Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts organized by Texas Baptists African American Ministries celebrating the impact of the African American church in conjunction with the observance of Black History Month.
Salvation in the African American church has always been more than going to heaven. Old Negro spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” gave the slave comfort and encouragement to deal with his current condition. Funeral services, or “Homegoing Services,” are replete with songs that speak about our heavenly home. “When we all get to heaven” or “I am going up yonder” were songs that reminded us we were just pilgrims and strangers, and heaven was our ultimate home. These songs, though important, did not dominate the ecclesiastical, social and theological landscape.
African Americans had a holistic theology, focusing on earthly dwelling as well as our heavenly home. Because of racism, slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation, African American clergy had no choice but to address the plight and the pain they had to endure daily. They believed God is immanent in the affairs of the world and does have something to say regarding their societal ills; they just had to find out what God had to say. So, the African American church developed ministries to address the whole of man, the physical and the spiritual. Theologians refer to it as shalom, which is wholeness.
Jesus is our model for wholeness. He is a model for a disciple to grow. Luke writes, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). We see four major areas in Jesus’ growth: wisdom (intellectually), stature (physically), favor with God (theologically), and favor with men (socially). If Jesus grew in those four areas, and He is our model, we should also grow in those four areas.
The African American church recognized it is difficult to educate someone when they suffer from hunger. After the Civil War, freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule, but that promise was never fulfilled. This caused severe economic hardships post-slavery. The church devised ministries to deal with the broken promises, implementing food and clothing programs to aid the poor and those on the fringes of society. Once people had their basic needs met, then they could address the other areas of their life.
Since its inception, the African American church understood the importance of education. During Reconstruction, African Americans, particularly in former slave-holding states, saw education as a crucial step toward achieving equality, independence and prosperity. The church took a significant role in education.
The African American church sought to educate the community about the nature and character of God. African Americans understood it was God who delivered them out of bondage, just like God delivered the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Theologians and pastors saw in the Exodus narrative a parallel to their story. With their limited amount of theological education, the church and church leaders did their best to educate their congregation in the way of the Lord. (An upcoming blog will address the struggles and successes of the African American church to promote theological education.)
The Great Commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. The African American church understood there is never a disconnect between loving God and loving neighbor. It was assumed there was a social side of the gospel. While critics would contend, “That’s the Social Gospel!”, the African American church would say, unequivocally, “No! this is the gospel!” The church did not dichotomize the gospel.
As we get closer to our Lord’s return, there will be persecution of the church. Non-African American churches can learn tremendously from the African American church. We are thoroughly familiar with persecution, both individually and ecclesiastically. We know how to live as an ostracized and isolated community of believers. We know how it is to live under threats and fear.
I hope that Black History Month can be a time of learning more about the African American church and its role in society and the world. Its history is rich, and I believe it contains lessons that can benefit everyone.
Tim Fuller is the African American Ministries specialist at Texas Baptists. Learn more about the ongoing work of Texas Baptists African American Ministries.