Saturday, April 19, 2008

Black Megachurches and the African American Reformation

Please read the following article very carefully and tell me what you think.


Megachurches, Megaphones
The Primary Issue is Theology, not Economics
© Eric C. Redmond, 2006 – 2007.
Reprint permission is granted by the author.

In the last year, much attention has been given to the phenomena of African-American megachurches. Black Enterprise presented “The Business of Faith” as its May 2006 cover article, highlighting the financial power of four megachurches. In its July-August 2006 issue, The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, portrayed many of the shortcomings of African-American megachurches associated with the Word of Faith movement with respect to the pursuit of civil rights for people of color. In June 2006, The National Conference and Revival for Social Justice in the Black Church, organized by Rev. Al Sharpton, brought sharp criticism of the megachurches, particularly their lack of help to the poor and disenfranchised while they seemingly promote the political agenda of the Christian Right and the Republican Party. From all sides, the megachurches are being challenged to speak loudly on behalf of God for something other than material prosperity.

At the center of these critiques are names of clerics known to American households, including T.D.Jakes, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar and Charles Blake. Many of these men have been assisted in the growth of their memberships by preaching material success, and by being visible through name recognition associated with their books, festivals, and movies. Coupled with these large memberships have come millions of dollars for the purchase of large, multi-use facilities and people resources that help secure outside funding for church businesses. The formula has worked, providing new schools, assisted living facilities, ex-offender re-entry programs, and many other social uplift aids.

The new era of mega church pastors are not the first to be recognized for wedding the Black Church’s large coffers to the plights of poverty and joblessness of its community. Charles Adams and Mangedwa Nyathi dawned the cover of Black Enterprise thirteen years ago for similar success. But the recent attention given to Jakes and others has taken prominence because of the differences of their message and philosophy from that of the mainstream, traditional African-American church. Whereas the featured leaders of the 1990’s developments were largely Baptist, Church of God in Christ, Methodist, and Clinton democrats, the leaders of 2000’s endeavors are garden variety Charismatic or conservative Evangelicals and Bush Republicans. For all of the words of praise for these churches’ success, it is this latter relationship, which is portrayed as turning African-Americans from political issues visceral to our community, which has drawn the ire of the Black clergy establishment towards the bishops of the megachurches.

Despite the eye of skepticism cast toward the practices of the megachurches and their leaders, the above laudations and criticisms do not address the heart of the issue of their successes and deficiencies. Nor is the issue addressed by simply recognizing what appears to be a disregard for the New Testament’s cautions against greed as a corrupter of motives: “Be on your guard against all covetousness,” said Jesus himself, “for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15, ESV). Instead, the real issue is the theology (or lack thereof) that drives these churches. This truth is missed in most evaluations of the movement because megachurches are simply a microcosm of the larger African-American church. In embracing the American Dream, and in placing hopes in political parties of either persuasion, our churches have lost the counter-cultural message of Jesus.
The New Testament portrays Jesus as one who drew crowds of people, much like the megachurch heralds. Great numbers would come from far and wide to gain a touch of healing from him. Groups would cross lakes in boats to seek him out. One of the most famous of Jesus’ miracles, recorded in all four New Testament gospel accounts, is the feeding of a crowd of more than 5000 people. This crowd “was following him,” states the account in John 6:2.

Yet the crowds did not continue to follow Jesus after hearing his claims and demands. Once the healing of the lepers and the lame ended, and the preaching of his own work on the cross was established as binding judgment on the practices and destinies of all people, the crowds left him. Once he began proclaiming that evil within all people separated them from God, he lost his popular appeal. Rather than being able to establish a church of thousands and meet the physical and economic needs of the socially disenfranchised, Jesus was rejected. His message offended the crowds. His words only appealed to a few. Even raising people from the dead on multiple occasions, and the promise to do the same for others, did not have strong enough appeals to overcome the offense people felt by being told they were morally bankrupt. In spite of being the CEO of history’s greatest religious social justice program, Jesus lost his following to his theology. In spite of losing his followers, he continued to warn people to consider their souls over gaining all of the material success in the world.

In contrast to the megachurch credo and craze, there is another hope on the horizon for our churches and community in the form of a growing movement of younger African-Americans. The members of this informal coalition identify themselves around the Reformation and Calvinism’s “doctrines of grace.” They identify themselves around theological commitments. Their commitments are based on centering core doctrines around the message of the Scriptures—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as solution to man’s moral dilemma before the Creator (as opposed to economic empowerment).

