The Black Church
An Outsider's Guide
Most white churches have some manner of podium from where the
pastor and ministers speak. But announcement clerks and soloists
are also welcome to use this podium. Black churches have a
pulpit. We call it a "pulpit" even though it has
(a pulpit is a raised platform with descending stairs). What we
have is actually a lectern, and our lectern is placed upon a
dais--a raised platform where the ministers and often the choir
are seated. In many black churches, women are forbidden to step
behind this pulpit, as are people who are not ordained
ministers. So-called “licensed associates” are tolerated behind
the pulpit, but they are seen, largely, as acolytes in training,
and their range of conduct and responsibility behind the pulpit
are severely limited— not by the Bible or bylaw or even
ministerial guide but by the unwritten common rules of the black
The pulpit, in the black church, is indeed the Holy of Holies. There is no other place in the building, not even the baptismal, that people are more violently protective of. Small children actually start to think God will punish or kill them if they are caught standing behind this block of wood, that the square foot or so of carpet behind that lectern is sacred or holy ground. Black worshippers routinely (and comically) go out of their way, in great looping, ridiculous evasive maneuvers, to avoid walking behind the pulpit— up to and including circumnavigating the entire sanctuary and, at times, the entire building simply to get from one side of the dais to the other.
White visitors to our churches routinely make the mistake of sending laymen up to the pulpit. They don't know any better. But, in a way, it's a little contemptuous of visitors, especially visitors who plan on participating in leading worship, to not at least consult with someone on church etiquette.
The trend in white churches is for the ministers to sit somewhere near the front if they are participating in the conduct of worship. The pulpit area and/or stage is usually free of distraction (perhaps a band), the praise team and/or choir exiting when they have finished singing.
In the black church, the stage is never called a stage. It is the pulpit. the entirety of the platform is considered the pulpit. The choir usually sits behind the pulpit, stretching left to right, with a display of the church's firepower— it's music ministry— as a measure of the church's potency and virility. A half-empty choir stand sends the message that the church is in trouble. A packed choir stand sends the message that the church is powerful and influential in the community. A black Pastor's choir says as much about the Pastor and the church as their budgets or annual reports.
In the black church, the ministers sit in the pulpit. They are on public display, whether they are actually performing a service up there or not. And it's always Fashion Week, as most ministers trend towards becoming clothes horses, eschewing the simplicity of the ecumenical smock for high-fashion suits, loud ties and even louder shoes.
In the black church, the front pew is usually reserved for the deacons. Trustees are tolerated there, but it is usually for the deacons. I have experienced deacons being openly hostile to me for sitting on this pew. It's their pew. It's their We Are Very Important People pew. I've always wondered why, in the black church, the very best seats in the house are occupied by people who need to hear the Gospel the least.
Most white churches have some manner of praise and worship. Most
black churches have what is called “Devotion.” White churches
train praise teams that practice and pray and prepare to warm up
the congregation Sunday morning. Most black churches use their
deacon board, who do not train, who do not practice and, in
great measure, who do not pray. They just get up Sunday morning
and wing it. Most white churches stay in touch with new music
and bring new music to the church on a regular basis. Most black
churches have been, literally, singing the same songs since the
plantation and staunchly refuse to bring new music to their
devotion period. In the black church, deacons are often so
reluctant to give up this particular duty that they will fight
the pastor all the way to a church vote on the issue. Many
deacons believe it is written in scripture that they are
supposed to lead devotion at the beginning of service (which is
utterly ridiculous and, frankly, sad that these men know nothing
about the Bible).
The fact is, the praise and worship portion of service should be run by people who are anointed by God to perform this duty. There may be some musical deacons out there but, in large measure, the deacons in the black church are often the least musical people you can imagine. Devotion, in most black churches, is the most skipable part of service, a dreary responsibility most congregants arrive late for or tune out altogether. That this routinely happens does not dissuade the deacons, many of whom simply like being seen, and this gives them a platform to gas on about things and be in the spotlight.
Most white churches have terrific music ministries, often led by
Worship Pastors or Praise Ministers. The politics of the music
department are probably about the same from white churches to
black churches, as music connects directly to ego and there's
lots of competition for ideas and resources. I'm sure many white
ministries have powerful music ministries that are a huge part
of what they do, so in many respects there is perhaps less
difference here between white and black churches than in most
In the black church, however, the music ministry is the single biggest department and the single most important ministry of the church. The music ministry is the life blood of the church, as a black church with poor music or no music at all is a church spiraling into a financial abyss. The music ministry, in black churches, is responsible for as much as 75% of the church's income. First and foremost from the choir members themselves, so having a big choir or, better yet, several big choirs, unquestionably adds to the church's bottom line.
