Sunday Morning Coffee Break: Eddie Glaude’s “The Black Church Is Dead?”

This is a piece forwarded to me by one of my readers and Twitter followers @tsboddy on a piece that Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Ph.D. wrote for the Huffington Post entitled “The Black Church is Dead.”  Clearly this is up my alley and I plan to have a response to this later on this week.  But I think this is good food for thought on the last day of Black History Month 2010.  Stay tuned for my response.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.

Several reasons immediately come to mind for this state of affairs. First, black churches have always been complicated spaces. Our traditional stories about them — as necessarily prophetic and progressive institutions — run up against the reality that all too often black churches and those who pastor them have been and continue to be quite conservative. Black televangelists who preach a prosperity gospel aren’t new. We need only remember Prophet Jones and Reverend Ike. Conservative black congregations have always been a part of the African American religious landscape. After all, the very existence of the Progressive Baptist Convention is tied up with a trenchant critique of the conservatism of the National Baptist Convention, USA. But our stories about black churches too often bury this conservative dimension of black Christian life.

Second, African American communities are much more differentiated. The idea of a black church standing at the center of all that takes place in a community has long since passed away. Instead, different areas of black life have become more distinct and specialized — flourishing outside of the bounds and gaze of black churches. I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs.

Moreover, we are witnessing an increase in the numbers of African Americans attending churches pastored by the likes of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Jentzen Franklin. These non-denominational congregations often “sound” a lot like black churches. Such a development, as Dr. Jonathan Walton reminded me, conjures up E. Franklin Frazier’s important line in The Negro Church in America: “In a word, the Negroes have been forced into competition with whites in most areas of social life and their church can no longer serve as a refuge within the American community.” And this goes for evangelical worship as well.

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, we have witnessed the routinization of black prophetic witness. Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…” “The black church was our rock…” “Without the black church, we would have not…” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the church’s stance in the present — justifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice. Its task, because it has become alienated from the moment in which it lives, is to make us venerate and conform to it.

But such a church loses it power. Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God.

Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families. Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows. Of course, countless local black churches around the country are working diligently to address these problems.

The question becomes: what will be the role of prophetic black churches on the national stage under these conditions? Any church as an institution ought to call us to be our best selves — not to be slaves to doctrine or mere puppets for profit. Within its walls, our faith should be renewed and refreshed. We should be open to experiencing God’s revelation anew. But too often we are told that all has been said and done. Revelation is closed to us and we should only approximate the voices of old.

Or, we are invited to a Financial Empowerment Conference, Megafest, or some such gathering. Rare are those occasions when black churches mobilize in public and together to call attention to the pressing issues of our day. We see organization and protests against same-sex marriage and abortion; even billboards in Atlanta to make the anti-abortion case. But where are the press conferences and impassioned efforts around black children living in poverty, and commercials and organizing around jobs and healthcare reform? Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, appears to be a lonely voice in the wilderness when he announced COGIC’s support of healthcare reform with the public option.

Prophetic energies are not an inherent part of black churches, but instances of men and women who grasp the fullness of meaning to be one with God. This can’t be passed down, but must be embraced in the moment in which one finds one’s feet. This ensures that prophetic energies can be expressed again and again.

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Morning Coffee Break: Eddie Glaude’s “The Black Church Is Dead?”

  1. Would not the death of the Black Church be a good thing? Would it not finally end the perniciousness , exilicism, and false testament of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology? Would it not also likely end the phenomenon of Sunday being the most separatist day of the week?

    1. @ jonolan

      If you could stomach it, I would encourage you to listen to this sermon concerning the Black Church

      But by the same token, for the record, the “Black Church” as we know it was formed because whites never fully accepted blacks into the congregation. To understand it as though it is a separatist movement is a fallacy produced by white supremacy.

      1. I’ll watch it in the next day or two when I have a bit more time to digest it. For the record though, you might be surprised at what I have no issue swallowing. 😉

        I don’t (mis)understand the “Black Church” as a separatist movement. I only pointed out that the integration of it or subsumation of it into the larger whole would bring the benefit of ending Cone’s particular evil.

      2. @jonolan

        Also that clip in it’s entirety can be found on iTunes under podcasts for that preacher “Jamal-Harrison Bryant.”

        Well, I’ll go so far as to say that integration, then needs to happen on both levels. It’s not just the “Black Church” that needs to push integration. And frankly, if you stepped foot inside of some black churches, at least from the sermon, they’re no different than what Jerry Fallwell or John Hagee would preach on Sunday morning, or even the less evangelical ones.

      3. I have many times “stepped foot inside of some black churches,” both in the South where I’m from and in Brooklyn where I now live, and I certainly saw – in most cases – no significant difference between them and the White Protestants / Pentecostals / Evangelicals insofar as the sermon was concerned.

        I also do not, in any way shape or form disagree with you that integration needs to happen from both sides. If nothing else, the White churches have a lot to learn about “joyful noise” and “congregation” from the Black Churches! But, your post indicated that much of that was already happening.

      4. @ jonolan

        This is Eddie Glaude, I like him, he’s a pragmatist, don’t get much more up my alley than that. But, he’s not a fan of church period, let alone “the Black Church.” I outright disagree with him on this premise. He has some points I agree with, but his thrust that it’s dead, I just can’t agree with by any shape form or fashion.

        But, my thoughts on separate church by cultures and races goes to a systemic issue in this country. Church is cultural. You go to church and engage in cultural cues. Sermonically, I may tell a story about slavery in an all black church because it’s culturally significant and the listener understands my point–but if I was in a white church, my sermonic point might fall flat on it’s face, and vice versa.

        And then sometimes it could just be bad preaching.

        That is to say, i’m not totally against the idea of non-multicultural churches. BUT, I’m 100% in FAVOR of those churches that are created with multiculturalism in mind.

  2. I don’t think we should be so quick to say that the “black church” is dying or is dead. Churches often go through phases of re-defining themselves. Interracial megachurches are still not the norm and as the previous commenter noted, Sunday is still the most separatist day of the week. But why is that?

    I would argue that this is because we still have a large number of Christian whites in the U.S. who are still uncomfortable worshiping beside blacks. Turn on any Christian radio station owned by whites and you would more than likely never hear any “urban praise” or “contemporary black gospel”, unlike their unsaved counterparts who play all kinds of music on their radio stations. The majority of white Christians in the U.S. still see black Christians and their style of worship as inferior. And many black preachers are too caught up in their cults of personality and in their traditions to try to reach out in genuine love to accept that white Christians are spot on with some of the views they have on social issues like gay rights or abortion.

    America is still a land where hatred and fear lie under the surface waiting for the opportunity to show themselves. Until both black Christians and white Christians are willing to lay aside their man-made traditions and false doctrines to embrace genuine brotherly love and the truth preached in the Bible, Sunday morning worship services will continue to be segregated.

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