Updated: Apr 15
The Right Reverend Designate
Matthew L. Brown +
Howard Thurman, famed theologian, author, educator, civil rights leader and philosopher said, “Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one's own situation so as not to be overcome by them.”
Holy Week 2021 was distinguished by a multiplicity of events and challenges. Holy Week of 2020 was shocking and presented in the zero sum moment of all its tragedy. A year ago, we were adjusting to a global virus along with a synchronized display of awakening and reckoning. Oddly, a year later, a presidential election, special election and a new administration later, we are faced with similar challenges with a glimmer of optimism that by the end of the year we will be better positioned to manage this chaos. Holy Week 2021 provided for me, as well as other Black church leaders, the opportunity to experience the passion of Christ in the context of our own epistemology and spirituality. I found myself needing to deal with the realities of my own life and faith situation.
I was interviewed by a doctoral candidate for their dissertation, engaged by emerging leaders in the living room of their podcast, and immersed in intentional and robust conversations with colleagues and fellow thought leaders about the state of the Black church. Holy Week by design is a season of philosophical, theological and introspective reflection as Christians (within the context of our blackness) reflect, relive and rehearse the passion of Christ.
The COVID-19 global virus, America’s racial reckonings, congressional and state political dysfunction, random mass shootings, Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes and continued Republican voter suppression, in addition to the trial of ex-police officer and alleged murderer of George Floyd, placed Holy Week for me in symbolic, demonstrative, and purposeful spaces. Jesus died several thousand years ago with the world in a state of confusion. Roman-Judaeo conflict was in a state of flux and human rights suppression was overlooked. Senseless murdering and insurrection against the government was in plain sight while the religious entities of that day conspired to kill innocence with governmental consent.
I have been asked time and time again, in light of our current context and our religious observation of this sacred time, “What is the state of the Black church, what would be the response of the church, given the plethora of challenges both internally and externally, and how do we navigate through these nuances which shape these present threats to the life, sustenance and survivability of our Black church today?”
As I deal with the realities of my own thoughts, thinking deeply and reflectively as to why we seem to ask the same principled questions, decades removed from the civil rights struggle… centuries removed from enslavement and colonialism, I have crafted an experiential retort.
As it relates to the question of the Black church, I am not sure what the answer may be. My years of ministerial, theological, ontological and spiritual investment is leading me to a personal resolve, in that, I am not sure there is an answer. Theologians, Biblicists, church professionals and academicians, who are more in depth than I will ever be, will opine and diagnose the symptoms and causations of the Black church, but cannot answer with specificity the question of Generation Z. The conundrum of any applied reason to the obvious inquiry is, that if answered, it raises additional questions, and unquestionably, it unleashes more disappointment and pain.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” James Baldwin
Baldwin’s personal and political outlook, in most cases, mirrors the rage of Black church goers who for generations placed incalculable stock and trade in the idea of a spiritual creation extended to the earth for the purpose of transforming the world into a counterculture of Christianity. Imagine the internal rage and stinging disappointment to the ancestors and architects of, what is called, the Black church that could rightly be charged for theological omission and religious fraud. Explaining the Great Commission’s mission to an actively woke generation will sound woefully confusing and irresponsible.
Generation Z will ask what were you told to do with the church? What did you do? Why was it created, and why doesn’t it work like it was designed? Who can honestly face the raw inquiry of today’s teenagers and explain the purpose, context and historicity of Jesus’ church from Holy Week up until today? Will the church of the enslaved, suppressed, marginalized, politically anemic and economically struggling address their needs of having a thousand likes with social media but not having one friend?
We must, for this generation and the generations to come, be brave or naive enough to redefine and qualify for Generation Z what the church is, specifically the nuance, culture, tradition and history of the Black church. This is the non-church going, lacking church experience or memories generation who has never heard of Charles Harrison Mason, Charles Price Jones, Richard Allen, Henry McNeal Turner or William J. Seymour, along with a host of admirable women like Lizzie Woods Robinson, Lillian Brook Coffey and Charlene McKinnis, who helped pioneer the Black church.
These screen-agers are far removed from our lofty fluidity and nostalgia of bygone-eras. We must, as Thurman asserts, deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.
Today’s generational seeker has a much more refined biblical and theological pallet. Decentralization of ministry content is their church attendance. Purpose driven mindfulness is their credo worship. Capture their attention by addressing the world’s needs and showing up for the world’s ills is their mission statement. Living in circles (community) is their preferred missionary expression, not filling pews. They will not church at the guard rail; they would rather jump the rail and dive off the cliff into the creativity of God (which produces results) than attend services which stimulates emotions, but doesn’t activate the soul.
I propose that the church is a spiritual theory, experiment and agent created as an extension of the Father, manifested in the bodily Godhead of Jesus Christ, for the purpose of redemptive transformation of the world. I equally believe that, as God created human-kind in Genesis 1:27, then formed man in Genesis 2:7, and ultimately breathed on what He had formed to activate what he created, similarly Jesus creates the church from revelatory truth (Matthew 16:18), forms or houses it within His disciples (Matthew 16:19), and ultimately breathes on it on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
Likewise, I believe Jesus follows the pattern of creation by acknowledging that the revelation of Him being the Christ is similar to the creation of the church and underscores my theoretical definition of the spirituality of the church as spirit housed in unlearned and unsophisticated bodies awaiting the breath of Pentecost to activate them for the purpose of redemptive transformation. My theoretical definition is devoid of race, ethnicity, social, economic or geographical meaning, and it’s meaningless that it is meaningless. The Church, like created Human, is spiritual!
After we are bold enough to consider the possibility of seeing the church differently, we can, in turn, expect the church to function differently. If the Black church is spiritual, then there must be an expectation of it to be spiritual within its context of culture, anthropology, theology and history!