The black church has a rich history. It stoked a covert revival on plantations across the South, inspiring slaves with visions of freedom and a passion to pray for better days. It educated newly emancipated African-Americans in the years following the Civil War, building colleges and universities that helped form the beginning of the black middle class. It mobilized communities to march during the turbulent civil rights era, challenging both black and white Americans to model the biblical values of equality and justice that the nation was founded upon.
Today in churches nationwide African-American ministers continue to espouse the virtues of freedom, education and fairness. But black Americans aren't the only ones hindered from achieving those goals. At a time when the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, when roughly a third of high school students aren't graduating on time and when immigration is changing the complexion of U.S. cities, the black church is being called to a new level of leadership.
This month we asked several African-American Christian leaders to discuss the challenges facing the black church and to cast a vision for the future. Although the messages are tailored toward a specific segment of the body of Christ, the truth in their words transcends ethnic barriers. The influence of homosexuality on the church, the call to Christian unity and the need for spiritual renewal are issues that all believers must grapple with. We believe the voices highlighted here represent fresh leadership not only in the black church but also in the body of Christ at large. As the nation looks back in celebration of Black History Month, we want to look forward to the new day God is bringing to the church.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
By Edward Gilbreath
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of blacks believe African-Americans should no longer be viewed as a single community. The poll put scientific heft behind what many African-Americans have known forever: Black America is as culturally diverse and ideologically sophisticated as the rest of the nation.
How else can you explain a racial group that comprises both Spike Lee and Condoleezza Rice, T.D. Jakes and Jimmie "J.J." Walker? We're not all Democrats. We're not all fans of hip-hop. Many of us can't jump.
In that Pew poll, 53 percent of African-Americans agreed with the statement that "blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition." As recently as 1994, 60 percent of African-Americans believed racial prejudice was the main obstacle to blacks' economic success. What's more, 61 percent of blacks said class, not race, accounts for the greatest social differences in our nation. Yet the specter of race continues to haunt us.
For the last year, I've traveled around the nation speaking to Christian groups about the importance of diversity and racial reconciliation in the body of Christ. I speak primarily about the church's black-white divide, which typically has meant addressing white audiences about the things they fail to see about our relationships across racial lines. But everyone knows the issue is much bigger than black and white, and we do the kingdom of God a disservice when we freeze the discussion there.
The reality is that we live in desperately polarized times. Everybody's fed up. And everybody goes on the Internet or talk radio to let you hear about it.
White folks are tired of black folks playing the race card. Black folks are tired of waiting for white folks to "get it." American-born Latinos are tired of being judged and treated as if they were illegal. And illegal immigrants are tired of being exploited for their labor and then told, "We don't want you in this country!"
These are complex issues that we shouldn't take lightly. But as a church we need to be willing to move beyond conventional wisdom and take the time to apply kingdom wisdom. For many African-Americans, this may mean abandoning a victim mentality. It may mean extending more grace to whites and people of other races. It may mean searching our own hearts for those pockets of prejudice, hatred and unforgiveness. It may mean seeing beyond color.
Jesus didn't operate using labels or stereotypes or broad generalizations. He took the time to see people for who they really were. He loved them.
Too often, it's easy for us to write folks off because they live in "that" neighborhood or belong to "that" political party or attend a church in "that" denomination. It's easy to brand folks a certain way and then excuse ourselves from any obligation to connect with them.
But love requires more. Love requires intentionality. It requires preferring others over ourselves. It requires taking the time to get to know someone beyond the labels and stereotypes that we—or our group—have placed upon them.
The apostle Paul wrote, "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view" (2 Cor. 5:16, NIV). As Christ's diverse body, we must allow that spiritual truth to become a lived reality for us today. Our racial and gender and denominational and cultural unity represents a tangible expression of the power of Christ's love (see John 17:20-23). When the world sees it in action, it is so much more compelling than anything we could ever preach at them.
Edward Gilbreath is the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity (InterVarsity Press) and the editorial director for Urban Ministries Inc., in Chicago.
