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