Stated differently, this coalition’s identity rests in a message that all people are radically depraved in the sight of their Creator. The Creator has made a provision of mercy for some through the work of Christ. Christ and his work must define the belief and practice of the recipients of mercy, and the message of the mercy of the Creator through Christ is the only means of life-transformation that brings true satisfaction to individuals, families and communities. This message is for the poor, the rich, the African-American, and all people. However, the message these men preach offends.

This African-American “Reformed” network is not united by the sizes of their congregations, nor does it look at size or receipts as a measure of success. Largely united through conference speaking, published writings, and the blogsphere, this group is slowly finding home in the hearts of mainstream and traditional churches.

The preaching of these young reformers recognizes there is a sense in which the church should be separated from culture rather than totally immersed therein. This separation is not because of an Establishment Clause, or because of the need to keep the IRS from challenging a church’s tax-status. Instead, it is because the church is intended to be a spiritual and theological entity like no other—one that transforms culture rather than assimilates to it. Therefore, this group’s message is not a proclamation of economic success, but of Christ as the center of all things. In fact, these men and their churches tend to identify themselves as gospel-centered and Christ-centered. Dissimilarly, the megachurch pulpits are so immersed in the prosperity message of the American culture they cannot pull people above the ills of human nature, including ills that follow riches like greed, bribery, theft, selfishness, and exploitation of the poor.

The younger movement offers the hope of righteousness. For what is needed to bring lasting change to every community is people who deny themselves of selfish ambition and excessive living, make personal sacrifices for the good of all others, refrain from committing crimes against members of the community, submit themselves to governing authorities, and raise their children in homes characterized by love, forgiveness, joy, delayed gratification and discipline. This hope is in great contrast to the philosophy of the megachurches in question, which seem to derive their theology from utilitarian thought: It is drawing the masses, so it must be right.

If there are faces for this movement, one of them belongs to Rev. Anthony Carter, itinerant speaker and author of On Being Black and Reformed. In his “new perspective” on the Christian faith, Carter demonstrates the consistency of the Reformed Theology with the African-American experience of sorrow, suffering and oppression. But the discourse he takes to pulpits around the country does not challenge his readers to leave mental poverty in order to begin gaining their piece of the bourgeoisie pie. Neither is he naïve about the connotations of Calvinism for great-great-grandchildren of slaves. His message is that God is the only hope in whatever economic status one finds oneself.

Another face may be that of Thabiti Anyabwile, the newly appointed pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Caymans. A former senior associate and project manager with the Center for the Study of Social Policy, Anyabwile was an elder at a Baptist church in Washington, DC, woven of Reformation woof. In his new position on the island, Anyabwile has begun to work for social reform and revival through the reformation of the souls. He has two forthcoming publications that challenge the African-American church to recover the greatness of its heritage by embracing a theology of reformation. An early preview of the first publication suggests there is nothing in print known to be like it. With the calling of Anyabwile to be pastor in Grand Caymans, the movement has reached beyond U.S. borders to proclaim hope to other lands.

The neo-radicals like Carter and Anyabwile do not deny the need for institutional justice for African-Americans to achieve social justice. Instead, they place the role of the State under the hand of a good Savior. They are not the first to wield a theology of humility as the path to prosperity and justice. Boston’s Eugene Rivers, who would not identify himself with any of the aforementioned church movements, is ahead of all of us in practice, results and reputation.

The Afro-reformers do not belong on a pedestal. However, I hope they will be placed on a high mount above megachurch steeples as beacons to guide our people through the rough waters that we must come to experience economic contentment and justice.

Counter criticisms to this new movement abound, and the lasting fruit is still years in the making. But its leaders stand true to being driven by a theological impetus, despite typical unfounded denunciations of being white, Uncle Toms, sellouts, and Oreos. Yet in the face of naysayers, buds of the Reformed movement are beginning to sprout in the lives of second and third generation seedlings. Carter’s generation is successfully wedding Reformed orthodoxy and African-American orthopraxy by seeing the former as the tree and the latter as the flower. Of course, the root to this movement is the Gospel.

