Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TE Mike Higgins “Blacks I Have Seen in the Church--Who They Are Not”

I would like to start by stressing that I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the ability to make right whatever is wrong with the Church. When it comes to reconciliation, I am definitely “for” it. Ephesians 1, Second Corinthians 5, Revelation 7 and many other places in scripture speak to the Gospel’s power to reconcile. However, I am not writing this to defend myself. I believe that my presence, as a Black teaching elder in this denomination, at the risk of being ridiculed by my former denominational colleagues, speaks to my commitment to bringing down the “walls.” I have been a pastor in the Church of God in Christ, the Missionary Baptist Church (both predominately Black) and now the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). My fourteen year journey in the PCA has found me in a cross-cultural church and now again in a predominately Black setting—an anomaly in this denomination. I want to stress that the following comments about race, culture and church are not from the standpoint of despair or anger. I am just stating what I would call a present condition. As a pastor in a Black church, I have heard what Black people say and seen what they do. Presently, I am in a middle class setting, but I have pastored Blacks in North Saint Louis city and Blacks on Army installations—I would say that in each setting, the comments about racial division in the church are basically the same—Same Stuff, Different Day. You probably won’t agree with some of things you read, but am I just calling it the way I see it. As my grandmother would say, “I know Jesus; He will fix it, somehow.”

I have pastored Redemption Fellowship, a “ninety-nine percent” Black PCA church since September 2000. The church is within a mile of a “ninety-nine percent” White PCA church. I am hesitant to use the terms “Black” and “White” in describing the two churches because the use of those terms denies the diversity one encounters amongst people of the same color. For instance, when you look over the congregation of Redemption you see Black folks, but they are not the same—they are Black folks from the United States, Panama, Haiti, Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Africa. Most of the members of Redemption believe that their congregation is already diverse. I am sure that there is a similar Anglo-European diversity in our sister church up the road.

The two churches are have a great relationship with each other—we have co-sponsored two denominational conferences, community youth initiatives, participated in joint services, shared building resources and the pastors have preached in each other’s pulpits. However, there has never been an outcry from the leadership or members of either church to join the two congregations into one. Everybody seems to be fine with the present arrangement. I think I know why—both congregations are under the belief that they each are a self-sufficient, autonomous representative of the Church of Jesus Christ. They don’t need to be physically connected or integrated with each other church to be validated as a communing body of believers. Each is a particular church. Each has a Session.

Along these lines is the strong desire at Redemption to maintain its own worship culture—a Bapto-Presby-Costal worship style encompassing traditional and contemporary Black gospel music, hymns, passionate bible preaching, calling the pastor’s wife “First Lady”, etc. Many at Redemption say that while they believe in Reformed doctrine and really appreciate the structure and accountability of the PCA, they don’t relate to many of the PCA churches they have visited. One Redemption member stated, “It isn’t my place to tell people how to have church, but after I hear the Word of God, I want to rejoice out loud.”

Recently, I polled the Redemption congregation to get some answers to the following questions: “What are your thoughts on how race/ethnic culture impacts your decision to attend a church? Would you attend a majority white church? How about an inter-racial church? What draws you to "Black church?" Some responded that they would not mind attending a racially diverse church, but they would not want to be one of just a few Blacks in the membership. One respondent asked, “Why don’t Whites come to our church and sit under Black leadership?” Another responded by stating, “I have no problem being in the PCA, but I am not a White Presbyterian; I am a Black Presbyterian.” Finally, one the respondents asked, “Do Whites realize what it takes to be Black and be in the PCA? My family thinks I am nuts.”

The negative effects of racial segregation in America’s past are yet exerting force on the church. Again, I am by no means suggesting that the gospel is powerless in this struggle—I am merely suggesting that we are far from done with the race problem in the Church. Whites for hundreds of years enforced segregation and Blacks adjusted to it. Unfortunately, this is basically where we are ecclesiastically. During slavery, Whites had church on the main floor and Blacks, when they were allowed in the building, went to the balcony. Eventually, we formed our own black churches and nobody seemed to care—we “circled the wagons” and now we can’t get them un-circled. So when the question of racial reconciliation in regards to church attendance surfaces, many Blacks respond with “what’s the problem now?” As one respondent to the poll questions stated, “I believe that if there had never been a “White” church, there would be no “Black” church.” Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, in their book Divided by Faith, offer what I think is a significant insight to how racial groups define themselves. They state: “In many respects, we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an in-group always has at least one out-group by which it creates identity. Blacks are not whites, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, evangelicals are not mainline Christians, Carolina Tar Heels are not Duke Blue Devils.[1] We may not like what they say, but I think this is what has happened. And most Blacks, at least when it comes to having church, are happy about who they are not.

