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There is love here. Family. Relationships that span generations. The Black Church in America is, in fact, an intimate portrait of America, with roots deep into centuries of struggle and hardship. The church wears its legacy proudly. It informs our traditions, culture and liturgy. Our greatest strength, however, is also, in many cases, our greatest weakness. We are so invested in our culture, in our tradition, that maintaining those tenets has become, in many cases, the church's entire purpose. The black church in America exists, in large measure, simply to perpetuate itself.

The black church is not unique in this.

It is, likely, mankind's nature to look for rules and, where none exist, to invent them, complicating the elegance and simplicity of the Gospel by creating a hierarchy where none should be. We have, all of us, of all ethnicities, created our own Sanhedrin. Our own Sadducees. We have re-sewn the temple veil and reinstated the temple rules, long after Christ suffered and bled to do away with all of that. “I'm not the most learned of pastors,” The Reverend Larry L. Broxton, Pastor of Christ Memorial Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, said, “but, beginning in the rural South at the turn of the 19th century, black Christians have brought into the church (especially the southern black Baptist church), old traditions that had either been taught in error, or have no basis in Scripture whatsoever.” These traditions are now so deeply rooted within the church, many ministers and pastors— caught between these traditions and an education which illuminates the doctrinal error of many of them— often face a daunting challenge of educating faulty doctrine out of our churches.

“The pastorate taught me that school is an environment for learning but the pastorate is not a place to use it immediately,” Dr. Henry F. Johnson, Interim Pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, observed. “Education is important because knowledge is power, but you must know when to use it and how to use it. I have found that it is more important to love the people and establish a relationship in the first couple of years of the pastorate. During this time you use your education as you preach, teach, counsel, and exercise you administrative gifts.”

The best reference for black church culture that I've seen is Church Administration in the Black Perspective by Floyd Massey, Jr. and Samuel Berry McKinney. They cover much of this in great detail, my observations here being a poor man's condensed version of their wonderful book.

There is absolutely no scientific basis for my observations here. These are the subjective observations of someone who has spent 43 years in black churches. Your mileage may vary. These are traditions we need to take a fresh look at and consider what is truly worth keeping and what should be done away with.

The good news is, if you are not black, most black churches give you a kind of waiver on these do's and don'ts. We do not expect people who are of other cultures to know these things. But black worshippers who transgress these unwritten rules are considered barbarians. People who wipe their mouths on their sleeves and pass gas in crowded rooms. African Americans are simply required to know these rules, all of them, in great detail, even though there is fairly little formal training in church etiquette and protocol available to us. It is part of our oral tradition, a terribly inefficient means of passing down important details of our culture, especially the overly complex layers of common practice the black church, and uniquely the black church, burdens itself with.

A visitor to our churches might find himself overwhelmed by it all, or, more likely, would not notice because we simply forgive their ignorance and don't even bother pointing these things out to them. But, if we mailed them, say, a pamphlet of do's and don'ts a week or more before their visit, they might be better prepared for their visit, much as we'd study a foreign culture before journeying to that city.

It makes sense for visitors, especially visitors who plan on participating in leading worship, to consult with someone on the specific etiquette for the church they are visiting. Paul said, When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are oppressed, I share their oppression so that I might bring them to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all this to spread the Good News, and in doing so I enjoy its blessings. —I Corinthians 9:20-23 NLT

It is obviously our reasonable responsibility to find out ahead of time what is and what is not an accepted practice.

Reading vs. Listening

Most of the difference between pastoring white and black churches (and I've done both) are matters of culture and education. Black folk don't read. It's a fact. The sad statistic is that whites read more than blacks because reading has always been an intrinsic part of white culture, while blacks have relied on a largely oral tradition. Black church folk, especially, do not read. They listen. It's what we have been conditioned to do. We take orders. We follow instructions issued to us from the pulpit. In the tradition of the black church, there is a great deal of jockeying for position. There are a lot of titles, many chiefs and few Indians. Everybody is Director of Something. Everybody's a boss. In our culture, it's extremely important to know who is king of which particular donut shop because, transgressing or missing this person will result in political retribution against your agenda or ministry.

Many leaders in the black church are retirees with, frankly, not much more going on in their lives than being the head of This Auxiliary or That Board at church. As a result, the politics of power at church are their main preoccupation, and they bring the rules of political engagement into God's house where they clearly do not belong. Many leaders in the black church will fight and fight dirty to either attain power or retain power. They will block progress just because an idea or ministry doesn't speak specifically to them. If they, as individuals, do not understand or appreciate something (youth ministry is the best example), the answer is a resounding “no.” It is for this reason that one church I know, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, only has one working PC in the office, and that PC is an old 600 MHz Celeron running Windows 98. Appeals to upgrade the one PC in the whole church were routinely denied chiefly because those in power are older men who do not use PC's and do not understand why they are important to the efficient operation of a church.

The older members gravitate towards power because the younger congregants are, frankly, too self-absorbed to be bothered. The younger generation is still building families or looking for spouses or in school or concerned about career and family and, frankly, leave an inordinate amount of the work to the church elders. So the weight of blame cannot fall entirely on the elders, if it weren't for them, many of our churches would be forced to close their doors. However, this schism has created a Them Versus Us mentality were the elders distrust the judgment of the younger generation. And, as a result of being continually denied, the younger generation, the 30-somethings and 20-somethings, give up and retreat from the political process. The elders win, yaaay! But the church, a prestigious and important community hub, limps along with one W98 machine on an AOL dialup account that goes out over the church's main phone line, such that when the church secretary is online, callers to the church receive a busy signal (the trustees voted “no” for voicemail. Waste of money). Yes, in today's church. As I write these words.

Ours is a tradition, therefore, of listening rather than reading. It's how the elders were brought up. It's why we have no computers, no internet, no web site, no newsletters. It's why our churches, in large measure, do not publish. Do not contribute to our culture beyond the pulpit oratory. Ours is not a culture of literacy but of advocacy. And this mindset, deeply ingrained in our church elders, is the likely reason why so much of this layered add-on ritualism endures.

Black folk don't read. Black folk don't study. Many of us can't find books in the Bible. We are quote-ologists, quoting scripture we have heard repeated in the sanctuary for decades. Most of us have absolutely no idea about the origins of these rules and traditions, or why they are so out of line with proper doctrine. Which brings us right to the door of the office of the pastor. In overwhelming measure the pastor has failed to educate the black church as to proper doctrine. In large measure, the black pastor has, sadly, capitulated to the sweeping tide of ignorance, rather than swim upstream of the plantation mindset.