The Black Church
An Outsider's Guide
In the black church we tend to place a great deal of importance
on rules. We have lots of rules and bylaws. Most church members
have never actually seen their own church's bylaws. They are
simply told what is in them. A idea is shot down because a
Deacon says, “Well, that's against our bylaws.” And we take them
at their word because actually reading the bylaws would be too
much trouble. Many black churches do not publish their bylaws
but keep them in some secret place in an office somewhere.
Members in good standing can see the bylaws, of course, but they
have to go to the office and look at them there. I'm sure most
churches will, indeed, issue you a copy of the bylaws, but this
request is so infrequent, it would take many churches a few eye
blinks to figure out how to accommodate it.
Most church bylaws are based on the logic of democratic majority rule, which is completely unscriptural. There is no scriptural example of democratic or majority rule being an effective means of spiritual leadership. In fact, most Biblical examples of democratic or majority rule are object lessons in how-not-to-do-it. Most church bylaws employ a legal sensibility more so than a spiritual foundation. These are, more often than not, the rules of the Elks Club more so than they are the Ten Commandments. These rules are adopted over a convention process and fought over by self-serving interests groups intent on having their own way. The overwhelming majority of these documents exist mainly for the hubris of the State and do not in any way edify God or empower His people.
Thankfully, the new trend in black churches is, indeed, away from a lot of this. The churches here in Ourtown were planted by southerners and have a southern bent to them, but if you go to the actual south, the Mississippi South, the Alabama South, the Houston South, you'll find the real southern churches in the real southern cities have long ago disposed of a lot of this stuff, while we here remain deeply entrenched in yesterday. It's a little sad, our hapless aping of something that, in great measure, no longer exists. Holding to a southern tradition the south itself has evolved out of.
White church goers are often called seekers. There's
Pete. There's Sally. Hey, Bob. Black church goers are called
saints. “To the Pastor, saints and friends...” They are Brother
Thompson, Sister McGinnis, Brother Wallace. The black church is
steeped in archaic terminology, ritual process and formality.
While, in the majority, the white church exists in present time,
the black church tends to face backward, investing value only in
the familiar and the traditional. The majority of black churches
are clustered into various associations and groups, usually
called District Associations. These District Associations, in
turn, report to the state association, which in turn reports to a National
Congress. Churches pay tribute to their districts pay tribute to
the state pays tribute to a national convention, where abuse—
staggering in its heinous nature and comical scope— routinely
takes place (Rev. Henry J. Lyons, President of the National
Baptist Convention, USA, was convicted in February 1999 of
improperly taking $4 million from companies and organizations
doing business with the convention, spending the money on, among
other things, houses for himself and his mistress. Lyons is
serving a 51/2-year prison term). Corruption and mismanagement
of funds among these conventions is a fairly open secret, as the
heads of these organizations are lavished with gifts, per diems,
cars, travel and other luxuries paid for by the tithes and
offerings of people living paycheck to paycheck.
The Reverend William J. Shaw, Pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, was voted president of the convention in September 1999 using a campaign with the acronym VISA: vision, integrity, structure and accountability. In the year since, he has created procedures designed to prevent graft. Such problems are unlikely to occur in the future, he said, because of the reforms and because, “people wouldn't stand for it.”
While the intent is noble (black churches supporting black churches), the sad fact is the convention and districting process is vulnerable to corruption, and millions of dollars have been wasted and stolen at all levels of this pyramid scheme. We have several different district associations of various denominations here in town, but after eight years, I still cannot tell you what they specifically do, other than raise money for some mythical facility in Pueblo. Beyond the fundraising, it's all party time. District functions are yet more pageantry on top of all the other pageantry that goes on in the black church.
Churches of most other ethnicities are organized to support the
communities they are in. They are the center of family life and
serve to support and religiously educate the families who
worship there. Black churches are, for the most part, organized
to congratulate themselves. Not every black church and not all
the time, but in great measure these facilities are birthed
because one group of worshippers got fed up with another or
because a pastor was caught in some corrupt or ungodly act,
refused to step down, and
the church splintered off into two or more new churches. Many
churches here use the word “Missionary” in their title, and it
took me nearly two years to realize the word “Missionary” is
more a designator of convention association than a descriptor of
purpose. In most “Missionary Baptist Churches,” the word
“Missionary” is, in fact, a noun and not a verb. With extremely
rare exception, the black churches here do absolutely no
outreach, perform absolutely no evangelism, and most certainly
do no actual missionary work. The “missionary” societies at most
of these churches are actually coffee klatches composed of
mostly women, and the majority of their efforts are focused on
planning the next big annual day event.