Taking a Stand for Righteousness
By DL Foster
It is no secret that religious gays and lesbians are on a relentless quest to establish theological credibility for same-sex relationships in the black church today. It's also no secret that they are gaining ground. Although the quandary of religious homosexuality is not unique to the black church, certain efforts by religious gays are destabilizing the foundations of order, faith and biblical authority in the church.
Although a majority of black Christians believe that homosexuality is sinful, there is a sharp disconnect between belief and the application of our beliefs. In this, we are people of dead works. A myriad of sexually immoral practices exist within our churches, even among our leaders. The open stench of this blatant hypocrisy is the primary reason we have lost the authority necessary to confront the rapid advancement of homosexual-affirming theology.
Can we eradicate homosexuality in the church? No, and neither is it the goal. But we can hold false teachers and their false doctrines in check by advocating a radical return to holiness and the Word of God.
Using a false construct of "love and acceptance," these congenial prophets in our pulpits are loaded with talent, charisma and energy, but like Balaam their ultimate goal is to turn the church away from the standards of God's Word.
The church cannot become so tolerant, relevant and "next-leveled" that we forget that on the surface Satan and his ministers are attractive, engaging and persuasive (see 1 Cor. 11:14).
Despite the work of these false teachers, the greatest threat to the black church lies within. In 1996 I spoke with my pastor, G. Gillum Jr., about what I believed the Holy Spirit was showing me regarding homosexuality in the church. I recognized it because I spent 11 years in homosexuality before my radical return to Christ.
I told my pastor, "Somebody needs to do something." I'll never forget his response. He said: "You're somebody. Why don't you do something?"
His words impacted me because, the truth was, I didn't think I was anybody, and I felt powerless to do anything. Far too many saints today feel the same way, believing homosexuality is too complicated for them to address. But our silence and inaction will only make matters worse.
Despite the work of numerous ministries, including the one I founded in Atlanta, homosexuality has become more rampant among churchgoers. What's more, it is better organized and openly hostile to the truth. What is now a "storm out on the ocean" could evolve into a spiritual Katrina in the black church. Wise pastors should prepare themselves now in several ways.
First, we should heed the voices of men and women skilled in ministry to homosexuals. We must offer discipleship-based training rooted in the biblical foundations of change, healing and transformation despite sociopolitical theories about sexuality.
Second, pastors and churches must revise their procedures and policies in the face of these new challenges, including training ministers to cease using intentionally derogatory terms against homosexuals.
Third, when confronted with homosexuality among professing Christians, we must follow the biblical mandate to offer balanced, spiritual restoration.
If we fail to prepare now, the next generation of ministry leaders may not view homosexuality as a sin but as an acceptable variant of human sexuality. Neither homosexuals nor the black church need the false hope of "radical inclusion" but a radical return to holiness and its loving truth.
Dl Foster, an ordained elder in the United Churches of God in Christ, is the founder of Witness Freedom Ministries (witnessforthe world.org) based in Atlanta.
Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin
Through the years, the body of Christ has been criticized for being personality-driven and events-oriented. Success in ministry today is too often measured not by the response to the altar call but by church attendance, the number of preaching invitations a pastor receives and whether the congregation gets revved up during worship services.
But I believe true ministry isn't measured by what happens inside church walls, but by the change that takes place in the communities outside it. God's purpose for man on this planet has not changed. He told us in Genesis 28 to be fruitful, multiply, replenish, subdue and take dominion of the earth. If that isn't community transformation, I don't know what is!
My wife and I were met with much resistance when we moved our congregation, the Potter's House Church, to a new facility in a declining community in west Jacksonville, Florida. We were taunted with racial slurs, and someone painted "N—go home" on the side of our building.
But after we spent years restoring dilapidated buildings to house such ventures as a school, day care and mall, the same people who protested the church began to celebrate our efforts and embrace the gospel.
We've created more than 200 full-time jobs, sparked new construction projects and brought millions of dollars of income into a financially depressed community.
Fighting crime, educational disparities and social decadence is the mission of the church. It's what the gospel is all about. When we obey God's Word to reach the world around us, we can impact people's lives in unimaginable ways. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: "And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations. But you shall be named the priests of the Lord, they shall call you the servants of our God" (Is. 61:4,6, NKJV).
