The African-American Church of Yesterday
By: Casey Cleveland
The historical African-American church still speaks today. Loudly. And we might all just need this more than ever. February is Black History Month, which reminds us to stop and give honor where honor is due, especially to the African-American individuals and groups that have shaped who we are as country today. Rather than one individual, we shall take a look at an entire movement that defined a culture and has the potential to bring renewal to many today. The historical African-American church.
First allow me to define reality. The church as a whole is more and more being found to be a minority in America. A Biblical worldview is no longer truly welcome in politics, the marketplace, education, or Hollywood. Authors Steve Timmis and Tim Chester of Everyday Church, rightly suggest that we are living in a “post-Christendom” world. A world that is skeptical of anything absolute, especially a Jewish carpenter who 2000 years ago claimed to be the way, and the truth, and the life.
Now what? The church used to be the center of American life. The Scriptures used to set the tone of our culture. The church used to lead from the mainstream of society as the majority voice. Now what?
Now we get to work! Now we get to thrive as we once did…from the margins. This is not a time for lament or discouragement. This is not a time to obnoxiously fight for the place we once held. This is a time to embrace our reality in the margins, as a minority, and begin to renew the culture with the gospel. So where can we look for a model of how to go about this work? The historical African-American church.
Actually, the first place we could look is the early church of the first century. It is important to understand that leading from the margins is not a new concept. It is how the church does some of its best work.
Author and pastor Thabiti Anyabwile calls us to look closer than just the early church movement of the first century, to the much nearer historical African-American church of America. He offers a few key themes that defined this movement as the same key themes that can bring clarity to what God is doing today through the local church.
- Learn to suffer with grace and dignity. “That’s not easy. But if the evangelical church is going to maintain a healthy dignity and resolve, it’ll need to endure suffering like a good soldier.”
- Learn to do theology from the underside. “Most of African-American theology gets worked out in the crucible of suffering and underpriveledge. It would be good to glean from experiences and theologies of persons that already have in hand over three hundred years of thinking about such things.”
- Learn how to fight for your oppressors, not just against them. “One genius of African-American theology and the Black Church has been its insistence on the full dignity, humanity, brotherhood, and rights of both the Black community and the White community. The best of Black Church history sees the future of Blacks and Whites inseparably connected.”
- Learn to hope in God. “That’s one part of the legacy of the Black Church. When life was at it’s worst, it was a praying church. Despite injustice, persecution and threat of death on every hand, African-American Christians put their hope in a God they were sure would bend the arc of history toward justice and deliverance.”
I thank God for the power of the gospel that makes all of this a reality. I thank God for the African-American church. I thank God for the authors mentioned in this article and their thoughts that shaped much its content. May we continue to be transformed by the love of Jesus for the glory of God.
Much Love… Casey