Popular Opinions can get in Black Church's Way
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on July 28, 2022)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Brandon Wright & Anonymous Black Woman
Many Black Americans wonder what the church's role is in everything from speaking out against racism and the eroding of civil rights to standing against legislation targeting the humanity of LGBTQIA+ folks.
In 2021, Lisa Fields, founder of the Jude 3 Project and a Christian apologist, conducted a series of conversations titled "Why I Don't Go" to learn why young Black adults left the church. A participant named Latisha said, "We are not seeing the same level of community engagement that the Black church used to have." Daniel stated, "Churches are filled with people who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the moment they come out or express themselves in that way, they are immediately shunned."
So, many Black Christians ask the same question Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Is the church still relevant?
I was born and raised in a conservative Pentecostal Black church and come from a long line of Black preachers. I fully understand the Black church's role in my life and the lives of so many others. As I have written before, the church has historically been a place where Black children learn to hone public speaking skills, where we find comfort during times of struggle, and where we are taught to love our Black skin regardless of the racism, harmful stigmas, and numerous acts of discrimination we frequently face. I also understand the church has been the cornerstone of Black communities, providing hope for those who longed to be free or mobilizing a generational movement for civil rights legislation. While the Black church has undoubtedly been the moral compass of America regarding race, it still faces the same issue other churches face: a membership decline.
Church membership among all U.S. adults was 73% in 1937, the first year Gallup started tracking the numbers. For 63 years, church membership held steady around the 70% mark. However, by 2000, church membership started to decline, and by 2020, church membership was at 47%. There is an entire generation of adults who have grown up in an America where they never attended Sunday school or stood at the front of the church to give a speech in their brand-new Easter suit or Easter dress. Unfortunately, this also means this large group of Americans has seen Christianity on full display mostly via politicians who espouse Christian values without Christ-like actions.
Also, I have seen how Black Christians who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community are treated in the church. There is this "don't ask, don't tell" culture used to lift these two common sayings: "Love the sinner but hate the sin" and "It is their lifestyle that is the problem." These statements are often backed up with Scripture and an attitude of "We are right and they are wrong."
As a straight Christian man, I have never had anyone call me out or judge me because of my lifestyle. So why is it that we choose to target what we see? If anyone should know how it feels to be treated with prejudice and discrimination because of what people can visibly see, it should be us as Black Christians.
So, what does this mean for the church? As I pose this question, I am also talking to myself because for most of my life, I walked through the world not understanding my lack of knowledge about people who had different experiences, backgrounds or identities than me. While there are Christians who have progressed in their ability to live out their espoused values by meeting the needs of all people without judgment, there is a large segment that chooses to Bible thump people while also saying we should "love our neighbor" while conveniently leaving off the "as yourself" part.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, leader of the Poor People's Campaign, expressed that irrespective of what one's faith traditions have taught about what is or what is not acceptable,
"all of our faiths made clear that the codification of hate is never righteous, and legalized discrimination is never just."
Therefore, my love for the Black church requires that I provide some suggestions that might be helpful.
First, the church must, without judgment, learn about the real-world issues impacting people. In his letter, Dr. King expressed his frustrations with the key failures in the church and the role that the church should play in an unjust society.
"Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust," he wrote. "There was a time when the church was very powerful ... and was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."
This challenge still rings true today. What popular opinions do we uphold in the church that leads us to judge people's real-world experiences? We, as Christians, must be open to listening and learning while also being responsive to those who, like us, were also created in the image of God.
In addition to the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40), Christ clarified what we as believers should do. He said, "Follow Me." Following him means we must stop being concerned about someone calling us woke or radical for simply being active in our communities when people's civil rights are being rolled back and/or their humanity is being outright denied.
In the words of The Rev. Esaú McCaulley, Ph.D., following Jesus also means understanding that we are all theologically limited and flawed, and it's rare that all of the puzzle pieces of Scripture fit together, which means we must be willing to understand and accept that we might be wrong. So, when will we follow Christ?
Many Christians don't know that there was some information that was lost during the translation of the bible. I encourage everyone to listen to these biblical scholars
debate scripture. More church leaders should be doing this today.
These videos come from the Jude 3 Project.
Black Biblical Scholars Debate the Pauline Texts (7 Authentic and Deutero)
Barber II, W.J. (2016). The third reconstruction: How a moral movement is overcoming the politics of division and fear. Beacon Press.