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June Reflection: Bridging the Gap between the Academy and the Church

Bridging the Gap: The Divided Mind of the Black Church

A reflection by the Rev. Wayne E. Croft, Sr., DMin, PhD

The Rev. Dr. Wayne E. Croft, Sr.Earlier this month I attended Yale University Divinity School and completed a course entitled The Identity and Mission of the Black Church. The Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock served as the instructor. Dr. Warnock is the Senior Pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as co-pastor with his father. The course was based on Warnock’s book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety & Public Witness (NYU Press). The purpose of the course was to analyze what black and womanist theologians have had to say about the identity and mission of the black church and to examine what black churches and their pastors have had to say in response. I was moved to spend a week at Yale and sit in Dr. Warnock’s class, not only because I wanted to be at the feet of one of the new Post-Civil Rights black theologians, but also because my passion is to bridge the gap between the academy and the church as well as black pastors and theologians.

There has been tension, throughout the course of history, between black theologians and pastors as it pertains to the mission of the black church. The same has occurred within pastoral circles. There are black pastors who view the fight for justice as central to the mission of the church and have embraced James Cone’s black theology movement. There are also pastors who embrace the fight for justice but somehow refuse Cone’s black theology. Yet, and still there are those for whom the concern and struggle for justice in society is not viewed as being central to one’s Christian identity or essential to the mission of the church in the world but rather piety and other evangelical essentials.

It might be difficult for both black pastors and black theologians to have meaningful conversations among one another about the mission of the church due to what Warnock refers to as “divided minds.” This is clear in two opposing views in Warnock’s book, namely Joseph A. Johnson and Joseph H. Jackson. Johnson saw a need for black theology and a new Christology that engages the black experience: black theology. Johnson further saw a desperate need to “de-theo-logize” black minds of racist interpretation of the meaning of the revelation of Jesus Christ in history. In contrast Jackson rejected black theology further stating there is no revealed truth that teaches God is white or black.

Language and interpretation about Christ and his ministry appears to have caused division between pastors and pastors and theologians. Most black pastors I know have a high Christology but view their Christology through a European lens. An emphasis on blackness is seen as being “biblically” dangerous and an error as it pertains to scripture. However, there are those on the other side of the black church who possess a high Christology as well but are committed to black theology and social justice. There are “divided minds” and a “double consciousness” in the black church.

The national exposure of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon snippet during the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has caused both America and some within the black church to ask, “What is the Black Churches Mission or Black Theology?” History has proven that the black church has a tradition of integrating social activism with religion. This tradition is at once both Evangelical and political. We are, in many ways, Evangelical because we understand Jesus Christ as primary and definitive for understanding God and what it means to experience transformation. We are also political because we have lived in a religious and cultural environment where our spiritual salvation would be limited by other Christians to only the hereafter. In the eyes of those who revere the prophetic tradition of the black church, Dr. Wright was preaching truth to power, calling his congregation and America to open their eyes to the prevailing injustice in the world. This, of course, is not to assert that one would agree with the passion and claims Rev. Wright made, but one would have to consider his assessment of America’s treatment toward others. In the best of this tradition, we must seek to challenge the powerful, raise awareness of suffering, and stand up for the marginalized and oppressed. There remains a desperate need for black pastors and black theologians to come to an understanding of the mission of the black church. This conversation must begin with our Christology that informs our ecclesiology which is often silenced by our anthropology.

One of the pillars of the church I lovingly serve, St. Paul’s Baptist Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is Social Justice. We live in the tension between piety and protest. We attempt to be evangelical, leading people to a saving knowledge of the liberator and Savior, Jesus the Christ, as well as political, by speaking truth to power. As Senior Pastor, I attempt to bridge the gap between the church and the academy by seeing my role as pastor/scholar; one foot in the church (St. Paul’s) and the other in the academy (LTSP). As part of our commitment to be evangelical, this fall, the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute two-year certificate program will be on our church campus. Members of our church and neighbors will be able to earn a certificate in either Church Leadership or Christian Ministry. This endeavor will help us to further bridge the gap between the church and the academy. As a part of the prophetic tradition we hold courageous conversations forums at St. Paul’s on challenging issues such as the achievement gap between races, racism, gender equality, sexual orientation, physical disability, and faith.

It is my goal to eradicate the dichotomy between the church and the academy, as well as piety and protest. I hope one day the gap will be removed so we can fully carry out the mission of the church; bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is my passion and calling as a pastor/scholar.

The Rev. Wayne E. Croft, Sr., DMin, PhD, is Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr. Associate Prof. of Homiletics and Liturgics in African American Studies at LTSP.

Dr. Croft and St. Paul’s were profiled recently on Philly.com.

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