Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s 2015 book Reviving the Black Church feels like a follow-up to his excellent The Decline of African American Theology, published just 8 years earlier. In Reviving…, he expands on the final chapter of the previous volume, offering a prescription for reversing the theological liberalism found within large segments of the historic Black Church. However, his focus in the present work is not merely on orthodoxy, but on orthopraxy as well. He organizes his recommendations under three headings: “Revive by the Word,” “Revive with Godly Leadership,” and “Revive Through Membership and Mission.”
Anyabwile opens with the question: “is the Black Church dead or dying?” Theologians vary, both in the answers they give and in the reasons they provide for those answers. While Anyabwile acknowledges that “‘The Black Church’ really exists as multiple black churches across denominational, theological, and regional lines” (p. 5-6), he recognizes that there are broad patterns of disease and spiritual deadness that need to be addressed, even if doing so will require him to transgress “cultural rules forbidding public critique of the Black Church” (p. 12).
In the first part of the book, he traces the declining centrality of the Bible to the Black Church. African Americans initially adopted an “evangelical hermeneutic [i.e. approach to interpreting the Bible]” which recognized that “the Bible’s main theme is spiritual salvation, culminating in the Person and work of Jesus Christ” and that the “primary matter [of the Bible is] spiritual life” (p. 21). Black Liberation theology and the prosperity gospel later obscured this great truth. Yet all three schools of interpretation have “contributed to the de-centering of the Bible” either by “neglect[ing it],” by “rebell[ing] against it,” or by “misusing it and misquoting it” (p. 25).
The solution to this decay is to re-assert the centrality of the Bible, primarily through expositional preaching, in which a sermon is grounded in the correct interpretation of a particular biblical text and its application to doctrine and Christian living: “When the main point of the text becomes the main point of the sermon, then you have expositional preaching” (p. 41).
The main argument against expositional preaching in the Black Church is that it is not relevant to the black experience. Cleophus J. LaRue states that “[P]owerful black preaching has at its center a biblical hermeneutic that views God as a powerful sovereign acting mightily on behalf of dispossessed and marginalized people” (p. 33) and that “the starting point for the traditional black sermon is … the concrete life experiences of those who make up the listening congregation’ (p. 38). Yet Anyabwile insists that this approach is “needs-based and man-centered rather than text-driven” (p. 38).
In particular, Anyabwile challenges the idea that black preaching is only ‘relevant’ if it focuses on the monolithic ‘black experience’ of oppression. I’ll quote him at length on this issue:
The continuing assumption of universal marginalization across every era of African-American history actually flattens the African-American experience and contributes to the increasing irrelevance of black preaching. What do I mean? The experience of African-Americans in 1830 could be fairly characteristic as near universal enslavement, oppression, and marginalization. Few would deny that. But how should we describe African-Americans in 1930?… Moreover, the 1930s seem like a lifetime ago for African-Americans born around 1980. The experience of 1980s-generation African-Americans is so different from previous generations that a burgeoning number of books dare to argue for a ‘post-Black’ self-understanding… Any monolithic understanding of black experience crumbled long ago under the shifting weight of African-American progress and hard-earned victories…Yet most books published on black preaching continue to argue that the black preacher should assume a context of social and political marginalization similar to that of the 1800s and early 1900s as the starting point for the preaching task. Little wonder that black preaching might be seen as entirely irrelevant to black life today. (p.39-40)
In contrast to an approach that ties relevance to socio-political context, Anyabwile insists that “expositional preaching is relevant because it expounds the always-relevant Word of God… Ezra preaches to exiles – the poor and the oppressed. And yet, He does not preach liberation, politics, social justice or mercy ministries. He preaches the Word clearly and that clear preaching reforms the lives and outlook of the Bible” (p. 60). It is this same attitude that Black preachers (and all preachers) need to adopt today.
Similarly, in Chapter 4 “Recover the Gospel,” Anyabwile argues that liberation theology and prosperity preaching has distorted the true biblical gospel by focusing on social and economic needs rather than on spiritual needs:
The greatest virtue of Black Theology and the prosperity movement is their tendency to ask two excellent questions. Black Theology forces us to consider whether Jesus Christ offers any way of overcoming black oppression. The prosperity movement prompts us to ask whether God wants good for black people. Any thinking, feeling, African-American must surely recognize our interest in those questions… Though these schools of thought raise important questions, they fail to answer the questions biblically… One wonders why Cone, Dollar, and those who hold their positions have not heard the Lord Jesus Himself answer such questions: ‘What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mattt. 16:26 NIV). We can hardly miss the fact that Jesus values the soul of a man well beyond all the riches and benefits this world has to offer… This means the salvation of souls far outranks liberation and prosperity in this life… Many mock this as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ and irrelevant… [But o]nly the evangelical gospel -that old, old story that holds out the hope of eternal life to dying sinners – results in the salvation of souls. (p. 78-79)
The second part of the book addresses the need of the Black Church to “Revive with Godly Leadership” in several different ways.
