While watching Pastor Mike Todd stand soaking wet on a stage with falling water made to simulate rain, words escaped me as I found myself trying to make sense of what I was watching.
Perhaps to the chagrin of some mainline homileticians (those who study preaching), my reflections on preaching, particularly preaching done by African Americans in churches with predominantly African American parishioners and online viewers, is one more shaped by culture than theology. I think a theological frame to name what I’m observing as a would result in a tired and dull back-and-forth of Bible verses each trying to trump the other and would otherwise be wholly irrelevant for public discourse. To make my claim very clear, what I’m observing is the performance of an African American homiletic that hasn’t engaged culture well. At all.
Before I continue, I want to put some parameters on what I mean by “Black preaching” as shown in the title. What exactly is Black preaching? Such a title supposes that preaching need to be qualified by an ethnic or racial category. (Perhaps I was unfair in the title for what I want to uncover here, but calling it “African American Preaching” in the title seemed too clunky. Fact of the matter is that “Black” should include the entire Black Atlantic diaspora from Brazil north to Canada. But for the sake of this discourse, I am specifically talking about African American preaching done by African American preachers and/or those who preach to predominantly African American parishioners and viewers.) The challenge with a designation such as “Black preaching” is that is supposes that there, at least for the sake of this discussion, is “white preaching” and I am not making that argument here per se. Rather, I believe there is an American homiletic rooted in Protestant Christian orthodoxies. Do many white preachers rely on this homiletic? Yes, they do. But so do many Black preachers, Latinx preachers, queer preachers and Asian American/Asian/Pacific Islanders as well. This distinction is important as I make my argument.
So, is there an African American homiletic?
I’d argue that there is one. But not for the traditional reasons we tend to say casually in our churches when the topic comes up, or for the reasons African American homiletical scholarship usually ascribes. Most African American homileticians, at least from what I can gather, haven’t named anything essential to Black preaching. And amongst the features, characteristics and rhetorical stylistics expressed by Black preachers, there’s never been any consensus because to be Black is to be diverse—and the same holds true for our churches and our preaching. Not to mention, many of these features exist in other ethnic ecclesial communities. Rather, for me, what constitutes an African American homiletic is rooted in cultural fulfillment. Out of the African American experience, an in-group practiced theory of preaching emerged with a particular proleptic theology unique to the enslaved African in the America that “trouble don’t last always” in stark contrast to an American society that required a war to end slavery and police brutality on national news to end Jim Crow segregation. In other words, the pragmatic aims of an African American homiletic are to encourage cultural fulfilment for Black Americans whose existential reality is different than that of dominant American culture.
In that same logic, then and only then, would I argue that in fact there actually is a white homiletic, one espoused by so-called white evangelicals that purports white supremacy and white identity politics that has named Donald Trump as their messianic Christ and not a brown-skinned Jew from Palestine named Jesus. But, that’s another conversation for another day.
There are a certain set of collective ideas and experiences shared by broad swaths of the Black American public. As such, these assumptions give way for generalizations. I make these generalizations aware that not every Black American may share in them, but for a large majority they do exist. From the fact that many Black Americans can quote long passages of scripts from “The Color Purple” or “Friday” to the largely collective gut punched we experienced when George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin. And particularly, I want to highlight the Zimmerman exoneration. The collective trauma shared by African Americans after hearing the not guilty verdict is one of many moments in culture that was almost nearly exclusive to the African American experience in this country.
The Zimmerman exoneration contributes to an African American cultural metanarrative. That and other big picture stories such as an Obama presidency, Hurricane Katrina, Beyonce at the Super Bowl, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, COVID-19, lynchings in the American South, the Tulsa race riots, the four girls killed at 16th Street Baptist church, the first Black vice-president, etc. are tributary rivers that form philosophical rivers of knowledge, aesthetics, logic and spirituality. Together, these rivers all join each other in a wide delta that produces what we know as Black culture in America. Out of those waters they form the pragmatic aims of an African American homiletic that shapes the consciousness and broadens the awareness of African Americans engaged in the preaching moment.