The Word of Faith megachurch movement will not go away, but will progress further into exurbia. It will take with it masses of enthusiasts and critics. It may overshadow the work of the fledgling Reformed movement if measured in terms of dollars, cents, franchises of 501(c)(3)’s, and congregation sizes. However, the message of the Black Reformation will not be dimmed. It has the potential to have the impact of its theological forbearers, of whom it was said, “after darkness, light.” I am hopeful that the preaching of the Reformed movement, combined with the faithfulness and integrity of the movement’s members, will bring about an African-American Great Awakening, even as did the preaching of Calvinistic Puritans for the Colonies.

Most importantly, the leaders of the new reformation are not coming into question as phonies, since they reject what is faddish and popular, and they are not driven by the pragmatic. Their message is gaining appeal as listeners discern that their gospel is all-encompassing because it seeks to reach the whole person, not just one’s wallet. May history record that the attention given to this movement will be because their preaching rang out with life-transforming impact, like megaphones for God. For, salvation for African-American church and community is found in prioritizing theology, not economics.

Rev. Eric C. Redmond is the Pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church, Temple Hills, MD, and formerly Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at Washington Bible College, Lanham, MD. He is the Theology Editor of the NAAF Outlook: Newsletter of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, and a Trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, TX. He is currently working on a book about African-American men’s disenfranchisement of the African-American church. More about Eric Redmond, Anthony Carter, and Thabiti Anyabwile is available at www.reformingchurches.org (forthcoming). This article was written August, 29, 2006.


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4 Comments:

Blogger hammerdad said...

Steve,

I am a little surprised there hasn't been any discussion resulting here. My theological convictions are largely reformed so I have much to agree with the direction of Carter et al. I think that the critique is needed of mega churches that are prosperity oriented explicitly, but feel like the white churches are almost as prosperity oriented implicitly.

I also feel like the article probably overly romanticizes the role of a couple of young men. I am always a bit leery about this type of writing that sets them on pedestals. . . yet at the end of the day I am with them on the movement for Christocentric ecclesiology.

May 8, 2008 at 7:34 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Yeah, Joel

I'm kind of surprised, too. I thought maybe because it was so long!

I was particularly encouraged by the article because it seems to balance the needs of racial justice with reformed theology and thinking. Those two paradigms can get polarized in our polarized world, and they need not be.

I was also encouraged because the article confirms what I have been sensing for some time: There is a movement across racial lines towards a more holistic and biblical approach to the Christian faith and practice. A true reformation of Evangelicalism, if you will, albeit on a small scale.

I have thought for some time that for true reformation and revival to happen, it must be informed both by specifically urban people and people of color, urban or not.

Of course, I do not exclude at all non-urban people in that statement, nor do I exclude Caucasians! It's just that true reform in our day, if it's initiated by God, will represent all the people in the body.

I have felt for some time that a lot of the theology and practice in the Black church has been outside the pale of what I would consider truly biblical.

However, the white church is even worse in a lot of ways. The doctrinal statement sounds good (as it does in many a Black church), but it is neither believed nor practiced. That is NOT orthodoxy.

The minority church's demand for justice perhaps is finally being heard in some small ways, but it is increasingly being informed by a thorough theology and not simply a reaction to injustice and marginalization. I'm not implying that there never was any good theology behind the push for racial justice, I merely think that it has not always been balanced.

That this reformation is being birthed in the black theological community and at a gressroots level, and that it can be embraced by thinking white people, is very exciting to me.

May 8, 2008 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger hammerdad said...

Steve,

As someone who was and in some way is still in the Reformed tradition I read this a bit differently. I think that the true heart of Reformed theology naturally embraces not only the gospel but what Nicolas Wolterstorff calls "World Formative Christiantity".

This type of theology naturally embraces CCDA principles but is found primarily in churches emanating out of southern presbyterianism! (Churches that espoused excuses for slavery). Now that is ironic to me. . .

So the voices in the article are not only bringing truth key to the black church but are an incarnation of a voice that the white church needs to be legitimate.

So if the black church needs the gospel-truth witness the white church needs the "we actually live out what we believe" witness that these Afro-voices bring with the message. Interesting stuff.

I followed the links from that article and ended up listening to Mark Noll lectures at princeton on Race, Religion and Politics. . . fascinating!

May 8, 2008 at 9:36 PM  
Blogger hammerdad said...

maybe that's not that different. .

May 8, 2008 at 9:38 PM  

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