The Black Church is an incredible phenomenon that evolved from hush harbors during the diabolical vicissitudes of chattel slavery to the formal establishment of independent churches and denominations in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America.
General definitions of the Black Church focus on the predominance of its constituency, the autonomy of its leadership, and its cultural identity. Though racial and cultural identity is a marker of the Black Church, there is no homogeneous “Black Church,” as evinced by varieties in liturgy, church polity, and diverse theological leanings. Subsequently, variety in the Black Church is a testament to the diversity of Black people—culturally, socio-economically, ideologically, and theologically. Yet, there are common threads that bind Black Churches: Black peoples’ shared experience(s) of racism in North America (collective identity) and the Black Church’s commitment to plight of Black people (communal ethics).
However, communal ethics in early Black Churches were not simply the derivative of pragmatic thinking by an oppressed people. Rather, communal ethics were rooted in an African social ethic that survived the Middle passage. Dr. Peter Paris notes that “the preservation and promotion of community is the paramount goal of African peoples in all spheres of life.” Hence, social ethics were not detached from spirituality, nor did ethics reside solely in the sphere of individualism. Communal ethics were expressed in spiritual acts of care for each other, collective activity, and shared commitments despite racist opposition. Accordingly, shared commitments benefited the individual as well as the broader community during the harsh realities of Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow.
It should be noted that Black Churches were not immune to the influence of socio-cultural values such as respectability politics and middle class-ness. Yet, the Black Church’s commitment to collectively uplift a sense of communal responsibility remained intact—whether actualized or as an idealized conception.
The Birth of the Black-ish Church
After the Civil Rights Movement, though, there was both a de-centering of the Black Church in Black life and a re-ordering of perspectives in some Black churches. Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. asserts in his provocative article, The Black Church is Dead, that now, "black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs.” However, I would argue that these are not merely parallel beliefs that stand alongside each other, but are indicative of the full embrace of value systems alien to earlier generations of Black churches.
Additionally, I do not believe that the Black Church is dead, as evidenced by the wonderful examples of pastoral and prophetic ministry across the United States. There are faith leaders in Pittsburgh, who fight for fair wages, parishioners in Trenton, New Jersey, who volunteer their time with urban youth, ministers in Memphis who challenge white supremacy, churches in Chicago committed to social justice, and deacons in Dinwiddie, Virginia, who comfort the grieving. There are pastors in St. Albans (Queens, New York) who sacrifice financially to support their small congregations, lay people in Louisville who visit the sick, and pastors across rural Black America who faithfully minister to Black farmers and their families.
However, I do assert the emergence of a new designation of Black Churches in the Post-Civil Rights era—'Black-ish' Churches.
What is a ‘Black-ish’ Church?
The classification of 'Black-ish' churches is not concerned with the nostalgic lens of sentimental cultural history. Indeed, the history of the Black Church is both complicated and complex. It includes narratives of revered persons, patriarchy, stories of sacrifice, and accounts of religious charlatans. Yet, the place of Black-ish churches in this history is no longer on the fringes—rather, these churches are emerging as a normative model of ministry.
What are Black-ish churches? Black-ish churches are mega, storefront, and medium-sized churches that extend across denominations. Black-ish churches are indeed Black Churches in that they are predominately Black, have autonomous Black leadership, and incorporate elements of Black liturgical traditions. Yet, the priorities and standards of success of Black-ish churches have led to different commitments, a distinctive ethos, and disparate pursuits of their leaders. Black-ish churches are often more committed to social mobility, gospels of success, cultural assimilation, and individualism than to living out the Gospel in the world. Hence, their programming does not incorporate intentional commitments to the plight of impoverished Black people who may live near the church itself. The rhetoric of Black-ish churches contains scant attention to Jesus’ example of sacrificial living for the benefit of others. Thus, the ethos of these churches often mirrors the aspirations and values of the American mainstream.
Black-ish churches espouse cheap racial reconciliation—without repentance—that is built on the myth of post-racialism. They perpetuate the ruse of economic liberalism without critical analysis of economic policies. Accordingly, Black-ish church pastors, for funding or personal gain, sometimes form alliances with people who support policies that are detrimental to the Black people in their pews. While I do believe that most of these pastors genuinely care for their parishioners, the problems of unbridled ambition, narcissism, and pursuits of fame among clergy lend themselves to relativistic and self-contradictory ethics.
Black-ish churches also focus more on the production of the worship service than service to humanity. Subsequently, Black-ish churches have turned the passion of Black worship into a spectacle of entertainment and tourist voyeurism in an effort to draw more people in. But this appeal ignores the cost of discipleship and often disavows prophetic Christianity in order to make people feel more comfortable. New pastors, then, are faced with the decision of whether or not to emulate these models of ministry.
It is true that the methodologies of the Black Church adapt generationally. However, the Black Church's commitments to work for justice, love our neighbors, proclaim the gospel, uplift our community, and care for each other should remain intact. Our commitment is shaded in Black but rooted in faith in God.
Contributor: Kermit Moss
1. Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 130.
2. Eddie Glaude, Jr. “The Black Church is Dead,” HuffPost, The Blog, August 23, 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/eddie-glaude-jr-phd/the-black-church-is-dead_b_473815.html.
Kermit Moss is the Interim Director of the Center for Black Church Studies and a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary. His research interests are in the intersection of theology, identity, spirituality, pneumatology, urban youth, and hip-hop/pop culture. In addition, Kermit currently serves as senior pastor of Manhattan Bible Church, which is located in the Inwood neighborhood in Northern Manhattan (NYC).