Lucifer Jones

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Current and Future Black Church

Ahh the Black Church. What a huge subject. Let's dive in.

The Spousal Unit and I are dealing with our issues of traditions. I like angelic choirs and organ fugues, she likes rocking gospel and tambourines. We both love God but we cannot find a house with the right flavor. We have both experienced the humiliation and embarrassment of watching each other be uncomfortable and alienated in the other's house of worship. I think that our petty differences serve to illustrate something of the alienation of many people from Church and it brings me close to some fundamental questions that I have decided to deal with at length during this period of my life. It is not the cause, but a serious reason for me to undertake matters of theology.

It was therefore providential that at the last minute, the topic of debate for my episode of 'Black Men Revealed' was switched to 'Why Black Men Don't Church'. While I would much rather have talked about politics or culture I had to deal with how I thought other black men deal with such matters of the spirit in relation to the Black Church.

I'm Episcopalian. There aren't many black Episcopalians, but the Anglican Church is ascendant in Africa, and the number two man in the Episcopal Church (which we often refer to as the Body of Christ), the Archbishop of York, is too African. As with every other branch of Christianity, what Africans bring to worship ultimately changes the character of church. Churches change. Christ remains the same. How do we reconcile the two?

When we talked about this, my wife and I, she said something that I think very well exemplifies the problems of the Black Church. At least, I can get my head around it. I'd like to share that insight with you and kick off a bunch of discussion. But first let me give you one of my overriding concerns.

The biggest concern I have with Christian Churches are their flexibility. I can't explain exactly how it makes me feel (other than awful) to read Bible verses today in something other than the King James Version. So I don't. I grew up getting gold stars first in Bible School, by memorizing the denotation and the connotation of Bible verses. I did so in the Foursquare Church, which was a Pentacostal Evangelical sect of Christianity. Everything I knew about God, and I was a precocious little twerp, meant people getting the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, dancing all over, faith healing and the whole kinetic experience. My Bible was a black leather King James red letter edition with a zipper that had a cross on it. That was, unquestionably, The Word of GOD! The same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

And then I went to Catholic School.

So who was this Virgin Mary, and how come we didn't talk to Jesus any more? What are these Stations of the Cross and what is Confession all about? I asked every question and I got every answer and I realized there was more to God than I had ever known. Because if God could accept these Catholics into his Heavenly Kingdom, there are more ways to God than I could ever believe possible. And I watched Catholics writhe and pain at the passage of Vatican II, and lament the fact that Mass was said in English instead of Latin. And I freaked out when they said the Lord's Prayer with different words. These things were happening at the same time that President Nixon was being kicked out of office and air raid drills rang out every first Friday at 10am. The world was upside down, and they even changed the Bible.

How could all of God's people be so misled when deep down in their hearts they wanted to be faithful? How could an entire church be wrong? How could a minister, oops I mean priest be wrong? The Catholics had an answer that satisfied me in the definition of a Sacrament. A Sacrament is an outward expression of an inward commitment. Suddenly I understood that it was the inward commitment to God that mattered most. Churches could change, Bibles could change, prayers could change, but one's love for God and God's love could never change. Church then, is all about getting you to that moment. To quiet your mind and open up your heart to be at one with the Holy Trinity.

I can't know that this is what brings other people to tears as it does to me when I write it. But that beauty and peacefulness of the Spirit is here with me now as I do. It's difficult for me to understand why everybody wouldn't want that same blessing. But I know that people don't. I acknowledge that there are many different traditions that get different people to that holy moment, those moments of numinous oneness with God. And so when we are brought to speak about black people, we must know that amongst all of us those differences are real. Which brings me to the Spousal Unit.

She says that the problem facing the Black Church is what to do with young people. She knows as we all know that there are far too many blackfolks who need God in a desperate way, but are not getting churched. And she says that the Church is struggling with that mightily.

When I was a child, she said, it was inconceivable that some kid with baggy pants, sneakers, football jersey, gold chain and a baseball hat could come into Church. "You don't come in here looking like that." And therein lies the paradox because this is the child who needs church most. Because they don't have spritual guidance and they don't have decent community and they don't have people they can trust when America doesn't have their back. These are the people, she said, that we are losing. And that is the core dilemma faced by black Churches. Do they take these people in as they are? Do they change the music to attract them? Do they change the way Church is done to accommodate the sinner? How does the black minister of today appeal to the black youth of today? What difference does it make?

I'm conservative. I think the Catholic Church is more conservative than the Episcopal Church and I have half a mind to switch to it. I do so because I want my church to be unchanging as God. I want to feel conformed with the infinite in the company of men and women who feel the same. For me that means ritual. I can meditate and pray and reach God when I feel like it. I don't need church for that. I need church for those other things - to reach that holy moment in communion with others. So for me the very idea of changing any church for the sake of black youth or Serbian grandmothers or Chinese farmers or Malaysian miners is crazy foolish in the extreme. Church isn't supposed to change for you, church is supposed to change you. And yet I acknowledge and recognize that every church is different. God gets through.

When it comes to the Black Church, the dilemma then is who should initiate the change. Given that change is inevitable and that the church will reflect the desires of the people to express themselves as they do, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Who picks which version of the Bible? Who says whom is certified to be a minister? All these things are changing dynamically in African America. People here in Los Angeles are going to church where the Lakers used to play basketball. In my world, that's unthinkable. But it's real. By the thousands it's real. Church is marketed. Congregations are target markets. Reaching out with the Word means reaching the masses, by radio, by television, by podcast, by email, by video game. Have it your way. Why not?

The Conservative in me says that something is amiss. There is something about the harvesting of souls that's not quite right. The fishers of men are using huge nets and dumping all of the souls on the decks to be processed.

My indictment goes to the minister who does not have a sect. I see nothing wrong with the storefront church. Every ministry starts somewhere. But I have a hard time understanding where the Methodists disagree with the Mormons or the Baptists with the Anabaptist and the Presbyterians with the Seventh Day Adventists. I have a hard time understanding how these Protestant traditions are losing ground to today's Faith Domes. I have a hard time understanding how the institution of the black church is changing and why and which direction it is headed.

I understand that the Black Church has been overloaded with responsibilities it alone shouldered in the days before civil rights. I understand that a great deal of black tradition has been lost to integration, that our freedom and empowerment to employ mainstream institutions has weakened and specialized the Black Church to be little more than a church. Where it once might have been a school and a political organization and a graveyard, blacks can now use the public facilities.

But is the Black Church on the right track? Are the traditions growing stronger or is it all a New Jack thing? What's the difference? Is that old time religion good enough for anyone? On the whole are blacks closer to God because of the Black Church or is black America losing spiritual ground? I think there is a looming crisis. What is the institutional future? Is it bright? If not, what is to be done?