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The Black Church

An Outsider's Guide

The Pastor

In the black church, the pastor is always spelled with a capital “P.” This is not proper grammar, but it's what we do. The president of the United States is not spelled with a capital “P” unless we are using “president” as part of his name (“President Bush”), but in the black tradition, the Pastor (capital “P”) is the ultimate object of respect. Moreso than even the president (small “p”). The Pastor is always Pastor Griggs, never “Bob.” And, more often than not, the Pastor, in the black church, has a huge formal name, including all middle names and add-ons and letters of scholarship, Pastor Robert Evans Griggs III, PhD. The Reverend Dr. Robert Evans Griggs III, Senior Pastor. Many black churches have adopted the “Senior Pastor” elder-led model, even when there are, in fact, no “junior” pastors serving under them.

The Pastor should always come first. Associate ministers should not enter or exit the sanctuary ahead of the Pastor unless directed to do so by the Pastor. If there is a visiting Pastor, associates are required to give up their seats for the visiting Pastor and take a seat in the pulpit only if one is available after the visiting Pastors have been seated. Unless specifically asked to do otherwise, associates should, in every way, defer to first their own Pastor and then to visiting Pastors. Is this an actual rule? No. But people will notice and complain if this non-rule is not followed. It undercuts an associate's credibility if the congregation deems him untrained or impolite, even if the Pastor(s) themselves do not insist on this protocol being observed.

The new trend in larger black ministries is to award prominent pastors the title, “Bishop.” In the New Testament the term episcopos, which is usually rendered bishop, and presbuteros, which is rendered elder, are used interchangeably. Prominent ministers, with thousands of followers, have formed alliances with one anther and have appointed one another “Bishop” of This Function or Bishop of That Function, enlarging these ministers' profiles, even though they are not supervising any district or group of churches. The Right Reverend Dr. Robert Evans Griggs III. It's all about ego. It's all about elevating self.

In most white churches, the pastor's (small “p”) name is Bob. Pastor Bob. Pastor Bob may have a doctorate but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve. Pastor Bob wears what we wear— comfortable and modest clothes— and he uses the podium to hold his cappuccino as he preaches. Bishop Dr. Robert Evans Griggs III has an enormous wood desk and wears either very expensive suits and lots of blingage (sparkly jewelry) or an expensive ornate robe with matching handkerchief with his stripes of office and academia proudly displayed. Pastor Bob wears a polo shirt and khakis.

In most white churches, the pastor is your friend. You hang out with him. You go bowling. He's Bob. In most black churches the Pastor is fairly inaccessible, by appointment only and only through a gauntlet of the Pastor's inner circle. And he's always the Pastor. At the bowling alley, you call him Pastor. In the men's room, you call him Pastor. There is never, ever, a time when it is appropriate to call a black Pastor “Bob.” It is simply not done.

If you are visiting a black church and are invited to give remarks, always recognize the Pastor. Better yet, stick to the tried and true, “Giving honor to God, who is the head of my life. To the Pastor [name, or recognize the Chairman of Deacons if the church has no Pastor], ministers, saints and friends...”

Interim Pastors

Black churches without pastors are usually administrated by the chairman of the Deacon Board. The deacons will usually hire an ordained minister to serve as an interim pastor (small “p') while they form a pulpit search committee. A pulpit search committee is usually a highly politicized board of church members who, typically, invite only people they like and approve of to sit on the board with them. These people are voted in by the deacons, so, more often than not, the entire process is extremely suspect and open to corruption as these committees routinely conspire against the best interests of the church, pursuing instead their own agenda.

Interim pastors are dismissed about the same way “associate” ministers are. Their range of authority is limited and, while generally respected on some level, no one takes them very seriously. So much to the point that a great many churches rule that interim pastors cannot be considered for the permanent job.

In the black church, most pulpit search committees seek out candidates on the basis of their higher education, with doctorates being the preferred letter. This misses the point that the very first and most effective ministers of the Gospel were fisherman and day laborers who couldn't read. They had no formal education and no formal training in ministry. The Apostle Paul was a highly trained rabbi, but his education often worked against him as his tone often conveyed the legalism he had embraced all his life. Most black churches have no standardized test for ministerial candidates. If you were to apply for a steno job at the courthouse, they'd give you a typing test. But ministers are accepted on the basis of their university transcripts and their sermons, when a large number of these men are often the least spiritual and, shockingly, the least knowledgeable about spiritual matters.