The true test of a ministry's effectiveness is found in what I call the departure test. If a church were to relocate or close its doors for good, would the people in the community grieve or celebrate its departure? It's sad to say, but in many cases no one would even notice the church was gone.
Pastors and congregants should never forget that we do not exist for the sole purpose of meeting in comfortable buildings to worship God. And we are not called to sponsor special events with well-known speakers to make us look important.
We are called to be agents of transformation. We are made in the image of God, and when God sees us He should see a reflection of His love for mankind. Romans 8:19 says, "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God."
Spiritually hungry people are waiting for believers to show up in their communities. Get equipped and get busy. Your neighbors are waiting on you!
Bishop Vaughn mclaughlin is the founding pastor of The Potter's House (potters-house.org) in Jacksonville, Florida.
by Claudette A. Copeland, D. Min.
Toxic environments are not limited to chemical plants, corporate climates or political back rooms. The church can be toxic as well.
A church environment becomes toxic when the system is closed, power is abused, consent to sin is mistaken for loyalty and telling the truth is forbidden. It happens when a needy, unhealthy leader with weak boundaries and no accountability becomes a vessel for the power of God.
Toxicity, when experienced for long enough periods and at high enough levels, is lethal. And the modern church is killing far too many who come to it for sanctuary. In a word, church in the 21st century is often an unsafe place to be.
Historically, a sanctuary or "sacred space" was a place set apart from the natural world. Special purity was required of those who entered the sanctuary, and taboos against profaning it were enforced. This was true of both the tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews and the temple in Jerusalem.
The church in the black community has had a rich history of sanctuary.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones withdrew from St. George's Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia when they were forbidden to pray at the altar with white members. In 1793 they founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a sanctuary from theological indignity and racial exclusion.
The first African Baptist congregations in the 1700s and 1800s sheltered slaves and free blacks from the ignorance forced on them by a lack of education. It taught them the "illegal" skills of reading and writing and the revolutionary act of coming to know the God of the Bible, who would lead them to a promised land called freedom.
Black Pentecostal groups such as the Church of God in Christ became a refuge for downtrodden seekers who were excluded from the "reputable" denominations in the North and South. Urban congregations sheltered the migrating blacks who filled Northern factories in the mid- to late 1900s. These churches all served a critical purpose: to provide a safe haven for blacks in an often-hostile America.
Through the years, we have honored our leaders, become educated because of their guidance and discovered social opportunities for our children by walking through doors they opened. We gained access to the larger political process because of their courage and their voice.
So when did the church, which gave us Jesus and moral purpose, corrected us, and gave worth and dignity to our ancestors, become hazardous to our health? With the advent of Christian television, the lines between different doctrines and denominations became blurred as the messages of salvation and the gift of the Holy Ghost were broadcast around the world. Yet the independence that resulted from severing denominational alliances produced a deadly side effect: Many congregations became toxic.
Pastoral care has come to mean care of the pastor with no guarantees of care by the pastor. Hence in some circles (though not all) the congregational environment presumes permission to exploit the mental, financial and spiritual health of black people, who once looked to the church for direction and sanctuary from their own sinful life contexts.
The black church today must purify its own pastoral care ethic and reinstitute the stringent safeguards that make for sanctuary. Here's how:
See people. As leaders, we must forgo the mimicking of media-created celebrities. God has brought some leaders to the forefront via the media, and He will judge or reward them for how they use their influence. But when the black clergy become infected with the ego-mesmerizing goals of being famous rather than being faithful, we lose sight of the care of individual souls. The higher we ascend the lower we must go to see and to care about people.
Submit to professional scrutiny. This scrutiny must include reviewing our training, assessing us clinically prior to ordination and holding us genuinely accountable during our ministerial careers. We ourselves need pastors or mentors who will hold us to our boundaries so we don't demolish the emotional, financial and sexual boundaries of sheep who come "to lie down" in the sanctuary.
Seek the Lord wholeheartedly. When we do, the Lord will give us back our life and make church safe again.
