence in America (and in some ways a much more significant than classical evangelicals) was the black bible believing church. This group mainly consisted of black Baptist and Methodist though others participated as well.
Most of us are aware that the struggle for Civil Rights was the critical issue that occupied the greater Black church following WWII. There are a number of reasons for this that I can’t get into now though there are a few things that are worth a mention regarding some of the differences between classical evangelicals and the traditional black bible believing church. Unlike the mainline church from whom evangelicals formed the traditional black church did not have a great struggle against liberalism. When you live as an oppressed minority at the whims of a capricious and at times terrorist majority you learn to hold on to a God who sits high and looks low.
Your theology revolves around the God who created the world in six days, parted the Red Sea, broke down the walls of Jericho, empowered David to slay Goliath and rescued the three Hebrew boys from the fiery furnace. Moreover, you can only find comfort, healing and hope in a Savior who was born of the virgin, cast out demons, unstopped deaf ears, opened the eyes of blind Bartimaeus, fed the five thousand and though crucified got up early one Sunday morning. But even more than that you need to know that this God’s power and immanence has not changed one iota. You want to serve the One who is the same today, yesterday and forever. Though He may not come when you want Him to you’re convinced that He’s always on time. You want and need a God who is still a lawyer in the courtroom and a doctor in the sickroom. You look forward to a literal heaven, a real mansion, streets of gold and place where everyday will be Sunday.
The god of liberalism could never have worked in the early to mid century black church. For such a god could never have protected and preserved the souls of black folk against the onslaught of racism.
Another major difference between classical evangelicalism and the bible believing black church concerned the timing of each bodies ‘worship wars’. By the time WWII ended the black church had long since made the transition from the use of mainly hymns and spirituals to what I’ll call classic gospel music. This not only meant that in general black church services were much more upbeat and expressive than our white counterparts, but also and even more importantly the black church was much more open to accepting and incorporating progressive changes in gospel music into the worship service. This meant among other things that the black church that worshiped to the sounds of the Caravan’s and James Cleveland in the 60’s had little or no problem switching to the Hawkins family in the 70’s, the Winans and Richard Smallwood in the 80’s, Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin in the 90’s and Israel and New Breed in the 21st century all while keeping their Hammond B-3 as the centerpiece of their music.
What does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? Firstly, the black church worship style allowed it to be a Tran generational church. Thus the African-American teen who walked away from the church in 66 could return to that very same church in 86 and not lament the fact that the service and music was old fashioned and out of touch. Nor did they feel a need to establish their own kind of church for their own generation. Consequently, the traditional black church never saw a need to reinvent itself in order to capture a new constituency who thought it was out of touch and irrelevant.
Secondly, as long as black folks struggled with and against racism whether overt or covert the black church saw itself in one way or another as assisting in and/or leading that struggle. The church therefore still cultivated and promoted a theology of God in which He was powerful, sovereign and immanent in the cause of empowering African-Americans to fight against racism and its effects. These two factors then, worship and mission allowed the black church to remain fairly relevant to the black community without having to change its basic approach to scripture or structure.
But then something happened. Something that the pillars of the traditional black church did not see coming. More on that next time.
To Him Who Loves Us…