What's Tony Thinking

The Gift and Power of the Black Church


Today Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) carried live coverage of the George Floyd service from The Fountain of Praise Church in Houston. It was powerful.

But that was not a surprise. The Black Church tradition has been a source of power and beauty for a long, long time. I was first introduced to the Black Church as a teenager in Arlington, Virginia. During the Civil Rights era, my church, Rock Springs Congregational, got us to the African-American churches of Washington, D. C. It was there I heard preaching which made the Biblical story our own and brought it to life. Over the years I have been privileged to be in relationship and partnership with various congregations in this tradition and to preach in churches like Mt. Zion Baptist in Seattle.

One of the consequences of racism has been to limit and undervalues the contribution of the whole African-American tradition and culture to our society. What a loss. Still, despite racism and white assumptions of superiority, the richness of black culture has endured and managed to shape America in so many ways. Without this rich culture, America would not be America.

But the part of black culture I know best and love is the Black Church. What a powerful culture and tradition it is. What eloquence, what rhetorical power, what Biblical faithfulness, what prayerfulness, what a wholistic witness theirs has been. If the church in this country is to be redeemed, it will be because of the faithfulness, dignity and power of the Black Church tradition. They are, I am convinced, the saving remnant.

What is distinctive about this tradition is the holding together of two things that often fall apart in other traditions and churches. One is a deep piety, an expressive faithfulness, a passion for faith and a passion for God. God is real. Jesus is powerful. The other element is a hunger for justice and righteousness. Too often in the wider, predominately white churches, this synthesis is shattered. You may get a concern for justice, but faith in an active and sovereign God is muted. Or you may get prayer power but without protest power.

One of the particular qualities of the Black Church that distinguishes it from most of the mainline churches today is what theologians call, “divine agency.” God is an active agent. You cannot go to a Black Church, you could not listen to the service from Fountain of Praise, without the sure sense that God is alive and at work in the world.

Time and again in today’s service changes were rung on the great Biblical theme of God’s capacity to rule, overrule and triumph even through human sin. “What man meant for evil, God meant for good,” as the Book of Genesis put it. “God is bringing forth good from this terrible evil. To God be the glory!” At other points in the service, various people spoke of how God had used George Floyd during his life and was using so many others today to bring about God’s purposes. The service proclaimed, “Evil has its day, but our God rules, and we shall not surrender.”

While I love and revere my own liberal Protestant tradition, it is now much diminished. Why? Principally I think because of a loss of confidence in divine agency, in the God who is at work, who is doing something in the world, who is lifting the fallen, healing the broken, using the most unlikely people to accomplish holy purposes, and whose purpose will endure and triumph. You just don’t hear that in many liberal mainline churches. All too often the message is not about God’s power and what God is doing, but only about us and what we are doing — or should be doing. But you have to ground our doing in God’s own acts, power, mercy and love. Divine agency was once a crucial part of the Protestant Reformed tradition.

The richness, power and beauty of the Black Church culture, so evident today in the service from Fountain of Praise (think about that name), has so much to teach the whole Church. To God be the Glory!


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