Revitalizing African American Congregations for the Post-Civil Rights Generation
The African American church, once considered the bedrock of the community, is no longer on the radar for many individuals. During the Civil Rights Era many African American churches were able to impact and often transform the lives of those inside and outside of the congregation. This is no longer true, particularly among the post-Civil Rights generations.
The problem is many African American congregations are still working with evangelistic assumptions from the Civil Rights Era. These assumptions cause many African American congregations to be out of touch with those not in the church and, as a result, they struggle to embody the gospel in a way that will transform the lives of individuals or the community. The evangelistic crisis facing these African American congregations is the inability to embody the good news of Jesus the Christ in a way that speaks to those in post-Civil Rights generations.
But African American congregations can move forward and create new wineskins capable of holding and sustaining new wine by reclaiming a missional understanding for evangelism in the African American community. The evangelistic innovativeness and influence of African American congregations should be their on-going commitment to share the good news of salvation in the community. If African American congregations frame evangelism in this missional manner, then practices like hospitality and testimony are transformed because the DNA of the congregation has been altered. Resolving the evangelistic crisis facing many African American congregations will not be easy or accomplished overnight. Re-evaluating the current congregational assumptions framing evangelism in many African American congregations is a step in the right direction.
While those of us professing Christ would seek to be disciples of Jesus and not simply follow our intuition, the point about breaking away from traditions that prevent us from becoming missional is essential. It is time for many African American congregations to recognize it is not enough to simply be the church. It is time to re-think the meaning of church for those who come after the civil rights struggle.
Typically, African American congregations have rallied to fight a visible and definable other (e.g., racism). The challenge in this case is looking inward and seeking to transform what it means to be the church in a shifting culture. Both challenges are difficult, but looking inward is especially difficult because we perceive ourselves with prejudiced eyes. The reason things are not going well is always someone else’s fault, but never our own doing.
It is time to look in the mirror and not see dimly, but to be honest in the ways many of us have lost the ability to communicate the gospel in this shifting culture. I believe there is a hunger by many congregations to be vital again. To once again be sought by those in the community as a place where they can go to experience grace and start a journey toward wholeness. The good news is many of these congregations can develop a new mindset that helps them to re-think the meaning of church for the post-civil rights generations.
Let’s be honest—there is no quick fix! It is going to take a lot of work. All the evangelism programs in the world will not fix the current state of many African American congregations. But there are things congregations must do if they desire to be vital:
Congregations have to decide if they want to be vital.
In Ezekiel (37:3), God asks, “Can these bones live?” Congregations that are committed to doing the same things even when they are not working and not discerning the Spirit of God to lead them forward are making a decision to die. The bones will not live! If there is a willingness to live, then praying for God’s direction is the first step. Please pray in a manner that you are seeking God’s will and not trying to steer God in a particular direction. The whole congregation committing to pray for forty days and coming together to share how God spoke is one way to discern God’s will. (Resource: Kevass J. Harding, Can These Bones Live (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Congregations have to start doing things differently.
When the prodigal son realizes he has hit a low point in life (Luke 15:17-18), it is one thing to come to that realization, but another to do something about it. The prodigal son decides to return home. It is one thing for a congregation to realize a problem exists and to take the first step and pray. The rubber hits the road when God speaks and it requires the congregation to do things differently. For example, the Easter egg hunt gets moved to the community center so that others can participate. Congregations have to follow through and start doing things differently if they truly seek to be transformed. (Resource: Ralph C. Watkins, The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2007)
Congregations have to listen to those in the post-Civil Rights generations.
Elisha tells Naaman (2 Kings 5:10-11) to go wash in the Jordan seven times and his leprosy will be cleaned, but Naaman initially walks away angry. Naaman did not listen to Elisha because he did not believe what he said had value. If congregations want to be transformed, then listening to voices that have an important message is necessary. A part of developing a new mindset is a willingness to listen. A willing to listen will translate into individuals seeing and eventually experiencing a difference in your congregation. (Resource: Olu Brown, From Zero to Eighty: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth (Atlanta: Impact Press, 2010)
These congregations will transform lives and society in new ways never imagined by their foreparents who left them a rich legacy. These congregations will re-define what it means to be the black church.
Excerpted from New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations by F. Douglas Powe Jr. Foreword by Olu Brown.