What the White Church Can Learn from the Black Church

Once when I was newly appointed to a church, a middle-aged church member told me on Sunday morning that she wouldn’t be present in worship the next Sunday because she was going out of town for the weekend to a Guns N’ Roses concert.

Nothing about her blouse and slacks screamed GNR.

As I looked around the sanctuary full of khakis, sport coats, and respectable shoes I wondered what music other church folx blasted in their cars on the way to work.

I was so amused by the mental picture of her as a screaming fan of hair metal that I entertained the idea of asking everyone to come to a church fellowship event dressed in the genre of their favorite band so that we could really get to know each other.

Who are we in church?

In predominantly white mainline Protestant churches, before we wore masks, we wore Masks.

My experience of these churches, having spent 50 years in them, is that we white Christians unthinkingly act like we have our shit together because that’s what we’ve been taught to do.

Maybe a small number in our congregations purposely hide theirs, thinking that their brokenness is unacceptable to others or too painful to reveal.

But most of us just…act that way, without realizing it. We got the message somewhere along the line that you come to church as a person who is fixed. Good. Nice. Unbothered.

What if your Saturday night and Sunday morning person were the same?

Theologian James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, helps the white Church see many things we need to learn.

“Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ Black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christianity in America.”

To survive the terror of the rural lynching era, Cone says, southern rural Blacks couldn’t protest or engage in self-defense. “For most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance.”

He remembers the juke joints of his childhood, full of drinking, laughing and loud music. “To be able to laugh, to say what’s on one’s mind, expressing feelings of disgust and rage, was liberating for Blacks, who usually remained silent, hat in hand and head bowed in the presence of whites.” He quotes B.B. King, who witnessed a lynching as a child:

If you live under the system for so long, then it don’t bother you openly, but mentally, way back in your mind, it bugs you…Later on you will sometime think about this and you wonder why, so that’s where your blues come in, you really bluesy then, y’see, because you hurt deep down, believe me, I’ve lived through it, I know. I’m still trying to say what the blues means to me. So I sing about it.

B.B. King, as quoted in The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone

The life of many rural Southern Blacks during the lynching era consisted of Saturday night at the juke joint and Sunday morning in worship.

And here’s the thing – those weren’t separate expressions of humanity.

They were part of a whole.

On Sunday morning, you didn’t hide that you went to the juke joint on Saturday night. Sunday morning was just a different expression of the fullness of your humanity. 

On Sunday morning, there was freedom in prayer, song, and Word. “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in the cool springs of hope, where we retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows of death,” writes Richard Wright in 1941.

On Sunday morning, there was authenticity and vulnerability.

“Havin’ church”

The worship services I’ve attended at Black churches are not very similar to those of predominantly white churches. They’re hours long, with a very come-and-go feel. You might be there right at 11am…or you might not. But you’re going to get caught up in worship no matter what time you arrive.

You’re going to sing God’s praise – a lot. And you’re going to find space to express your pain.

Wright, again: “Our going to church on Sunday is like placing an ear to another’s chest to hear the unquenchable murmur of the human heart.”

One reason I think white mainline congregations don’t spend a lot of time in praise is because if you’re pretending like everything is all right when it really isn’t, there’s not a lot to give praise for. That dissembling calls for lament.

Except that you can’t lament because that would require taking off the Mask and letting others see that something is wrong.

When we ignore our full humanity—when we relegate it to Saturday night or pack it away entirely—we cut off the option of true praise. True praise comes after we lay bare our crap before God and others and give God space to work.

When we ignore our full humanity—when we relegate it to Saturday night or pack it away entirely—we also cut off the option of self-examination, confession, and forgiveness, because we can’t stand to confront the truth about ourselves in the company of others. What a lonely place to be.

But we love everyone!

If we white Christians can’t be our full selves in our churches, we are perpetuating a system which fosters the inability to look at our congregations truthfully…to see where we have erred by simply being the predominantly white Church.

How many white churches ask WHY our worshippers are nearly all white, especially when white Christians would say that we “love everyone?”

If we do happen to ask that question, the answer usually places the burden on BIPOC Christians: we wonder why “they” won’t come to “our” church.

If we can’t be ourselves in white churches, if we can’t take up practices of facing the truth about ourselves, we’ll never be able to see how we as the Church perpetuate white supremacy and heteronormativity and ableism and classism and all sorts of exclusionary practices and attitudes.

If we can’t engage the work of being truthful, then our churches will never be representative of the beauty of God’s kingdom. 

Predominantly white mainline Protestant churches can learn from the Black Church how to follow our brown-skinned Messiah better when we acknowledge that both our whiteness and our dissembling are based in the refusal to admit to who we are, even when the admission is painful. White people don’t like to think of ourselves as white. We like to think of ourselves as “normal.”

This Lent, may we give up the need to be seen as “normal” and take up the truth-telling that is required to be real.

Rev. Jenny Williams (she/her) is an ordained United Methodist pastor who believes the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic witness by speaking into issues of injustice and walking with people marginalized by Empire. Her current attempt to follow Jesus has her focusing on solidarity, not charity, particularly with queer folx and BIPOC. Read more of Jenny’s work here.

Feature image by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

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