Preaching in the Black Church, part 2

Part 2 of the topic of Preaching in the Black Church — also an excerpt from Dr. Tony Evans’ latest book on reconciliation, kingdom and justice, Oneness Embraced. Click here for Part 1, “The Uniqueness of Black Preaching.” In light of the intersection between Black History Month and Grace Meridian Hill’s commitment to build a “cross-cultural community,” I am sharing a series of posts this month on notable individuals, features, institutions, and events in the history and heritage of the African-American Church.

“Worship: The Context of Black Preaching”

Black preaching is set in the context of black church worship, which is formatted from the liturgy of American Christianity. Yet it is African traditionalism that gives the black church and its style of worship the freedom to improvise and innovate. For example, “Amazing Grace” sounds distinctively different when you hear it sung in an African-American church compared to the way you hear it sung in a white church. I doubt seriously if the convened slave trader, John Newton, would have ever envisioned the black church’s version of his hymn with its definitive cadence. …

Music has always had a significant place in the worship of Africans and their descendants.

Remember that much of African Traditional Religion was transferred through hymns and songs, which resembled the Psalms of the Old Testament. The music in the black church takes on the form of the Word of God as it is sung. This notion and appre­ciation for the genre of song is rooted deep within the core of the African heart. Because the orientation toward the ministry of music is set in this vein, the music of the African-American church has had a profound impact on the American culture at large. This is why the Negro spiritual has become such a significant part of American life. These songs don’t just entertain; they tell the story of life and the people who experienced it. They reveal the unique relationship between the person of God, the oppression of blacks, and the power of faith.

These songs were to black people what history books were to whites—our link with our past.

In many cases, the music is a way of drawing people into the black church. Thus a partnership is formed between the pulpit and the choir that results in a unique form of evangelism. Few black preachers allow their sermons to conclude without giving a call to discipleship. The choir sings a song about God’s grace, power, and mercy, which softens the heart of the sinner and brings him or her tip front before all the church to make a confession of trusting Christ for salvation.

I mentioned earlier that the slaves dressed in their best whenever they came to church. This custom was a carryover from Africa, and can still be experienced in African religious ceremonies today.

The worship of God was a celebration. It was a festive event celebrating life, which God both supplied and reigned over. For the slave, the worship service was the only time that he was free. The goodness of God could be celebrated without obstruction.

Worship was his reaf­firmation of hope. This aspect of celebrating God in worship is still visible in the main line African-American church. Although slavery has ended, the theme of freedom remains. Where there is hope for freedom, there is much joy and exuberance. This joy and exuberance is evident in the music of the black church, which Henry Mitchell calls a “natural application of the principle of black freedom.” …

Because the Jews of the Old Testament have much in common with the plight of the African-American, it is not unreasonable to find similarities between the two styles of worship. Exuberance and joy should not be anomalies in the worship of God. Sacredness does not necessarily imply that we have to be solemn and silent. We are not the frozen-chosen.

Of course, silence is appropriate on some occa­sions, but when the African-American considers the care and protection God supplies, especially in light of his socioeconomic plight and history, it is difficult not to be expressive. …

Certainly black preaching and black worship that overemphasize emotion and performance can be distracting. If we lose our members amid a storm of confusion, “every wind of doctrine” can blow in. Culture is the vehicle, not the driver. The focus of worship must always be the presentation of truth, whether it is sung, taught, or preached. I pray that we may never glorify the package with its pretty wrapping and ignore the precious treasure inside. This is why the African-­American preacher must be a relevant and excellent expositor as well as a good storyteller.

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