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What is “Contemporary” in the African-American Church Community?

When I lectured at the National Association of Broadcasters Conference in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, the administrator of a large African American church in the South asked me an interesting question.  In the context of “contemporary” churches, you might find Ed Young, Bil Cornelius, Perry Noble, Erwin McManus, or Greg Groeschel.  These are guys who generally preach in casual clothes, understand marketing, are savvy with technology, and yet still preach a Christ centered message.  They’re also White.  She asked,
“But what about African-American churches?  Is there a category of “contemporary” African-American churches?  Do any Black pastors – even contemporary ones – preach in casual clothes?  Do they conduct services that would be similar to these pastors mentioned above?”  It’s an interesting question.  It’s not an issue or right or wrong.  I wonder if it points to a cultural difference?   Particularly for my African-American readers – what are some examples of the most contemporary (non-traditional) Black pastors and churches out there?

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12 Comments

  1. As a middle-class young white guy… my guess is that the 'black church' no matter where, size, etc. is still formal across the board b/c they hold the reverence of Sunday morning service closer than the young white culture does. Simple as that.

    To some extent, I think this is a disturbing trend for the church in general (nothing new). I rarely wear anything but jeans to church now, but I really appreciate the reverence that the protestant churches still hold during their services.

    I think to much is done in the name of being relevant to the culture, and this is one that has gone a little far. It's not like I'm saying it's a sin or something, I just think that the value in revering the place of worship has been lost.

  2. tm,

    I'd say the dress code in predominantly African American is largely an issue of social norms/cultural relevance.  And, if reverence is a result of dress, none of us can dress nice enough.  And, if we can dress nice enough, we will only be able to revere God in relation to how much cash we have on hand….doesn't seem to be a reasonable pursuit to worship/reverence.

    With that said, I don't know that we can equate contemporary with casual dress in the African American church….not that that answers Phil's question

  3. I was talking with Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counselors, when he mentioned that T.D. Jakes had told him the suits and the bling were a necessary part of reaching the African American Christian audience.  That if he didn't show that he was successful, then his people wouldn't follow him.  Does that say something about the cultural place African Americans have been placed in our society?  And does casual dress mean "contemporary"?

    I think there are some new thinkers in the Black church – but perhaps not as "reformed" as many of the "contemporary" churches – but reaching out in new ways or new messages.  People like Deron Cloud have challenged young African Americans with drama involving popular culture.

  4. One of the beautiful things about God is that He is unlimitedly faceted, and that there is a worship style out there that fits with anyone's tastes/likes, and they all are should be a reflection of who He is.

    I think the more important issue is that we should just be who we are, not what someone else expects us to be. Personally, I'm tired of the Ed Young wannabes, but I'm just as tired of the TD Jakes wannabes, as well as the Jesse Duplantis wannabes.

    I think Paul was tired of it too.  Remember the verses about people going around preaching in the name of Paul or Apollos?  That's not too far off from what we have today. 

    For me (although I'm a white male) it's less about "chasing relevance" than it is about chasing God, and just being real.  My church (www.mycrossroads.org) is a rock-n-roll, concert-style venue, with lots of use of lighting and video, but that's not where we stop.  We genuinely love people, and our congreagation is about 25-30% African-Amercian.

    People like to come down on the African-American preacher for being "showy" or "blingy," but some of the "relevance chasers" out there are just as showy (and blingy).

    They just do it on video (with technological bling). 

  5. Since I'm black and probably skew a little younger than most of the folks on here, I'll bite on this one. I'm not familiar with the other ministers you mentioned but I generally don't keep up with such things either.

    The best example of a non-traditional black minister I can think of is Deron Cloud of The Soul Factory out in the DC area. (Google him.) He was mentioned in George Barna's book, High Impact African American churches. I first heard of him years ago when I attended one of his one-man plays. (I didn't even know it was Christian.) Deron calls them "draminars". He has some snippets on YouTube.

    TD Jakes, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar…all those guys are working off an old system set up for an older generation (Boomers). They have their place. Likewise, Focus on the Family types are working off an even older system (Jim Crow? lol.)

    Deron is intent on speaking to his generation in language that gets to the point. There are pluses and minuses on both sides of that equation but he's very clear that his audience is primarily urban and primarily lower middle and poorer class.

    There is truth in the idea that black folks won't come unless you "do it big." For slaves that meant the preacher could read, after Jim Crow it meant he had availed himself (visibly) of newly available economic and social–exotic vacation anyone?–freedom. My generation is unintentionally postmodern. There are no boundaries.

     

  6. I agree with t-hype's comments.  I am a member and on part-time sound and media / music staff with a predominantly African-American mega church and I'm white. 

    The need for change is huge.

