As social distancing to end the spread of COVID-19 continues to impact the ability of black congregations to engage in their traditional forms of interaction, conversations about the future arise. Undoubtedly, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will create economic hardships that will impact the work many churches are doing on all fronts. Additionally, the pandemic and its rising death toll present unique theological issues that contradict messages heard on Sunday mornings; the COVID-19 crisis has created a black church crisis, on many fronts. Yet, many leaders see this as an opportunity to reflect on the solvency of black congregations and how they must emerge from this moment to remain a viable institution.
Six leaders, spanning generations and influence, recently came together to discuss the state of the black church.
When asked to grade the church, as an institution, on its overall performance in the community, no leader assigned a grade higher than a B+. Some pastors noted the sustained impact the church continues to make in the community, noting the many programs and initiatives that directly support communities at large. “I have seen our churches do everything from provide free groceries and transitional housing to sending young people off to college and burying members without life insurance,” said M. Keith McDaniel, senior pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C. Yet, even as leaders celebrated the works of the church, they honored that its failings have led many away. “I think people have lost faith in the institution but not in a black God,” said Porsha D. Williams, pastor to Youth and Children in Newark, N.J.
Among those failings remains a fundamental lack of inclusion and care. From a full reckoning with its gender and sexuality politics to a wake-up call regarding the real needs of black communities, many leaders believe churches must address these issues or face its demise. “An irrelevant black church is nothing more than a social club lacking the transformational power of the Spirit,” said Irie Lynne Session, co-pastor of The Gathering, a Womanist Church in Dallas, Texas. Earle Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., agreed, naming racism, sexism and xenophobia as sins for which the black church must atone. Their presence in black congregations, he believes, speaks to the pervasive power of white supremacy. According to Fisher, these forces have “compromised the efficacy and potency of black religion in America.”
As black congregations wrestle to remain relevant, many believe an institutional resistance to technology and innovation makes it difficult. The immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis showed just how unprepared many congregations were for a digital shift. “Some churches are antiquated in their ministry approaches and are quickly realizing that what worked before may not work now,” said McDaniel. Mikael Elam, of the Osofo Ministry in New York City, agreed and noted that technology has long been misunderstood among church leadership. “Not only are these platforms providing greater access to information; they’re also providing different forms of self-expression.” Elam believes these different expressions only work to enhance the church’s mission. “Greater access to different forms of thought allows us to have even broader theological conversations that can include everyone.”
Admittedly, diversity and inclusion become complicated when cisgender, heterosexual black men are still the dominant face of leadership in black churches. “Many have been trained to honor and excuse all things male,” said Brianna K. Parker, curator and founder of the Black Millennial Café. Session agreed, further suggesting that black congregations have benefited greatly from the disrespect black women have experienced. “We have internalized a patriarchal mindset,” she said. In short, because of the treatment black women have experienced at the hands of black men outside of the church, it often causes them to romanticize the black men found within it. According to Parker, “when males don’t meet the standard in our personal lives, we often want our black male leader as the star of our fairytales.”
The unwillingness to shift in leadership was no more evident than in the days following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown. It illuminated a clear divide between the theological positions of millennials and those of previous generations. Many saw it as a missed opportunity for older church leadership to learn from younger leaders and activists. McDaniel said that “instead of celebrating that ‘Black Lives Matter’ found its genesis outside the church, many churches and pastors attacked it because they couldn’t control it.” Parker agreed and believes that churches also didn’t embrace the decentralized models of leadership that emerged but found new voices to embody old ways. “Once it was over, the church stopped fostering relationships with millennials who did not rise as stars as a result of the protests,” she said.
The chasm between the generations continues to grow when many consider the Church’s unwillingness to revisit teachings on sex and sexuality. “We lack any understanding of sex and sexuality outside the context of sin,” Williams said. Fisher agreed, saying it is in part because black clergy “refuse to admit the Bible is a bad place to get our sexual education.” For Elam, the way black pastors infantilize congregants when it comes to human sexuality remains a problem. “These are adult conversations and we need to stop having adolescent views and responses to them.” Elam, along with others, believes this is one area that black religious leadership must consult with professionals and experts.
The shift black churches must take in their theology and approach, though difficult, is not impossible. Elam believes the first step is that clergy have to be honest about church hurt and trauma. Even if a particular pastor did not participate in harmful behaviors, Williams believes all pastors just have to apologize on behalf of the collective. “We have to be honest that it is not perfect and repent for the toxic space church has been for so many people,” she said. Even as leaders are honest about the harm inflicted by the church, they still grieve the fact many won’t return because of it. “The church owes people who left it the freedom to leave without being castigated and the freedom to return as if they never left,” said McDaniel.
Despite all the church must do to become its best self, many celebrate that it has come far. “There are pockets of black churches all over the world disrupting and dismantling patriarchy and other forms of social injustice,” Session said. Elam said that his church has begun to recognize the feminine side of God. “We could not have that conversation twenty-five years ago.” As the voices of women and queer-identified persons continue to be lifted in the church, many remain hopeful. “We owe the best and brightest of ourselves to God and our community,” said Fisher.
The COVID-19 crisis has placed many black congregations in an extreme state of uncertainty. The painful truth is that it remains to be seen how many will be left standing when all is said and done. What is also true is that pastors and leaders are thinking ahead, beyond the challenges that arise as a result of the coronavirus, to ensure that the church is as viable and as healthy as it can be.