Building Believers and Not Brands

The black church or African American church has historically been the bedrock of the communities in which it existed. To understand this fact it is important to understand the emergence of the African American church. By 1810 the slave trade to the United States had come to an end and the slave population began to increase naturally, giving rise to an increasingly large native-born population of African Americans. With fewer migrants who had experienced Africa personally, these transformations allowed the myriad cultures and language groups of enslaved Africans to blend together, making way for the preservation and transmission of religious practices that were increasingly “African-American.” By the beginning of 1900, the African American church promoted the rise of many African American leaders who worked well outside the sphere of the church in politics, education, and other professions.

Organized politically and spiritually, black churches were not only given to the teachings of Christianity but they were faithfully relied upon to address the specific issues that affected their members. For many African-American Christians, regardless of their denominational differences, Black Churches have always represented their religion, community, and home. Scholars have repeatedly asserted that Black history and Black church history overlap enough to be virtually identical.

But now the African American community looks upon another black church. It is a church that is much different then the black church of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s. It is a church that sounds no alarm or is seemingly speechless proclaiming a gospel of “name it and claim it – believe it and receive it – blab it and grab it – call it and haul it” while its neighborhoods continue to falter and fail. While in the past year it has attempted to find its voice in matters such as white police officers killing blacks unjustifiably, it is without sound to the issues that statistically demand more attention.

Black on Black Crime

The Department of Justice reports that while there is much media agonizing over black-on-black violence, figures show that only 40.1 percent of the victims of black violence are black, while people of other races account for nearly 60 percent of the victims of black violence.[1] The same report shows that during the 2012/2013 periods, blacks committed an average of 560,600 violent crimes against whites, whereas whites committed only 99,403 such crimes against blacks. This means blacks were the attackers in 84.9 percent of the violent crimes involving blacks and whites. This figure is consistent with reports from 2008, the last year DOJ released similar statistics.[2]

Poverty in the Black Community

Poverty is another crisis in the African American community that is commonly ignored by the black church. The U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold for a family with two adults and one child was $18,751 in 2013. This is the official measurement of poverty used by the Federal Government, and the measure used for most poverty-based data presented on State Health Facts.

Of the 11 million black children living in the country, 38%, or 2 out of every 5 black children, live in poverty, a Pew Research analysis of Census data found. Pew defined poverty as a family of four with two children that has income of less than $24,000 a year.[3] The same article reveals that part of the difference in poverty rates among children of different races can be explained by the employment and income differences their parents experience, said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. “The labor market has recovered,” since the recession, Lopez said but “the recovery has been uneven.” Blacks are more likely to be unemployed and earn less than those from other races. Last month, the unemployment rate for blacks was 9.5%, compared to 6.6% for Hispanics, 4.6% for whites and 3.8% for Asians. Since 2001, one million more black children have slipped into poverty.[4]

According to statistics, 18% of the Tennessee population is living at the level or beneath the poverty line. Of the 18%, African Americans make up 41% of the population living below the poverty line.[5]

Education in the Black Community

According to the 2010 census, 1.2 million black male college students make up 5.5 percent of all college students, while the 5.6 million white male students make up 27 percent.[6] Here are some other alarming facts:

–  54% of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than three quarters of white and Asian students.

–  Nationally, African American male students in grades K-12 were nearly 2½ times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students.

–  In 2007, nearly 6.2 million young people were high school dropouts. Every student who does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.

–  On average, African American twelfth-grade students read at the same level as white eighth-grade students.

–  The twelfth-grade reading scores of African American males were significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and ethnic group.

–  Only 14% of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read.

–  The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment.[7]

As Tamika Thompson says: Behind every fact is a face. Behind every statistic is a story. Behind every catch phrase is a young person whose future will be lost if something is not done immediately to change his or her reality.[8]

Where Is The Black Church?

While there are African American churches in the fight for eradicating and eliminating the social, educational, and economical crisis that are destroying our communities, many mainstream black congregations are not. While many are sending groups to third world countries for mission work, for the most many are absent and away from the communities of those they claim to represent. Much of what we view on television, the internet or other means of promoting the Black church comes across as more than a self-help seminar than promoting, propelling, penetrating the Gospel and the Great Commission.

When pastors neither encourages their members to be engaged in the voting process, which was fought for by the black church during the 50’s and 60’s, nor publicly endorse candidates who will best represent and address the ills that permeate the African American community, the black church is missing.

When our the black church places more emphasis on individuals that come to the church than individuals we send to carry out the Great Commission the black church is missing.

When offerings are presented as a means to unlock some hidden key to supernatural wealth and the Gospel and/or miracles of God can only be experienced by “sowing a seed to seal the message,” the black church is missing.

Creating Authentic Communities

Before Christianity was associated with buildings, budgets, conferences, televangelism, or ecclesiastical titles, it began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of thinking. It gave dignity to women, the unmarried, and children in a world governed by married men. It emancipated slaves to equality with those who enchained and enslaved them. It resisted and rebelled against religious prohibitions that marginalized and alienated people into us and them, in and out, good and evil, clean and unclean, holy and unholy. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich typhoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, and an aliveness movement.[9]

It had no bank accounts, but was rich in relationships and joy (Acts 2:41-47). It had no elaborate hierarchy and organization, but spread like wildfire through simple practices of empowerment and self-organization. It had no seminaries or colleges, but it was constantly training new waves of courageous and committed leaders through the “each one teach one” strategy of catechesis. It had lost of problems, too, but it grappled with those problems courageously. It was a “people’s seminary,” transforming any room, campfire, or shady spot beneath a tree into a movement school. It equipped the oppressed and oppressors to become partners and protagonists in their mutual liberation.[10]

This says and suggests that the answer to continue the fight for eradicating and eliminating the social, educational, and economical crisis that are destroying our communities is to return to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ who are contributors and not consumers. As represented in John 6, the church must challenge its members to a deeper level of commitment and sacrifice even if members may “turn their back and no longer follow (John 6:66).” Let me share with you pragmatic steps the black church must take to establish a praxis for building believers and not brands in order to create authentic community in the African American Church in an age of consumerism.