"Associate" Ministers

In most white churches, a minister is a minister is a minister. Different ministers have different jobs, and some are pastors of this and pastors of that, but they're all in the same club. They're all, more or less, treated as equals, the pastor being the first among equals. In the black church, staff ministers are usually referred to as “associate” ministers and “associate” ministers are usually regarded with an almost dismissive attitude by the congregation because they are not pastors and because, more often than not, they are not ordained.

Our typical black parishioner could not immediately identify the origins of this warped view of “associate” ministers, other than that it is a cultural artifact the Black church has failed to educate itself out of. The Bible makes absolutely no distinction whatsoever between an “associate” minister and a pastor other than that the pastor, obviously, is the under-shepherd who manages the church and oversees the ministry. There are no “associate” ministers in the Bible. There are ministers and there are laity. There is no distinction made between the ministerial station of pastors and associates. Ministers were ministers, empowered by the Holy Ghost to proclaim the Gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast our demons.

The various levels and stations of ministry are man-made distinctions. We place an almost numeric value on spiritual gifts [Eph. 4:11], whereas the Bible only says God gave different gifts and different anointing to different people. The Bible does not rate one gift higher than another or one person higher than another.

In the black church, “associate” ministers are commonly treated with a dismissive attitude. To many black worshippers, they are a joke. A pastor wannabe. Poseurs just trying to be somebody. The black congregation has, in many churches, invented rules— do's and don'ts— for associates that are in no way scriptural and are not extrapolated from sound doctrine but from rules of etiquette the church has developed over time and adopted as unwritten bylaws. 

Clerical Dress

Many white churches now trend towards casual dress, even for the pastor as he preaches. Most black churches demand (in the unwritten rules) that congregants and ministers alike dress like they're going to a wedding. Casual attire is becoming more common in the black church, but the practice remains frowned upon. You are to attend black church on Sunday in the very best suit you own. The white church is, in great measure, a meeting place, a place of support and family. The black church is a place of pageantry. Wash your car before going to a black church. Shine your shoes before going to a black church.

When most Christians, black or white, see a white man wearing a clerical collar, they offer him courtesy and respect. When some black church folk see a black man in a clerical collar, they scoff, “Humff. Who does he think he is?” Clergy collar is simply not worn in the black church (other than the Church of God In Christ denomination). Men (and, God help them, women) seen wearing the collar are considered poseurs and wannabes. people trying to be seen.

I wear the clerical collar. I love wearing it. I love what it means. I love what it represents. I love what it reminds me of. What I like about the collar is not that it makes me look important, but that it is simple. It is plain. It is humble. It gets right to the point. It is a simple smock that diverts attention from how fancy your suit and tie are. A pastor friend of mine said he only wears the shirt for special occasions and treats it with a worshipful deference, to which I politely disagree. The clerical shirt is a work shirt. It is designed for everyday use, not to be held in abeyance for special occasions. It is supposed to get dirty, to be used and reused and discarded. What I like about the shirt is it tells people Whose you are. When I am wearing it, nobody has to guess what I am about. I cannot hide or melt into the crowd the way these pastors in the loud suits can. Nobody mistakes me for a pimp, and I can get away with absolutely nothing because, once someone has seen me, even once, wearing the clerical shirt, I am become a marked man. They know I am a minister of the Gospel, and my life, my everyday walk, must now reliably support the simple cloth shirt I wear on Sunday.

Although I wear the collar to prisons and on communion Sunday, I make sure to not wear it when I preach because most black congregations are, sadly, not mature enough to deal with an “associate” wearing a clerical collar, even though there are no rules written anywhere (not even in their beloved King James) about it.

The Bible

The New International Version of the Bible has a strong foothold in the white church, as does the New Living Bible, the New American Standard and other terrific translations. Most white churches I have visited use a modern translation, though some used parallel translations, including the King James, to illuminate passages of scripture.