TE Mike Higgins currently serves as the Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary. He previously served as the pastor of Redemption Fellowship for ten years and before that served as an associate pastor of New City Fellowship of Chattanooga.

[1] Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America: Oxford, University Press, 2000), 143.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Do We Have A 'Black Church'?

So, why is the Black church called ‘the Black church’? Why is a certain part of God’s church known by its ethnicity rather than its beliefs like the evangelical church? We know that evangelical churches don’t refer to themselves as ‘the white church’ even though for the most part they’ve historically had only or mainly white members. That’s a good question and deserves a far better answer I can give in one article, but as a starting point here are a few reasons (in no particular order) why the black church came to be known as the ‘black church’. These reasons are drawn from history and each could be expanded upon. Before I begin it must be said that this is far, far from a complete answer, but hopefully will do in a pinch.

To begin with we must note that for much of our history segregation (whether legalized Jim Crow in the South or defacto John Crow in the North and West) affected every aspect of life for black Americans and this of course included the church. Consequently it shouldn't surpise us that African-Americans began to organize in our own churches when either refused membership in white (evangelical) congregations or even if admitted were still treated as second class citizens. In fact up till about 40 to 50 years ago many evangelical congregations refused to admit black peopple as members. So at the risk of being over-simplistic just as American society produced black grade schools, black neighborhoods, black water fountains and black restrooms it produced black churches. That is churches where blacks would be welcome and not excluded or discriminated against.

Of course segregation wasn't the only factor which contributed to ethnically separated churches in America. Recent history reveals that as new immigrant groups embrace the faith they set up and operate their own distinct churches even though they'd be welcome at most average evangelical churches.

General demographic patterns were another factor that we cannot easily overlook with respect to why most of our churches contain a majority of one ethnicity. Several factors contributed to whites being able to leave large cities to newly developed suburbs post WWII. For the most part African-Americans were excuded from these enclaves of the American dream and that coupled with the continuing migration of blacks from the South into the North and West resulted in neighborhoods that were almost always exclusively black. These neighborhoods then birthed black churches that were attended by those African-Americans that lived in the community. Add to that the social inertia inherent within any human instution and it is little wonder that to this day most bible-believing black churches and most evangelical congregations consist of mainly one ethnicity.

Ethnically based segregation of the church also produced a great many unintended consequences for both blacks and whites which served to bolster the identity of the black church. One of the most significant of these is the growth of the black church into the most prominent institution within the African-American community. The black church grew to be the one institution that represented the black community and from which the community relied upon for a great many things. For example the church was the main place and institution that affirmed the basic God-given dignity and humanity of black people. Conversely while the black church would not have forbidden whites from attending and joining it simply would have been unthinkable for the average white person to put himself and his family under the spiritual leadership of a particular black church. To do such a thing would have broken far too many taboos and given the black community a sense of importance that was simply unheard of during segregation.

These are just a few of the factors that contributed to the growth of what we call the 'black' church. It was black not by virtue of its desire (or perhaps ability) to exclude whites or others but 'black' in terms of being the one institution which served to care for, nurture, heal, protect, speak for, guide, lead and pastor (in a general sense) the black community. The black church was the one place where blacks could go to express themselves in rapturous worship to the living God they depended upon to first liberate them from enslavement and then break the shackels of segregation. It was the place where African-Americans could go to celebrate their salvation and other important events of our lives free from the domination of a hostile white majority. It was the place where those who were graced with the God-given gifts of leadership could exercise that leadership for the good of their congregations and community. It was the black church that was the one institution that could lead its members to stand in the face of vicious mobs and still practice non-violent resistance to break down almost a century of enforced segregation. And it was the black church that was the main place any African-American could enter and receive a warm welcome with the knowledge that he or she would be free from any kind of racial discrimination.

Now I must confess that part of this may be difficult to explain and difficult to hear. It is difficult to explain because I simply cannot capture the pull and attraction the black church had for those who lived and were treated as second-class citizens not having any rights that the majority must respect. For them the church was much more than a place of good teaching, proper worship and social gathering. It was a womb where one could if just for a few hours rediscover that she is in fact a human being, created in God's image and loved by Him just as He loves all the rest of His children.