     There is a strong adherence to traditional formats, presentation and look (clothes / stage appearance/ set etc.) however, there is a significant push-back to the traditional methods by 30 – 40 year olds (not youth).  It's more than clothes but goes deeper, meaning there is a perception that the leadership do not care to respond to contemporary culture.  That does not mean that there is a desire for a water-downed message, but in-fact the opposite – this group wants to bring with them the experience and teaching of a Sunday morning and carry it into and live it effectively Monday through Saturday.  Females in this group are the most vocal about it, however, males in this group seem to be most affected by it. 

     In my observation, there is a huge need for a contemporary presentation among African-American ministries, however its impact and enduring influence will / can be felt among all people. It's not just clothes but relevance. 

  7. Maybe we're asking the wrong question?  Trends and differentiations between the subcultures of predominantly white churches are going to be more varied I think because you're dealing with a large population.

    The Black community is more monolithic in comparison by virtue of its minority status and the Churches tend to be identified more with the general community.

    I'm not saying there isn't a differentiation in worship style between different churches that couldn't be defined as more contemporary than not, but where in the white sub-culture this has become a litmus test and further the worship style carries with it some associated philosophies in ministry that are generally assumed, I think the issues that define identity in the Black churches fall along different lines.  Identify those lines and the question becomes more relevant.

    My thoughts anyway and I'm a very white guy with some exposure to the African American community but by no means qualified to offer more than a general opinion.

  8. Phil, my hunch tells me that the large african american church you mentioned is located in a "large tennesssee city".

    there are young african american pastors in this "large tennessee city" who dress casually, have contempory services and understand marketing and new technology. off the top of my head three such pastors and ministries come to mind.

    prosperity preachers and in particular african american prosperity pastors who believe that "jesus was rich and that is why i drive a rolls royce" will never dress casually or hold contempory services.

    members are told that if you can dress for a party on saturday night then you should dress up for church on sunday morning.

    the irony is that younger prosperity pastors understand marketing, how to use technology and contempory services but continue to dress like their elders with lots of bling and ten karat gold thread in their suits, because looking rich gives the illusion that you are rich.

    Jesus said "render your hearts and not your garments". it would be sad if a lost person was turned away from church because of how they are dressed. but unfortunately it has happened!!

  9. Within my African-American Church experience (my whole life) I usually only see pastors preach in casual clothing on a designated “dress down” Sunday service, which is geared towards attracting more of the local community. Even then, for the pastor, their “dress down” is not as casual as the congregation’s. I don’t know of many African-American churches where both, pastor and people dress casually on a consistent basis. Partly, because I don’t try to find them out. Although, I’ve seen Bishop Eddie Long dress down on occassion (through televised services.)

    However, “contemporary”, in the African-American churches is defined along different terms. I have experienced services that are very contemporary along the lines of music and a less traditional order of service, yet everyone still came in their “Sunday best.”

    Wearing your “Sunday best” happens for many reasons, but in my opinion, it largely has to do with the respect and reverence of God and His house of worship. Also, during the time of Slavery and Jim Crow, African-Americans did not have the freedoms afforded to them as Caucasians did – namely being able to wear nice clothes to worship. So to be free from oppression, in a sense, means to be able to “wear my best to the house of God.”

    Granted there are many churches, White and Black, where suits and dresses matter way too much – you know this when you walk in not wearing what everyone else does and they look at you like you don’t belong.

    The issue is with our hearts first and our clothing second. This does not mean that our clothing should not have a place. If a person’s “best” is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt (that’s ironed, lol) then fine. If that person has a suit and tie in their closet, why not wear that? We dress up for people of important stature – meetings with our boss, government officials, the President of the United States, etc… why then would we not give our best to the God of the Universe?

    These are all the thoughts I had for the moment.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers
    http://www.allenpaulweaveriii.com
    http://www.transitionunleashed.com

  10. On a totally sidebar issue, perhaps the bigger question is why are we pursuing and accommodating church services and congregations were color, while usually unadvertised, is the dividing line?

  11. That's a difficult question.

    I don't think that churches create that division so much as they reflect the state of affairs in our society. 

    Worship styles, preaching styles, dress, social activities etc are all outward symbols that communicate inwardly held values and norms.  In the theological sense, God is to the center of focus.  In a social sense the attraction these different mores hold is deeply personal and cultural.

    There are usually unstated values in every congregation and usually, unless there is a deliberate effort on the part of Church leadership with the support of key members (the informal leaders in the group) to create a congregation that is racially mixed, it doesn't happen unless the church itself is located in a racially mixed and progressive area and thus can reflect its local community.

    Even then, again usually, congregations that achieve this tend to be more affluent economically and better educated and thus less susceptable to the typical prejudices that may be more present in the lower social and economic demographics.  The irony then is that while that Church appears to be more progressive and and in some ways it is, there are other sociological barriers erected and people who don't fall into the economic and social strata are not integrated as well.

    My observations and thoughts anyway.

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