The trend in white churches is multimedia. PowerPoint presentations now becoming Flash presentations with neat color and sound. Scriptural texts on-disk and called up onto giant screens at the click of a mouse. Many black churches are, thankfully, coming along to this standard, but many are not. Many are not even considering this standard or consider it materially out of reach. Most black sanctuaries are simply not constructed to include this kind of multimedia presentation or the equipment necessary for it, and those in position to authorize the acquisition of this equipment and the requisite modifications to the sanctuary are usually older people who see it as more radical thinking and an unnecessary expense.

In the vast majority of black churches in this country, the Authorized King James Version and only the Authorized King James Version of the Holy Bible is the accepted standard of scripture. This thinking is so entrenched that any minister reading a modern translation tends to lose credibility unless he also reads the King James, preferably reading the KJV first and then his modern translation. Black churches are, in large measure, suspicious of modern translations and the people who espouse them.

Black congregants, in great measure, do not read any Bible at all, but have an idea of what the book says and have an idea of how the language sounds, such that if they can clearly understand the written word, if the language is too contemporary such that it loses its mystery and cryptic characteristics, the word has no value to them. Many black church folk can only take comfort in the Holy Scripture when it is written in a language they can barely understand.

Most black congregants believe the KJV is the “official” Bible. Is the most accurate Bible. Sadly, many believe it is, in fact, the same Bible the disciples carried with them. It would be funny if it weren't so terribly sad, the egregious lack of education in the black church, the slow reform and the unwillingness to confront the fact that much of what the church practices is wholly unscriptural, based on poor doctrine, and is counterintuitive and counterproductive to the cause of Christ.

The truth is, not only is the KJV not, in fact, the most accurate or reliable translation, but the entire intent of the KJV was to make the Holy Scripture available to and easily understood by the common man. The KJV was, in its day, a Bible written in a common tongue, easily understandable by the common an. To now cling to the KJV, vesting it with accuracy and authority without having done any homework on the subject, without even knowing why we believe it is the most accurate translation, is entirely misguided. Forcing a cryptic and difficult to understand language on the common man defeats the KJV's original purpose: to make a Bible Christians can actually read.

The Sanctuary

Many white congregants worship in an auditorium. Most black congregants worship in a sanctuary. Many white churches offer refreshments in the lobby that you can take with you right into the worship service. Most black churches actively forbid even water being brought into the sanctuary. Many white churches are trending towards multi-purpose rooms, with chairs that can easily be reconfigured into a variety of floor patterns to maximize use of their main auditorium. Most black churches prefer heavy wooden pews bolted to the floor, the sanctuary having one purpose and one purpose only. Many black churches spend upwards of a million dollars to add on facilities for other purposes, while the new trend in many white churches is to maximize the use of their existing facilities.

Black churches apply a certain level of superstition to their sanctuary. What should, ideally, be reverence and respect has escalated to a silly level of superstition, to the point where a great many black congregants actually believe the sanctuary is sacred. The communion table is not to be moved or touched and nothing is to be set upon it. No one who is not ordained can stand behind the pulpit. This is utter nonsense and is in direct contravention of scripture [Hebrews 10:19-39]. Still, most black churches have adopted many of the same sensibilities of archaic Jewish temple law, where certain areas of the sanctuary are considered holy and only the high priest may stand here or stand there or touch this or move that. This behavior makes a liar of the cross because it says His work was ineffective or is still not finished. It says the veil has not been split. It says we ignorant, backward blind people still refuse to see that Christ's entire purpose is to destroy the barriers between God and man.

There should be no Holy of Holies in our churches. Call it a sanctuary if you must, but use the room— it is, after all, just a room— to glorify God. That means maximizing its use and not trying to keep it precious and sacred. It means wearing the room out if you have to, tearing up the pews if you have to— it means doing whatever it takes to bring men and women to God. But this would require a refocusing of the black church's purpose, from ceremonial pageantry to evangelism.

Black churches, even in this day, continue to decorate their sanctuaries in blood red carpet. Red carpet is a staple of many churches of many ethnicities, but the Black church is, by and large, wholly invested in making the sanctuary look as funereal as possible. A dark, drab, somber place of mourning and sadness. and, even though they may have redecorated the place last week, the motif remains strictly 1965.

