This is the fourth in a series of commentaries I’ll be writing on traditions and customs that, in my humble opinion, are doing damage to the missional purpose of what is commonly referred to as the “black church”.
The objective of this series is not to denigrate any particular denomination, church, or individual, but to humbly address what I personally view as orthopraxy (orthodox practice) that is harmful to the black church as an institution and detrimental to the advancement of the Gospel in general. – Darrell Harrison
The black church is in trouble.
It is evident the black church today is increasingly being influenced by the world. From its continued adoption of black liberation theology to its involvement in the “Black Lives Matter” movement to its acceptance of the prosperity gospel, the black church is only a spiritual shell of what it once was.
Nevertheless, as sad as these developments are, the truth is, they are not altogether unexpected.
As I assess the landscape of the black church today, I find the problem isn’t so much that these influences are being forced upon it from the outside, but they are being volitionally adopted from within, all under the guise that such worldly embracement is permissible as long as it is done in an effort to “reach the lost” or “bring people to Christ.”
Theologian and pastor Mark Dever cautions how the church should be wary of such well-intentioned but often misguided aspirations:
Today many local churches are adrift in the shifting currents of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate felt response of non-Christians is the key indicator of success.
At the same time, Christianity is being rapidly disowned in the culture at large, as evangelism is characterized as intolerant and portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech.
In such antagonistic times, the felt needs of non-Christians can hardly be considered reliable gauges, and conforming to the culture will mean a loss of the gospel itself. As long as quick numerical growth remains the primary indicator of church health, the truth will be compromised.
Instead, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers but in terms of fidelity to the Scriptures.<
William Carey was faithful in India and Adoniram Judson persevered in Burma not because they met immediate success or advertised themselves as relevant. – A Theology for the Church, The Church: Need for Studying the Doctrine of the Church, chapter 13, p. 766
The video below is a sobering example of how some local black churches in their desire to be “relevant” are in reality fostering an ecclesiastical environment that is more influenced by the culture around it than the other way round.
It is what having church looks like compared to being the church. I define having church as local churches adhering to orthopraxy that is overtly influenced by the subjective paradigm of cultural or worldly traditions and trends.
Whereas, being the church is the local body conducting itself in such a way as to ensure that its corporate worship practices are grounded in the objective ecclesiastical doctrines of God’s Word, not at the expense of one’s personal worship experience, nor at the mercy of it either.
Given the extent to which local black congregations continue to be susceptible to the influences of an ungodly world–and I say that realizing this is not something that is exclusive to black churches–it is only logical that believers of whom these churches consist would themselves be affected by how those influences manifest themselves within the church. I’m speaking specifically in the areas of music, social media, attire, and lifestyle choices.
Consequently, these worldly influences have so distorted our theology of God and His standard of how we should express our adoration of Him, that merely attaching the word worship to whatever goes on inside a church, regardless of the degree to which such practices may or may not line up with Scripture, is to presume on its face that it is authentic worship and as such God Himself accepts it as authentic as well.
This type of mindset is what I call ecclesiastical pantheism.
Ecclesiastical pantheism is the belief that simply because something a church practices or allows is labeled worship that God is inherently a part of it—regardless of what that element of worship is because it is conducted under the auspices of a so-called church.
As such, whatever happens inside the “church” should be beyond the scope of any theological criticism or critique because to do so would be judgmental; and since “only God can judge” we should always err on the side of assuming that all elements of worship are of God rather than condemning those irreverent antics for what they truly are.
If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things are really bad, and God is really good, then, you cannot talk like that.
You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, What Christians Believe: The Rival Conceptions of God, p. 37
It is this type of cultural Christianity—a worldview that is steeped in worldly relativism and popularism but devoid of any real theological substance—that is destroying black churches and rendering them completely impotent in carrying out their God-ordained mission to influence the world through the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16).
Consider again the words of Mark Dever who reminds us that:
The church’s mission and purpose lie at the heart of its nature, attributes, and marks; and right practices of membership, polity, and discipline serve those purposes.
To summarize, the proper ends for a local congregation’s life and actions are the worship of God, the edification of the church, and the evangelization of the world. These three purposes in turn serve the glory of God.
The collective worship of God occurs in the context of the assembled congregation, while individual worship of God occurs in the context of one’s day-to-day life. Shaping and encouraging both corporate and individual worship are significant aspects of the church’s purpose.
The worship of God in the public assembly consists of particular elements prescribed by God and the circumstances in which those elements occur. – A Theology for the Church, p. 809
As the church, we would do well to remind ourselves that it is the Holy Spirit of God that draws people to Christ, not a group of deacons performing like the Temptations or some choreographed dance routine made popular by a reality TV celebrity.
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior (1 Peter 1:14-15, NASB).
There is a level of spiritual naiveté within the black church that must be acknowledged and dealt with. Very little, if any, doctrine is being preached from the pulpits of these churches because it’s not expository preaching that fills the pews but entertaining performances are filling the pews.
The black church must decide once and for all, whether it wants to be a part of the world or be separate from it, as God has called us to be (Romans 12:2). It must be either one or the other. It cannot be both.