Must this always be the case? Can we look forward to a day in our society when we can truly say that there is no ‘black church’, ‘white church’ etc.? I believe we can, but only if we’re willing to admit that Sunday morning is not the most segregated day of the week as much as it is simply a reflection of the kind of society onto which we have chosen to build, cultivate and nurture. How we begin to do that is the subject of next week’s post.

To Him Who Loves Us…

Pastor Lance Lewis

Christ Liberation Fellowship

Philadelphia PA

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Way Forward

"The fact is, race is a constant factor in American life, yet reacting to every incident, real or imagined, is crippling, tiring and ultimately counterproductive. I'd grown up in a family that believed you might not control your circumstances, but you could control your reaction to them.

"Despite the gross inequities my ancestors faced, there has been progress and race is today no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color-blind and likely will never be. Race is ever-present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure."

Much to my dismay I must admit that I agree with former Secretary of State Rice’s take on the issue of race in America. In my view it’s both sobering and accurate. It’s sobering to know that within my lifetime blacks simply wouldn’t have been invited or welcome in many evangelical churches. And yet within that same lifetime our country has elected an African-American president. In between these two realites lie our present struggles with race/ethnicity. No one can sincerely doubt that we’ve made great progress, however such progress does not mean that America is a color-blind society. Secretary Rice’s analogy while unpleasant has a ring of truth to it, for in some ways our national issue of race/ethnicity is like a birth defect, something we learn to live with but can’t really cure.

The irony of race in America is that over forty years since the end of legalized Jim Crow in the South and de facto John Crow in the North we’re still in many ways two peoples living amongst (but not necessarily with) each other with distrust and some animosity. We rarely talk about race and when it comes to our collective attention our society tends to react like two factions within the Christian church with respect to demons. One faction sees demonic activty behind every tree and under every rock, while another almost never admits to it.

Unfortunately, the best our culture can seem to do at this point is highlight the issue, wish it were better and then go about our business. Like Ms. Rice we might admit our problem, but feel somewhat powerless to address it and thus go on our way hoping that somehow it will correct itself. Sadly the evangelical church is not much better and may be worse. For one we, (and I do mean we, for we cannot truly address this issue if we remain in our separate historical camps) have a long and sinful history of disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the treatment of individuals and groups. The fact is that the evangelical church embraced the social gospel of racial discrimination instead of pursuing the bibical message of ethnic unity that springs from the gospel. In so doing we put the temporal and sinful wishes of our tribal group above the clear mandate of scripture. Moreover, rather than taking the lead in this area, we’ve retreated into ideological positions which may reinforce our political beliefs but do little if anything to further the cause of the gospel.

And that’s what this discussion is and should be about. We approach the thorny issue of race not to champion one side or the other, nor to advance our cause or even to placate our own conscience. No, we do so because our society has proven over and over again that its lost in this area and it like so many other issues is one in which the scriptures speak and speak powerfully.

Some of you are aware of the article in the Southern Poverty Law Center ( concerning Pastor Craig Bulkley’s response to an email from a former elder. One thing that should be clear is that the PCA is not the only denomination or for that matter institution that struggles with the issue of race. As Ms. Rice wrote ‘’the fact is, race is a constant factor in American life’… It’s not a debilitating factor, but it is a factor nonetheless.

The issue then for us dear ones is simple: what is the way forward and can we as a church begin to shepherd those we serve to the extent that all of us can speak to the issues of race/ethnicity with grace, humility and a with a focus on the mission of the gospel? We believe so and thus we start this series of articles with the hope of providing a voice of experience, wisdom and insight coupled with a strong biblical perspective. All of those who write these articles have served for some time within the PCA. Moreover, all of us have had different though common experiences as African-Americans in this country. We’ve all been blessed to have embraced biblically reformed theology and by our Lord’s grace are either presently pastoring or served in pastoral ministry with both blacks and whites.

Our goal in this series of articles is to address the various issues of race/ethnicity from a biblical point of view that equips all of us to be faithful witnesses to our culture. We recognize that not every PCA church will be become a multi-ethnic congregation and we also realize that this is not the only issue to which we as a church of our Lord Jesus Christ must speak. But speak to it we must, just as we speak to issues such as abortion, homosexuality and other issues we deem important.

Our hope is that this series helps us to navigate the turbulent waters of race/ethnicity together. And that together we can present a gracious, humble, biblical and Christ-focused witness to culture and communties for God’s glory and the sake of the gospel.

Joyfully in Christ,

Pastor Lance