During an active worship service, particularly during the sermon, you may upon occasion see a black church member exiting the sanctuary while holding a single finger aloft. This is a commonly-accepted sign of respect offered to the pulpit, excuse me for walking during this sacred time. What it actually is is a throwback to plantation days where a Negro would require his owner's permission to leave the building. The number of fingers held aloft would indicate what bodily function he/she would do in the outhouse-- Number One or Number Two. The raised finger gesture serves absolutely no purpose, but walking during the sermon is considered extremely rude if not sacrilegious, and that single finger is the establish etiquette for doing so.

The Usher Board

White churches have ushers and hospitality crews to assist the congregation. These are usually nice people wearing Century 21-style real estate blazers with little Secret Service ear pieces in their ears. In the black church, the Usher Board is a paramilitary group who execute, for reasons I will never understand, drill team moves in great displays of pomp and circumstance. To this date, most ushers in black churches communicate via a sign language developed, I would imagine, in the south but that is now a universal language most any black usher in most any back church in most any state of the union can read from across the room.

These people are the Baptist Marines. They take their work very seriously, and they maintain order and assist the worshippers during service. In most black churches I've been involved with, I have been the most impressed by the ushers' ministry, while often being the least impressed by the music ministry. It's almost like the music and ushers ministries are polar opposites, with the most scrupulously dedicated and spiritual people being on the Usher Board and, sadly, often the least spiritual people gravitating towards the music ministries. Ushers are almost always invisible. At the most they are seen and not heard. The Usher Board usually requires the most humility, while the music ministry often becomes a platform for unchecked egos.

Lexicon: The Pastoral Voice

Black Church Folk routinely speak in the King James. “We are gathered on tonight to hear what thus sayeth the Lord.” The most popular and successful black preachers have southern accents, even if they are not from the south. I am not from the south, but when I preach to a black congregation, I am expected to have a southern dialect. The absence of a southern dialect, “Yet annnd still, y’all better c’mon!” can be received by Church Folk as inexperience. If you do not drop your “g’s” you can be considered a rookie. If there is no musical intonation to your cadence (or, if you have no cadence at all), you can be considered an Oreo (i.e. black on the outside, white on the inside). Preachers who do not engage the traditional ebb and flow of the call-and-response traditions of black churches (or, worse, who get tangled up in it like the clumsy kid trying out double-dutch jump rope) are tolerated but usually not asked back. In the black church, you don’t need to run around asking people how you did. They’ll tell you by not telling you. In a black church, a distinct lack of “amen”s is like a Nielsen rating: you’re not doing well. If you’ve engaged the crowd, you’ll know it. Pros not only engage the crowd but create a literally interactive experience by encouraging the crowd to preach along with them. Rookies: if you do not currently have a southern cadence, start developing one. Or convert to Presbyterian.

Black preachers are expected to have both substance and poetry, a kind of lyrical flair. A dash of teaching—let them learn something they didn’t know before or show them a verse or passage in a way they’ve not seen it. This is foundational speaking that is your launch pad for what these folks really came for. To my experience, black congregations are customarily disappointed to see a white face in the pulpit because white preachers are usually lecturers whose sermons are likely technically better than typical black church sermons, but whose delivery bores black congregations to slumber. Black Baptists want and expect a certain level of sarcasm and swagger, a kind of angry, violent rhetoric, while most white preachers project an almost professorial neutrality. Preachers are supposed to be neutral—not my words but God's words. But our black tradition is definitely personality-driven, the pastoral voice tinged with arrogance.

Finger Popping

There is absolutely no finger snapping (called, more often than not, “finger popping”) allowed in the sanctuary. It is considered worldly, and it is simply not done. This is hysterically stupid, but we're stuck with it. I dare anybody to show me in the Bible where snapping your fingers is a sin, but if you do it in the sanctuary you are likely to be warned, if not escorted out.

Next Page

Women & Pants

Many black churches do not allow women to wear pants in the sanctuary. We are, thankfully, trending away from this as well, but if you are an outsider visiting a black church, and you are a woman, please consider wearing a dress. Most black churches will tolerate you, but it's just that. Especially on Sunday, wear a dress.

Women & Ministry

Many black churches will not allow a woman in the pulpit. We are, thankfully, trending away from that as well. But a woman planning to come into the pulpit on a Sunday had better be sure she is wearing a dress.

The Black Church   What Is The Black Church?   A Form of Godliness     AN OUTSIDER'S GUIDE     Off-Center   Vickie Winans Has Big Teeth   The Yabba Doo