Claudette A. Copeland, D. Min., is the founder of Destiny Ministries, a national empowerment group for women, and co-pastor with her husband, Bishop David M. Copeland, of New Creation Christian Fellowship of San Antonio, Texas.
By Eugene F. Rivers III
The challenges to marriage and the black family have reached an unprecedented level today. In 2002, almost half of all black families (48 percent) were headed by married father-mother couples, with the remainder headed by single parents.
Today, single parents head 62 percent of African-American households, and 68 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock. That percentage is more than double that of white single-parent households (27 percent) and nearly twice as high as that of Hispanic single-parent families (35 percent).
The black church has had a dominant role in black America since its creation. During differing periods in black history, it has counseled avoidance of the most deadly forms of oppression in order to prevent blacks from being liquidated entirely; at other times it has advocated defiance and various forms of resistance to racism even at the price of life and limb.
Today it is time for defiance and resistance of a different sort. Racism still exists and influences the lives of African-Americans. But the core threat to black families today is not from armed Klansmen. It is from negative cultural and spiritual attitudes and habits that have gained enormous strength in the black community.
Many people take their cues about marriage and relationships from popular culture. Some mistakenly believe that marriage is simply a species of the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, with the addition perhaps of sex and cohabitation. Others view marriage as merely a contract in which each party regards its own interests over that of the other, instead of the covenant mutuality that it really is. Others reject the wisdom of nature and seek to extend the term "marriage" to homosexual couples.
It is time for the black church to reclaim its voice and call for the renewal of normative, nuclear families. In order to do this, black churches must vigorously promote a clear and biblical view of human sexuality, marriage and the family.
We must defend the centrality of the concept of the fatherhood of God and its historical and logical connection to the concept of fatherhood in the human family. Church leaders also must repent of their own sexual transgressions and be good role models for their members.
Premarital counseling should be required for engaged couples and marital counseling should be available for couples when they encounter challenges, with the goal of preserving the union.
Black church leaders also should participate in public policy debates that support the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman because the most current social science research supports this as the optimum family arrangement for black people. It should also make its voice heard regarding policies that would create incentives for marriage.
In addition, each individual must take seriously the charge to reserve sex for marriage and teach the next generation to do the same. And black men have a special responsibility to re-engage as husbands and fathers, stepping up to protect their families and be leaders in their communities.
If the black church can find the humility to confront the sin within its walls and lead by example, its influence over time in families and among young people could significantly improve the life chances of millions of black people in this country.
Eugene F. Rivers III is pastor of Azusa Christian Community and co-founder of The Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, both in Boston. Kenneth D. Johnson of the Seymour Institute contributed to this article, which was adapted from God's Gift: A Christian Vision of Marriage and the Black Family.
Fulfilling the Great Commission
By Patricia Bailey-Jones
When the Philistine army was facing the Israelites in battle and defying the name of their God, David rose up and said, "Is there not a cause?" (1 Sam. 17:29, NKJV). He was asking, "Is there not a reason for us to fight these men?" Today the African-American church is faced with the same question—not with regard to fighting our enemies, but with regard to taking our place in global missions.
When the black church emerged formally in the 1700s, African-Americans were deeply involved in foreign missions. But as missions organizations began discriminating against black candidates and the needs of newly freed African-Americans strained churches' limited resources, the emphasis on global missions waned. Today we make up less than 1 percent of missionaries on the foreign field.
Those figures were higher before megachurches emerged, generating millions of dollars each year, and African-Americans gained broad access to educational and occupational opportunities that equipped us with knowledge that is desperately needed in the developing world.
Two-thirds of the world is made up of people of color. If any ethnic group should feel compelled to free oppressed people, it should be those who are descendants of people who were once oppressed. In other words, free black people should be moved with compassion to free other people simply because we remember our history.
Although limited finances and domestic needs are still a barrier to foreign missions work, I believe the deeper problem is that many black churches don't recognize their responsibility to witness to the unreached.
As long as 27 million people in the world are enslaved, there is a cause. As long as 130 million children lack education, there is a cause. As long as 150 million people are homeless or displaced and 10 million children are sold into prostitution annually, there is a cause.