Understanding The Theology of Consumerism

The need and necessity to increase church attendance has lead to an overwhelming rise in advertising. In the United States nearly $180 billion was spent on advertising (70% on television and 52.5% on digital) in 2015. Advertising is when producers and manufacturers tell people what they need not because of arrogance but out of a desire to increase profits. The McDonald’s brand, for example, has been so effectively imprinted onto our imaginations that a recent Stanford University study found carrots, milk, and apple juice tasted better to children when they were packaged in McDonald’s wrappers.

The spirit of consumerism has evaded the black church. Consumerism is a “pimp that exploits and ultimately enslaves anyone caught up in a consumeristic world view. As Skye Jethani observed, “Although lack of self-control has always plagued humanity, for the first time in history an economic system has been created that relies on it.”[11] The peril is that instead of an individual’s identity being given to them within the context in which they live, whether it is family, national, or religious communities, consumerism gives people the illusion that they can create their own identities. If brand names can shape or even stand in for identity, then to figure out ‘who you are’ you must decide where (and for what) you shop.[12] While companies now sell a lifestyle and not a product, the black church may be as guilty of doing the same.

Drew Sams gives a good commentary on understand the relationship between Christianity and consumerism. He states:

When a person chose to follow Jesus Christ, they would do so in the context of a community. As members of the body of Christ, they would build one another up, support, encourage, pray for, admonish, guide, and instruct one another as they lived lives holy and pleasing to the Lord. Everyone’s material, physical, relational, and spiritual needs were met as the Holy Spirit empowered each individual within the community. Their identity and mission was found in the context of the overarching and unfolding Story of God. However, like the nation of Israel who would often forget their identity and mission and begin adopting other stories and worshipping other gods, the North American Church has broadly forgotten her identity and mission and has begun to adopt others stories, namely the story of consumerism. As a result, God became a commodity, the Church became a vending machine, and Christians became merely consumers.[13]

How do return or recapture a missional focused church? How do we return the church to the Story of God and not the story of the pastor or a congregation’s brand? How do establish praxis for building believers and not brands in order to create authentic community in the African American Church in an age of consumerism.

Return to Missional Giving

It is clear in the New Testament that the paradigm or passion for giving was missional based or need based. As demonstrated by the church at Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8), this church “urgently pleaded with (us) for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people (vv. 4).” In the black church a mission offering was received for the sake of providing financial means to carry out meager and minute mission task. That offering, however big or small, has been eliminated. Now, individuals “plant seeds” besides the giving of the tithe and offerings. However, the “planting of seeds” is presented as the means of allowing the word of God that has been sown to come into fruition. What is the nature of the “word” sown? Increase.

The black church must return to giving that appeals to the necessity of having the financial resources to continue the fight for eradicating and eliminating the social, educational, and economical crisis that are destroying our communities. Offerings cannot be presented as some means to personal increase.

Return to Small Groups

As the offerings have been overthrown by the spirit of consumerism so has Bible study. The common approach to Bible study in the black church takes on the model of another worship experience than the study of the word of God. Much of the mid-week worship is equivalent to the Sunday morning worship. And, in many black churches a call to commitment to a small group is not made.

However, small groups are without question the best means to living in authentic community. The black church must develop a Bible study program that is intentional about making disciples and developing members through intimacy and transparency.

Joining Jesus on Mission

Finally, the black church must return to joining Jesus on mission against the tendency to conform to the trend of church conferences and concerts. By joining Jesus on mission I am suggesting an emphasis on members both sharing their faith with others (believers and non-believers) while also engaging in hands on opportunities to be engaged in mission and ministry opportunities that are social-driven.

The black church or African American church has historically been the bedrock of the communities in which it existed. The African American church promoted the rise of many African American leaders who worked well outside the sphere of the church in politics, education, and other professions. But now the African American community looks upon another black church. It is a church that is much different then black church of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s. With our communities collapsing and crumbling, it is a necessity that African American church return to the fight for eradicating and eliminating the social, educational, and economical crisis that are destroying our communities. This can only be done when congregations develop praxis for building believers and not brands in order to create authentic community in the African American Church in an age of consumerism.

[1] http://www.amren.com/news/2015/07/new-doj-statistics-on-race-and-violent-crime/

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/14/news/economy/black-children-poverty/

[4] Ibid

[5] http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/poverty-rate-by-raceethnicity/

[6]http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2012/07/black_education_statistics_separating_fact_from_fiction.html

[7] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/too-important-to-fail/fact-sheet-outcomes-for-young-black-men/

[8] Ibid

[9] Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (New York: Jericho Books, 2015), pg. xviii-xix.

[10] McLaren, xix.

[11] Skye Jethani, Divine Commodity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle e-book, locations 2041-44.

[12] Benjamin Barber, Consumed (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2007), Kindle e-book, locations 971-2.

[13] Sams, Drew. “A Pimp Called Consumerism: Developing a Narrative Ecclesiology in a New Media World.” ePub ISBN: 978-0-9849378-2-0, Calvary Community Church, 2010.

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