How we, the culture, get a Pastor Mike Todd is a result of a disengagement of an African American homiletic. Granted, this is arguable. But, at worst, Todd’s not doing anything to better shape consciousness in healthy and positive ways, at best he’s doing it poorly. It’s also how we get a Jamal Bryant. Or Matthew Stevenson. Or John Hannah. Or any number of the preachers-gone-viral we’ve shared on Black Twitter in the last decade. I’d argue that what we see in the aforementioned preachers is a grotesque American homiletic in Black drag. While it looks Black, talks Black, walks Black and seems to be aware of Black pop-culture (hence why these sermons go viral), at its core, it’s a standard American homiletic that takes its text from orthodox Protestant values. And if its devoid of any of the drag features, it borderlines on being a white homiletic. If a sermon preached to a majority white audience and a Black one are received in generally the same way, it is certainly not a sermon that has applied an African American homiletic, rather an American one. Maybe even a white one.
I want to be clear, it’s not ultimately a bad thing if every Black preacher chooses not to employ what I see as an African American homiletic every Sunday and in every sermon. But, we need to call it out for what it is. However, by not employing an African American homiletic regularly in Sunday sermons, the market forces of larger American culture begin to dictate how listeners engage culture by the messages preached. What is the end result of this? I answer with a quote from Cornel West when asked where will rap end up, “Where most American postmodern products end up: highly packaged, regulated, distributed, circulated and consumed.”
Watching Mike Todd admonish—perhaps shame is better word—Black women for participating in TikTok #SilhouetteChallenge while standing on a “rain” soaked stage was the end result of preaching being highly packaged, regulated, distributed, circulated and consumed. He went viral for the clip. More importantly, it was designed to go viral—it was packaged by purity culture, regulated by an entertainment culture, distributed by social media, and circulated and consumed by individuals who crave easy-to-digest ideas and concepts. Flooding a stage and creating indoor rain while a preacher stands in soaked clothes head-to-toe has “must see” written all over it. There’s no difference between him and Apostle Brian Meadows who just recently preached a sermon on a stage with a bedroom set decorated as if for a romantic encounter entitled “Only Fans.” Meadows offers an even more stark version of a grotesque African American homiletic by his crass use of words like “titties,” making a blatant reference to oral sex, and incorporated a detailed discussion of the functionality of direct content on OnlyFans as “show[ing] a nipple.” It’s not grotesque because human sexuality is gross, but because the cultural and theological messaging that should be happening in a sermonic moment is disfigured beyond repair.
For Black preachers and listeners of sermons that care about the way Black Americans interact and engage with culture, there needs to be a serious rethinking of the role of preaching in predominantly African American churches. What I’m advocating for is more than trying to explain the “celebration,” and beyond stale critiques that the Black church needs to recover prophetic preaching. Culture is not the enemy of the Black church. “Postmodernity” and “plurality” are the not the boogeymen lurking in the shadows outside of the church doors as soon as Sunday service concludes. Any homileticians making the argument as such are trying to shut the barn doors after the horses have left.
Given the misinformation campaigns from the political right, the conspiracy theories from both the ultra-right and Black hoteps, sermons can’t afford to be cultural and intellectual misfires in a crowded marketplace of ideas where public theology is an afterthought in the first place. Rather, Black preachers need to make sure they’re tied into Black culture and the authentic ways that the Black masses express said culture.
Langston Hughes understood this when he wrote “I’ve known rivers // I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins // My soul has grown deep like the river.” The rivers that feed into Black culture are rich—its waters flood the plains that replenish soil to grow worthy ideas that feed the People, its waters provide food to nourish the soul of the nation, its waters have provided safe travel for its People since the dawn of their existence.
Black preaching as we know it comes from these waters.
As we comfortably settle into the 21st century, a new African American homiletic is needed so that African American preaching, in all of its diversity, is worthy of the rivers from whence it came, rather than only being worthy of a backwater swamp where things go to die.