For the Culture: the Futures of Black Preaching

In the post-Trump vacuum, Black pop-culture was on a roller-coaster of events. First was the profanity-laced voicemail left by Kirk Franklin to his son, the next week was self-proclaimed relationship guru Derrick Jaxn’s fall from grace after it was revealed that he cheated on his spouse. Perhaps less so, the stories of Quavo and Saweetie’s break-up and physical altercation and Donnie McClurkin’s revelation about choosing “misery and ministry” over finding happiness in a long-term relationship summed up the month of March. Social media let us know that these events captured the minds of Black folks nationwide with varying degrees of intensity. And I found myself wondering, so who’s going to be the first, if any, to preach any on these things?

In my previous blog on Black preaching, I made the claim that 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. I juxtaposed that to a general American homiletic that relies on orthodox Christianity and employs values and ethics that support the market forces that maintain America as America. One of the questions at hand is how are Black preachers supposed to approach the task of preaching when the winds of pop-culture shift so suddenly.

My intention with this discussion is to deliberately not approach such reflections theologically. Why? Because there’s tons of books that already do that. I think what’s missing in the canon of African American homiletics is discussing its importance in the public square. That is to say, African American preaching is public speech. The fact that during the pandemic so many churches found ways to broadcast their services on public platforms serves to buoy my point that if preaching is only viewed as something for an in-group, we’re missing the point. Mike Todd’s sermons at Transformation Church routinely reach in the millions of views on the public platform of YouTube. It begs the question, what is the preacher’s cultural intent when their congregation is nationwide.

If I can get into the weeds with this a little bit, postmodernity should not be a dirty word for Black preachers. The fact of the matter is that culture has won the day. Much like the 1960s, the 2010s will be marked by an epoch of cultural revolution of values in the United States: Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, the legality of marijuana in all 50 states is just a matter of time, the decriminalization of drug use is increasing in cities and states, voting rights are being slowly but surely stripped away, a majority of Americans do not believe that race is a settled issue (compared to Obama’s election), and we’re still in a pandemic that threatened to undo the very cornerstones of democracy due to incompetent leadership. Gallup poll recently released the statistic that we all knew: only 47% of Americans attend a church, synagogue or mosque. In other words, secularism is here to stay for the foreseeable future. That suggests to me, if Black preachers say they care about people outside of the church’s building, they’re not going to win a great number of new members by preaching against culture. Rather, a 21st century African American homiletic such endeavor to preach with culture such that their in-group proclamations have purchase outside of the church because preaching functions as public speech.

What I think Jamal Bryant, Mike Todd, John Hannah, Matthew Stevenson and other preachers well-known for their YouTube channels and Instagram stories have going for them is that they understand that their preaching is public speech. I just think it’s bad public speech for a host of reasons I’m not getting into right now. What they have mastered well is preaching with culture and not against it. Where I think they get it wrong, is that just because you preach in the same direction as popular culture is traveling, does not automatically mean it attends to cultural fulfillment. I believe that cultural fulfillment in preaching takes shape in earnest when preachers have a clear philosophy of preaching.

I find myself frustrated by some of the loudest Black voices on social media because far too often, over time, I can never trace a through-line of their thought. I am often times unable to discern what their guiding life philosophies are. If one were to lay out their tweets or Facebook statuses next to each other over a year’s time, a reasonable person would struggle with trying to find out what do these so-called thought leaders truly believe; what is their actual north star. Granted, we’re all humans and we’re messy contradictions, but at some point, there should be something that functions as a cohesive philosophy throughout. I think the same needs to be said of preachers practicing an African American homiletic. This isn’t me advocating that a certain line or phrase should be in every sermon, but there ought to be a governing philosophy that is apparent if you place sermons back-t0-back with each other.

In some of the feedback I received from the last reflection on the topic, I will openly admit that I still struggle in attempting to find the connective tissues that bind African American Christian religious culture together that isn’t a list of collectively traumatic experiences. I would hope that by virtue of more melanin in our skin that culturally we are more than slavery, the civil rights movement, Hurricane Katrina and the moments following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd. However, our existence in this country is unique: our ancestors did not voluntarily make a home on these shores of what came to be known as North America. Eking out cultural touchpoints in a nation experimentally fashioned together by mostly immigrants is uncharted territory in the long art of human history. In other words, we’re still experimenting and trying to see what works.