We must become distributors of kingdom wealth and technology. Studies show that some black churches spend more money on copy machines and choir robes than on foreign missions.
Annually three-fourths of kingdom resources is spent on the one-fourth of the world that is already evangelized. Meanwhile 34.3 million people die without hearing the gospel each year. We can no longer be accomplices to the tradition of improper distribution.
It is time to act. When I met recently with the Sudanese Council of Churches, the leaders asked: "Other delegations have come, but where is the African-American church? Do they have a plan for us?"
Missions isn't just for those who feel called or for ministries with large budgets. Here's a 10-step plan that any church can implement to help evangelize the world:
1. Pray regularly for the nations.
2. Network with other mission strategists who are laboring in the field.
3. Adopt a missionary.
4. Establish a missions budget with each member committing to just $20 per month. This will not negatively affect the operational budget.
5. Plan an annual missions project.
6. Establish short-term missions for youth, adults and singles.
7. Include missions in the core vision of the church. It is, after all, part of fulfilling the Great Commission.
8. Invite a missionary to speak.
9. Host a missions conference.
10. Stop making excuses for not supporting missions and return to God's first agenda and priority for the church.
We can do it. The nations are waiting on us and God commanded us all to go!
Patricia Bailey-Jones is the founder of Master's Touch Ministries Global (mtmintol .org) based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Embracing the Spirit's Power
By William Dwight McKissic Sr.
When African-Americans came out of slavery nearly all were uneducated and living in poverty. Yet in 2004 only 25 percent of blacks in the U.S. lived beneath the poverty line. Home ownership among African- Americans has increased from 42 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2003. And the percentage of African-Americans investing in the stock market increased from 57 to 74 percent between 1998 and 2002.
We've witnessed significant gains in politics, business, education and household incomes. The number of black-owned businesses rose 45 percent between 1997 and 2002. And in 2005, more than 1 million African-Americans over age 25 had earned advanced degrees, compared with about 677,000 in 1995.
Yet not all the trends are positive. Nearly 70 percent of all black children in the U.S. are born into single-parent homes. In 1960, 80 percent of black families had two parents at home. African-Americans make up nearly 50 percent of the prison population, though we account for 12 percent of the population. Back in 1950, there were twice as many white people in prison as black.
Even in our churches we're seeing an increase in crime, drug addiction and divorce. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality, cohabitation, pride and prayerlessness are prevalent from the pulpit to the pews. And although some denominations have made progress in fighting racism, the highest-ranking African-American employed in the executive committee office building for the Southern Baptist Convention is the head custodian.
Perhaps it is as novelist Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: We are in the best of times and the worst of times.
If the black community is to rise from this decline, our hope cannot be in another civil rights movement. Our hope must be in a move of the Holy Spirit.
The prophet Zechariah declared, "'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit' says the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 4:6, NKJV). The problems of the African-American community are so intense that nothing short of a fresh Pentecost can restore holiness to our community.
God said that in the last days He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh (see Acts 2:17). That inevitably includes African-American flesh. My prayer is simple: "Lord, do it again, and do it now!"
We don't have time to debate the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We need His delivering power, His sanctifying power and His anointing. We need Him to break yokes, lift burdens and set captives free. We need to embrace the Holy Spirit in His fullness, including the fruits of the Spirit, so that our gifts and anointing will not elevate us to heights that our character cannot sustain.
In the past the Lord raised up black men and women to lead the civil rights movement because that was our pressing need. What we need now is anointed men and women who can lead us to a fresh encounter with the person, power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
My prayer is that God would burden the hearts of at least 3,000 African-American believers who will join me in giving God one day in prayer when we can confess the sins of our nation and of our race. We must seek His face for revival and restoration.
By exercising the privilege and power of prayer, we can effect change. We must embrace the Holy Spirit now, knowing that the effectual and fervent prayers of the righteous will accomplish much.
William Dwight McKissic Sr. is the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas (cbcarlington.org). He stirred a national debate among Southern Baptists in 2006 when he shared his experience of speaking in tongues with students at Southwestern Baptist Seminary.