I am among those who tremble when I hear people refer to “The Black Church.” Christians believe that there is only one church and the only proper description of the church is the Christian Church. However, ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, ethnic and doctrinal distinctions were made among the followers of Jesus. Many of the books in the New Testament are identified by the geographical location of the intended recipients. We therefore often refer to the Galatian Church or Thessalonian Church. In that sense this “black church” recognition of a significant number of Christians whose common identity is the African American experience is as valid within the Christian tradition as scholarly and historical references the “Roman Church” or the “Ethiopian Coptic Church.”
So my negative feelings about the term “the black church” is not in response to the word “black.” Rather it is in response to the word “the.” Whenever someone waxes eloquent about “the” black church I want to ask them which black church they mean. Historically, black churches have a common heritage being the only major branch of Christianity that emerged from a dispute related to justice and not doctrine.
The major schisms in Christian history in the 4th, 10th and 16th centuries were all related to differences in Christian doctrine. The 18th century movement of black Christians in North America, however, resulted from black worshippers refusing to be treated as less than human by their white Christian counterparts. This protest against Christian injustice by black Christians gave birth to what we now call “the black church” and every African American congregation has its roots in this legacy. The term “black church” summarizes the institutional response of black Christians in North America to the individual and institutional racism practiced by white Christians.
But today we have all kinds of black churches. Many of these churches function within the holistic tradition of relevant, prophetic ministry. But many black churches shun their historical legacy and have pursued directions that not only deny their heritage but actually exhibit a disdain for it. These churches accept the benefits of the black religious tradition – such as higher rates of church attendance by black people than other ethnic groups – while abandoning the focus on uplift of black people not only spiritually but also educationally and economically.
African Americans are disproportionately represented in every negative statistic reported from health care to educational achievement. These data serve as constant reminders that we need targeted strategies that address the unique challenges of a people who are the descendants of the most creative form of oppression ever experienced, executed by the same people that taught their victims their religion. Such targeting should be a natural part of the philosophy and program of the institution that reaches the largest audience of black people on a weekly basis.
The genius of the black experience is that our forebears were able to use the very tool that was the primary means of oppression – Christian religion – and use it as a primary means of liberation. There are many black churches that are faithful to that legacy and are addressing the temporal and eternal needs of their members and communities. But there are many others – some very prominently featured in various media – that have allowed their pastors to function much more like pimps than prophets and servants. So when you hear the term “the black church” please ask the question “Which black church do you mean?”