The Changing Role of The Church

Black churches are
in­creas­ing­ly be­ing moved out of the cen­ter of our lives. Hav­ing lost its place at the so­cial cen­ter of our com­mun­ity, this mo­dal­ity pro­hibits the brand lo­yal­ty vital to ef­fec­tive church growth.

The authority of a state over its people lies in

the state’s war powers; in its ability to train and field a fearsome army of soldiers, properly equipped and disciplined to follow orders. The black churches here, and, to a large extent, across the nation, are, at the end of the day, no threat to anyone. We demand nothing of our society, nothing of ourselves. We challenge no one. Thus, we engender no one’s respect. No one’s fear. No one’s reverence. Here in Ourtown, politicians give us lip service, but we are clearly no threat to them so they are unmotivated to take our concerns seriously. George Bush won two elections in a stroll without us.

Local church attendance is dropping. There are empty places and even empty pews where we’re not accustomed to seeing them. Our revivals, here, are poorly attended, as are inter-church or district events. We’re simply not showing up, which translates immediately into a drop in the weekly offering. Many if not all black churches, here, are under real financial strain. Are tightening belts and cutting back. Most every pastor I know is actively engaged in trying to find ways to put butts in seats, a fairly trepidatious pursuit in that our motives for doing so must be right. Churches are under such financial strain that that becomes the motive for evangelical efforts—efforts which should have been ongoing in the first place because that’s what the church was created to do, create disciples. But many of our churches only get focused on this when our finances are challenged. Now, all of a sudden, we’re focused on inviting people to church and sharing the Gospel. I believe God responds to our motives moreso than our words; by our real reasons for doing things rather than our stated reasons. We shouldn’t only be interested in sharing the Gospel because our finances are in trouble.

The bigger threat to the black church is not diminishing attendance, which is a symptom and not the disease itself. The real problem is the changing role of the church in our lives. Growing up, the black church was the center of our community and our lives. It was our power station. It was where we landed. Our community center. Our day care. Our sports arena. Our movie theater. Our social hub. It was here that we received our news briefing. where we got our marching orders. My block was a veritable ghost town on Sundays. Everybody—saint and sinner, church mother or hood rat—was in church. It was simply understood: Sunday, that’s where you went. The church was our after-school program. The church was our social services agency. The church was our extended family. We didn’t need a schedule of events in order to be there. Often times, we’d simply drop in if we were passing by. Say hello to daddy. It's what we called him. We worked together. We struggled together. We shared together.

The church pastor used to be a known, recognizable figure in the community. His name was called when he walked into the 7-Eleven. People waved when he stopped for gas. He walked the neighborhood streets. He was known in the school system and visited the schools. He was a man who could get people out of trouble by giving his word. These days, all you see is a luxury car passing by, the church pastor hidden from view behind privacy glass.

The advent of the new church model—the white evangelical model—has caused ripple effects that are impacting the traditional black church. This new model—with comfortable auditoriums, stadium seating, theatrical lights, refreshments in the lobby, rigidly-timed and well-rehearsed worship services—has moved the church-going experience from an interactive one to a passive one. Going to church, in some of these places, is a lot like going to a show, or going to the movies. Visitors have exactly the same endorphin rush and, psychologically, the dimmed lighting and theatrical aspect moves us from worship to entertainment. We are being entertained. We know exactly when church will start and exactly when church will end. We are being served by the fine folks at X-Church who put on this show for us. A show that costs us nothing in terms of personal involvement or personal sacrifice. Many churchgoers simply melt into the crowd, becoming observers, hearers of the word rather than doers.

Many black churchgoers, disillusioned by their local church or having outgrown it, have moved onto these Entertainment Churches where they find rest from the constant tasks, the often pointless busywork of rushing to prepare for Annual Days and so forth. At the Entertainment Church, they are asked only for money. More investment is not required. They find an air conditioned, soothing environment where the music never exceeds A.M. radio decibel levels. They are anonymous, so the pastor is not all in their business.

Having visited one of these Entertainment Churches, many blacks find themselves simply restless in the 1965 environment of their home church, most of which are run by pastors and deacons whose vision is set firmly in the past. These are churches that face backward in all aspects, and, having seen the forward-facing Entertainment Churches, it is now difficult to settle for the radiant heat and funeral-home paper fans of our 1965 black churches.

Anonymous Worship: The Entertainment Church: comfy, air-conditioned, no investment required.

This is what’s killing us.

Not that we don’t entertain the way the mega-evangelicals do, but that we no longer track with the community our churches were created to serve. Therefore, black churches are increasingly being moved out of the center of our communities, relegated to the fringes as a quaint anachronism; a museum of past glories. And the concept of spirituality, in and of itself, gets moved to the edges along with it. The Entertainment Churches seem content to offer mass-marketed spirituality and to exist in the periphery along with our local theatre chains. That mentality, being applied to the black church, is specifically what is killing us: our churches are no longer at the center of our lives but are out on the edges.

And the fault for that lies squarely with the pastors. The pastor is the under-shepherd, the CEO. The buck must, therefore, stop with him. A weak pastor, allowing church elders and deacons and so forth, to run him over, is simply failing at his calling. And churches rarely pick good pastors because the people who show up to these kinds of business meetings are usually the church busybodies and not necessarily the most spiritual or even the most intellectual people in the church. But they are the most vocal people in the church, people seeking attention, authority and control. It is the extremely rare church that welcomes a reformer, a progressive, a thinker, a long shot if you will, into their ranks. More often than not, the church calls someone who looks and sounds as much like their former pastor as they can find; in so doing perpetuating more of the same. While perhaps not realizing (or caring) that, if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got.

This is why the local black church here has marched in place while the white evangelicals have exploded. The Korean and Hispanic churches often follow the white evangelical model, as do the more successful (but rare) black mega-churches. But the small church, the church on the corner, is no longer the center of gravity for the black community. As a result, our churches, here, and, likely, your churches elsewhere, are struggling to keep doors open. Attendance is dwindling because the church’s relevance is practically nonexistent.

In that context, black churches become competitors for the same shrinking demographic of black people. Here in Ourtown, blacks constitute only 6% of the population (the national average being 13%). Having lost its place in the emotional and social center of our community, the mindset becomes the same as that of someone seeking entertainment or trying to make dinner reservations. Which church to go to? Well, this one’s got a good choir, and this one’s got a good preacher, and so-and-so will be speaking at this one on Sunday. This modality prohibits the kind of community and brand loyalty vital to black churches. Growing up, you went to your neighborhood church. Period. You belonged to that church because it was down the block or around the corner. The pastor knew your name and the deacons watched out for your kids.

That’s all done, now. It’s all Entertainment Church. And many of us have no more loyalty to a church than we do to a movie theater—they all become interchangeable. Without a real connection, without a real investment in our churches, we will continue to see what we’re seeing now: the diminishing role of our churches, shrinking attendance, and doors closing in favor of the exploding Entertainment Churches. Churches getting bigger, pastors getting richer, off of the decimation of the local churches and the bankruptcy of our family values and spiritual lives. The church, our moral compass, has been diminished and pushed aside. Our pastors have allowed this if not guaranteed it by being either too weak or too dug-in, too lost in the past or, frankly, too stupid to realize what was happening to his ministry. All of us becoming a generation of Gideons who cannot recognize God even when He is standing right in front of us.

Until we begin to actively engage this trend, we will all continue to struggle against the tide of diminishing returns in our black churches, bickering with one another as we bitterly compete for crumbs from the master’s table.

Christopher J. Priest
17 June 2007

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