Additionally, all of the pageantry, all of the Annual Days and so forth, rely almost exclusively on the music department. Gospel fests, jamborees, competitions and so forth are the main staples of these Annual Days (and, remember, most black churches have at least one “Annual” Day per month). The choirs are usually all very busy preparing for Sunday or for this Annual Day or that Annual Day or this concert or that jamboree or visiting another church for their Annual Day (remember, every church has its own slate of Annual Days and these choirs are often obligated to support not only their own Annual Days but Annual Days at other churches).
Music is the biggest act at the black church. It is the show. The music and the preaching, in the black church, forms the heartbeat of that ministry. As a result, this is the department most open to corruption, scandal, stress, political and spiritual warfare. It is what Floyd Massey, Jr. and Samuel Berry McKinney called “The War Department.” The music department is also free labor for the church. The church may pay a musician or two, but the troops--faithful choir members who are routinely dragged here and there all month, thus producing revenue for these churches--are not paid.
The music department, in the black church, is also where a great deal of compromises are made. Having a qualified and gifted musician is vital to the financial health of the church. As a result, pushy musicians and arrogant musicians, ungodly musicians, homosexual musicians, libidinous musicians, lying musicians, unreliable musicians, mean-spirited musicians— are often tolerated. A blind eye toward behavior that would easily get a Pastor fired is often turned to a gifted musician. The amount of foolishness a church (or, surely, a Trustee Board) is willing to put up with from a musician is directly proportional to how gifted that musician is. Less-skilled musicians, though more spiritual and ultimately more in line with God's plan for the church, are routinely dismissed, treated like children, under-paid or not paid at all. These people are only called upon when the church is in dire need, and are immediately kicked to the curb the moment a more qualified musician appears.
There's a terrific church near me with a predominately white
congregation that offers three services per Sunday. They serve
communion at every service, every week. Communion is, for them,
an integral part of service. It is served by the ushers and the
congregation eats and drinks as they are served.
In the tradition of the black church, communion is, more often than not, served on the first Sunday of each month. Many black churches have a special service exclusively for this purpose, often at night, since the communion celebration is known as The Lord's Supper. Communion is only served by ordained ministers and deacons. Anyone else handling the communion will defile it and the wafers and juice will need to be discarded. Most black congregants will not accept communion served to them by anyone but an ordained minister or an ordained deacon. That this practice has absolutely no scriptural basis is beside the point. The thought that the communion will be defiled by non-ordained personnel (including “associates”) is a belief too deeply ingrained within the black church community to be un-taught in any economical or timely fashion.
The associates are usually brought down front anyway, even though they are not allowed to handle the Eucharist. They are issued white gloves (everyone is issued white gloves, even though white opera gloves serve absolutely no spiritual or hygienic purpose). The associates are made to put these gloves on even though they have no function whatsoever. The associates aren't usually allowed even to touch the tray the Host is in, not allowed to handle the tablecloth which routinely covers the Eucharist. They just stand there, on display, in their white opera gloves. In many churches, associates are not even allowed to bless the Eucharist because the common perception is an associate's prayer is not powerful enough to bless the host.
Most black congregants are far more concerned about whose hand is holding the plate with the wafers than they are about their own spiritual state when they eat them. The very real peril in communion is not in the superstition concerning the hands that serve it, but is in not taking the celebration seriously [I Cor 11:27] . There is no scriptural warnings or teachings about who serves the host, but there is indeed dire warning about who should eat it. That this belief so steadfastly persists speaks directly to the failure of leadership in the black church to properly educate and to adopt proper doctrine that has its basis in scripture moreso than in tradition. But, for many black Pastors, it is indeed the rock and the hard place.
A black pastor simply must choose his battles wisely. He must stay focused and he must be patient. Refining our traditions (I am not advocating their unilateral dismissal) will involve an extended process of education and consecration. The better educated a church is, the more literate a church is. The more literate a church is, the more they move from an oral tradition to a written tradition, the more we begin to question things that do not, in fact, have a reasonable basis in sound doctrine. And, once we begin to do that, the sky's the limit in terms of our opportunities to grow and to become what God always intended for us to become: a whole people, a well people, an empowered people.
Opera gloves optional.