Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Attending an Historically African-American Church and what Brainy White Preachers can Learn from African-American Oratory.

It is very dangerous to generalize about the "black church," just as it is about the "white church."  As an African-American pastor friend in Alabama told me, "You will find everything in the black church you will in the white church."  So, I don't title this "A Few Thoughts on the Black Church" as if one experience at one congregation is somehow normative.

I have a sabbatical month, which is a good time to go around and visit other congregations.  I have long wanted to take my family to New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, pastored for several decades by fellow RTS alum Dr. Jerry Young.  The service was reverent and word-centered.  The service was actually quite "presbyterian,"orderly, reverent with responsive reading, the Doxology and Gloria.

It was historically African-American in the sense that the service does build to a crescendo at the end of the sermon, and it does end in what is historically called "hooping," or a musical, lyrical quality. I say "historically" because I have read that younger African-American pastors are somewhat critical of the "whoop," and one cannot generalize that it is a feature of ALL African American preaching as if there were just one style.    Here's an African American take on hooping.  And it was historically African-American in terms of the responsiveness of the congregation, but never in a way that detracted from the message or the worship.

What could we learn from New Hope?

1.) They took their time.  Nothing was rushed.  Everything was deliberate.

2.) They make a concerted effort to welcome visitors, and address it in a systematic way.

3.)  They show great honor where honor is due.

4.) They were responsive to the preaching, etc, but not in a way that was disruptive.  I have long said that former Baptists forget all their emotion when they become Presbyterian.  Scripture doesn't forbid saying amen or raising a hand, or an audible response.  The few times I have preached in an African-American context, this has helped my preaching.

5.) The idea that we must abandon formality, a robe (what a beautiful robe!), or necessarily have drums or guitars to reach African Americans seems to be without merit.  This is not an argument for or against, just I think sometimes our judgments are superficial.  There is not one "African-American" style, just as there is not one "white" style.  There are some generalizations, that are useful insofar as they go, as one of the African American boys that I tutor mimics both his own pastor and me, and it is hilarious to see how young black eyes see the stodgy white preacher.

I think that typical PCA preaching could very much benefit from studying traditional African-American style.  The same things that made Martin Luther King such a brilliant communicator still persist in some African-American preaching.  Here's what I noticed:

1.)  Repitition aids learning.  My hypothesis is that because African-American preaching developed in a culture where literacy was forbidden, the most effective preachers knew how to preach in such a way that the main ideas are recapitulated artfully throughout the sermon.

2.)  We need to think more about what people hear than what we say.  This is crucial.  This is what is missing from a lot of Reformed preaching.  We strive for precision and detail and don't take into account the difference between written and oral communication.  It is far more important that we find ways to give people truths to hang details on than to spell out everything in minute detail.  Preaching is not teaching, it is not lecturing, it is not primarily about conveying a multitude of facts.  Preaching is persuasive, hortatory speech.  Dr. Young gave us points on which to hang truth.  The tools he used were the equivalent of "Hear me, church..." though he said it in a variety of ways. Then, he would repeat, on occasion.  It was very effective.

3.) The preaching was symphonic.  It had a rhythm.  It didn't start loud and stay there.  It didn't start soft and stay there.  It was distinct, clear, and vitally conveyed.  It began at mezzo-piano, crescendoed at times to forte, and ended at sforzando.  (If you don't know music, it went from a little softer than medium to all the stops pulled out).  I am a white guy, and I can't pull of sfz without sounding mad, but he could.  That said, it wasn't just a straight line, like a hypotenuse, from soft to loud.  Like a symphony, it had passages and movements, and kept me riveted throughout.

Too much PCA preaching sounds like lecturing.  We want people to internalize a precise outline with multiple points, sub points, etc.  We have lost the sense that a sermon is an encounter with the divine (shameless plug: I preached on this last Sunday).  Christian existentialists are not all wrong, and they are definitely not wrong about this.  Preaching is not a man standing before an audience imparting information to the mind --it is God putting his own message in the prophet's mouth, and pressing it home upon the life.  John MacArthur once said he preached to the mind, not the heart or the will.  That is a big mistake (and I actually think it's not true of him).  These things cannot be separated.  As Edwards pointed out, mind, heart, and will are just short-hand ways of denoting our whole conscious selves.

So, we need to preach like it matters to us.  IF anything is missing, it is this.  It is not a matter of volume --Knox Chamblin was not loud, but it mattered to him.  It's an indefinable quality, but we know when it's not there.

4.) If you're still reading...  True preaching is prophetic.  It calls forth a response.  It is not mere information, but persuasion.  It is saying, "These things matter more than you think they do, they are matters of life and death, they matter more than who won yesterday or how your portfolio is doing or if the crops fail."  It forces the conscience of the hearer to respond: aroma of life, or stench of death.  Who is sufficient for these things?  African-Americans don't tend to get hung up on what parts of life are or aren't the church's business.  All truth is God's truth, and needs to be put forth as the prophets did, calling the people not to halt between two opinions but to choose between Baal and God.

I am rusty at blogging.  I look at my words and think "this should be so much better."  But, there it is!


  1. Thank you Ken. Much here for thought, especially about our preaching! "Preaching is persuasive, hortatory speech."

  2. Hello and thank you for linking to my site. I would encourage you to check out my seminar on african american preaching which inorporates a style, structure, biblical hermeneutic, and theolgoical can find the hour long seminar as a youtube video ....

    again thank you for linking to my site...and God bless