With rare exception, the black churches here in town have no definable objective within the communities they are located in. In fact, for many of these churches, their location happens to be one of opportunity and/or circumstance, with the membership traveling from various parts of town to meet at the church, and then dispersing in like manner, leaving the community, the actual neighborhood the church is located in, wondering what the church actually does and who actually goes there. Far from being a lighthouse in the community, or the friendly church on the corner, the black church is, in large measure, an invasive presence. Loud black people and loud black music invading the quiet and then vanishing, ignoring the lonely, the lost, the hungry, and the needy literally doors away from the church.
Our churches' calendar is routinely dominated by annual celebrations— Church Anniversary, Pastor's Anniversary, Youth Annual Day, Sanctuary Choir Annual Day, Male Chorus Annual Day, Ushers Annual Day, Sunday School Annual Day. Each Annual Day usually consists of several days of events and fundraisers, with exhausting drives to prepare food and music and decorate the church. It is, at the end of the day, busywork. To make a church seem busy, we jam our schedules full of this junk, rather than dedicate our resources to feeding the hungry and evangelizing the world.
In many of our churches, there is fairly little if any community outreach. People truly in need are only grudgingly helped and under very strict rules, while these Annual Days are budgeted in without question. One local church here spent nearly a million dollars on a church extension for a large fellowship hall and new kitchen while refusing to help one of its own ministers who found himself in need. When I am in need, I know better than to even ask any local churches here, despite the years of service I've given many of them. The churches are simply not wired to respond to the needs of the community but are wired, much like a Christmas tree, for pageantry and celebration.
The plan of salvation is something whispered to seekers in a back room, rather than explained fully from the pulpit. The invitation typically consists of taking in new church members moreso than explaining the plan of salvation, the actual plan remaining a great mystery to those too timid to come forward.
These events are the life blood of most black churches because they are, in fact, fund- raisers. They are part of the church's annual budget, and they need, every month, a new and more inventive manufactured event to keep the money flowing.
The black church survives near entirely on tithes and offering, which makes these Annual Days so vitally important. There are exceptions, of course, but in large measure these churches exist by the giving of their membership. There is a relatively small percentage of black churches that invest in real estate, businesses, producing CD's or other retail items. These churches usually become models for productive ministry as they invest in housing for the elderly and invest in businesses that provide vital services to the congregation and create jobs for the community. If more churches pursued this business model, they could prune their calendars of a lot of exhausting, distracting celebratory busywork, freeing up their people to do what the church is supposed to do: evangelize and see after the needs of the needy, two things that fall by the wayside as the churches gear up for the next big Annual Day.
Most every white church I have ever sent eMail to has replied to
that eMail, typically within twenty-four hours. Most every black
church I have eMailed has failed to respond to my message at
all. Ever. Make
of that what you will, but, do your own research. More often
than not, sending eMail to a black church or a black Pastor is
an utter and complete waste of time. The administration of the
typical black church is a hopeless mess. The Pastor's desk is a
stack of papers where ideas, dreams, needs, and vision can be
and often are lost to the daily shuffle. There are, I'm sure,
models of modern church management out there, but I suspect
those make up a very small percentage of black churches.
Administration and management of the black church has not
changed much since the 1950's. Change comes slowly and painfully
to the black church, and only when forced upon it.
Thankfully, many black churches are creeping forward in terms of their technology, but to this day many black churches still have few if any personal computers, and the ones they do have are hopelessly under-powered and out of date. Most black churches here either have no Internet connection at all or use some staffer's personal dialup account. Most black churches either have no website or have a substandard and inefficient web ministry. Most black churches do not have eMail or, if they do have an eMail address they either do not receive eMail because the box is full and is never checked or they simply never return any messages.
By contrast, many white churches, if not a majority of white churches, have eMail. Many have their own websites, and those websites are updated at regular intervals, offering more than merely a showcase for the church but an opportunity for worship online.
Most white churches are run by the pastor and his staff. Most
black churches are run by the Deacons and/or Trustee Boards.
Most white churches are certainly overseen by some formula of a
board of directors, but the pastor is seen as the CEO of the
church, and the church will normally not give him too hard a way
to go. The Pastor in the black church must always court his
board of deacons. A falling out between the Pastor and the board
of deacons can have a paralytic effect on the ministry, as the
deacons and Trustee Boards can stop a Pastor in his tracks and
halt the forward momentum of the church. In the black church, if
the Pastor needs paper clips, he must get the Trustees and the
Deacons to sign off on it.
Deacons in the black tradition have warped the intent of Acts Chapter 6 to believe they are, in fact, the Pastor's boss. That the Pastor is a mere employee and the “associate” ministers are children for them to order around. Most deacons I've met are respectful and polite, but I've met a fair number of them who treat me, even now at 42, like I'm their child. Who order me in or out of a pulpit. This is a complete distortion of scripture, a practice that needs to end but won't because the deacons, frankly, don't know any better and neither do many congregations. This is just how things are done, how they've always been done in the black church.