In the attempts of trying to figure out what works for the culture, I see the primary task set before Black preaching is the work of imagining Black life in the future. This is where the giant oaks of the past, Gardner Taylor, Samuel D. Proctor, Henry Mitchell, James Forbes et. al., fall short in 2021. Their time has passed. Their imaginations for Black futures have come and gone. The preaching of Bryant, Todd, Hannah and Stevenson also fail because their casting of Black futures are drawn from the poisoned wells of the market forces of American capitalism distilled in its worse forms. For a point of reference, Todd’s current sermon series includes the phrase “Paper Chasers.” It’s one thing to provide your Black congregation with sustenance to survive in the current system, but that’s not enough. The sweet spot is helping Black listeners imagine a future not just free from debt, but free from a capitalist system that allows debt in the first place. Black preachers have a ready-made audience of willing listeners. This is the time in which consciousnesses can be shaped and molded. Not manipulated.

To put it another way, an American homiletic, theologically, would argue that Jesus came to save us from society. An African American homiletic, as I see it, would argue that Jesus came to empower us restructure it. I know many folks may disagree with such an argument, even Black preachers, but then I ask, what’s the purpose of us living in a world where so many continue to suffer if we simply sit on the sidelines waiting on salvation? Waiting for “better” from an invisible hand when we possess the power to effect change is spiritually lazy and immoral!

If we are to retain our righteous Black mind and save it from being captured again and again by the eldritch forces of white supremacy and racism, a new African American homiletic needs to embrace the bright spots of culture. Enter Kendrick Lamar. (Not all ordained preachers wear robes and collars.) I’ll never forget Kendrick standing on top of a burnt-out police car at the 2015 BET Awards proclaiming to the culture “We Gon’ Be Alright.” And I felt that on a personal level.

Wouldn’t you know
We been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright

But, even for Kendrick, there’s a natural inclination to go to the “preacher’s door” to either make sense of a chaotic culture or for reassurance that “we gon’ be alright.” This means that the futures of an African American homiletic needs to be public speech that’s for the culture.  What I am desperately convinced of, is that what culture needs right now are architects and builders of Afro-futures. This is more than just giving people week-to-week, God-based encouragement and different than preaching a gospel message, but it’s the sweet spot between helping folks for the here and now, and talking about the sweet by-and-by as a form of escapism; its world building for the culture.  

And Black preachers are some of the most well-equipped for the job.

Dreams and visions are one thing, but the imagination I’m speaking about is something entirely different. I recall the laments of Black pastors who end their careers dejected because their visions never came to fruition—or the hundreds of Black pastors who haven’t retired and are still holding on to unrealized visions, never coming to grips with the reality that they won’t live to see their vision enacted. For some, their vision was simply a new building. For others, the dreams of luxurious life never materialized. Yet the treasure of an unbridled imagination is bigger than any preacher or pastor, it belongs to the ages; it is part of the treasure we have in earthen vessels. No singular preacher can contain it, no singular sermon can comprise it; it’s possessing a disposition of hopeful imaginaries over the course of a career. It’s the prophetic imagination of Isaiah that “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” It hasn’t come to past. Yet.

What the culture fiercely needs right now are Black preachers willing to imagine what’s next. Think about it. Pray about it. Talk to people about it. Fast about it. Take chances to be wrong in public about it. Reflect on it. Read books about it. Engage thoughts about it. Find people who agree with you about it. Honestly engage those you disagree with about it.

And then, preach about it.

2 thoughts on “For the Culture: the Futures of Black Preaching

  1. This is why I subscribe to your blog. You put into excellent words what i’ve pleaded, questioned, or tried to talk with others in my church about for a couple of years. My discontentment with simply sitting week after week waiting for a good word and no communal (or personal) strategy for what to do in the in-between days to advance hope, justice and thriving communal life – was more than I could take. I’ve often said (only out loud to someone once) the way we “do” church makes us lazy and stupid. So of course your words resonate deeply with me. Especially: “ Black preachers, but then I ask, what’s the purpose of us living in a world where so many continue to suffer if we simply sit on the sidelines waiting on salvation? Waiting for “better” from an invisible hand when we possess the power to effect change is spiritually lazy and immoral!”

    thank you for hoping and writing for the more (in the kingdom of God sense) that’s sorely needed to keep the faith.

    May God multiply and make fruitful your kingdom work.

    Vanessa

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