First, the church needs to recognize that traditional models of lead pastor as “spiritual leader,” “community organizer,” “social worker,” “counselor,” “CEO,” “entrepreneur,” or” motivational speaker” (p. 101-103) lead to serious problems of “secularization and mission drift,” “Superman [syndrome] and burnout,” and “congregational abuse” (p. 104-107). These models take the focus off the pastor’s “primary mission – to preach and teach God’s Word and shepherd the sheep” (p. 104), they “require the pastor to have or develop expertise well beyond biblical requirements or educational experience” (p. 105), and they “open [the church] to overdependence upon the pastor and controlling leadership styles” (p. 106). Anyabwile argues that we need to recapture the biblical qualifications for the role of pastor and his fundamental responsibility: to pray, preach and teach, disciple other teachers, and shepherd the sheep (p. 109-112).
Second, the church needs to restructure its authority in terms of the “two enduring offices [of] elders (pastors) and deacons” whose role is to “[provide] for both the spiritual and physical care and leadership of the congregation” (p. 117). Shared leadership in terms of a “plurality of elders” is also crucial to provide “biblical accountability, balance, burden sharing, and a better representation of the nature of ministry” (p. 122). Anyabwile also makes a digression into the issue of female eldership, providing an overview of the historical and theological arguments in favor of egalitarianism, before arguing strongly in favor of a traditional complementarian understanding of the necessity of an all-male eldership.
As a side note, my favorite passage in the book came from this section. Commenting on Demetrius Williams’ endorsement of egalitarianism on the basis of the “equality of all people before God” and a reconstruction of early Church history, Anywabwile comments that “Williams writes with certainty and clarity, but provides no footnotes, citations, orignial source material or evidence to support his view of history. The entire reconstruction depends on the existence of early Christian communities Williams imagines to be ‘behind’ the text of Scripture.” He drily concludes, “when scholars imagine such groups hidden ‘behind’ the text, those communities happen to think and act a lot like the scholars themselves” (p. 131-132).
Third, churches need to “remove ungodly leaders.” Leaders who have failed need to be removed from ministry, not only to safeguard the congregation but as a moral witness to the world: “the vitality and flourishing of the Black Church depends upon the presence of leaders who ‘exceed who we are’ by living above reproach, keeping an excellent reputation inside and outside the church” (p. 153).
Finally, we should rethink pastor training, investing the local church with the primary responsibility of raising up leaders, limiting the role and scope of seminaries, and holding seminaries accountable to the local church (p. 167-169). In the last two recommentations, Anyabwile is not downplaying the role of formal, seminary training: “the Black Church should not throw the baby of seminary training out with the wash” (p. 169). Rather, he wants to prevent churches from sending students to liberal seminaries that will undermine the church’s mission, rather than strengthening it.
The book’s third part deals with reinvigorating the Black Church’s commitment to membership and missions: “Many African-Americans have been socialized into the Black Church… almost [as] a community right and an early right of passage,” but “unless [a person] is truly born again, [they] are neither a Christian nor a true member of the church” (p. 179). Consequently, the church needs to prioritize discipleship (Chapter 10), church membership and discipline (Chapter 11), the training of godly men (Chapter 12), and its commitment to mission (Chapter 13).
Anyabwile argues that “reclaiming Black men and the Black family” is particularly important because of the social, economic, and cultural obstacles that black men face. He cites Black sociologist William Julius Wilson who, in his book More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, “tells a complex story of a community besieged by racial inequality, concentrated poverty, and family struggles.” Policies such as “redlining, freeway planning and construction, housing market incentives, suburbanization, public housing minimum wage, and conservative fiscal practices” which “may not be race-based in any explicit sense” still have “disparate and disproportional effects on poor ethnic groups including Blacks (p. 214). Wilson also affirms that cultural factors like out-of-wedlock birth and ‘cool-pose’ culture that “promotes the most anomalous models of behavior in urban, lower-class neighborhoods” play a role in family breakdown, unstable marriages, and fatherlessness, albeit not a role as important as structural factors.
The solution to these manifold problems can be found by changing the perspective of black men on the church, changing the church’s perspective on black men, using the social networks of the church to help men find and keep jobs, and fostering healthy marriages and father involvement (p. 218-225). Although Black men occasionally have unfair criticisms of the church (p. 218), Anyabwile also points out that the church can unfairly demonize and alienate Black men: “Anyone who has ever attended a special women’s day or Mother’s day celebration in a black church has likely heard comments that disparage African-American men. Sometimes the comments seem designed to attract an ‘Amen!” or get a quick laugh from the women in attendance… We underestimate the deep spiritual harm that can be done to African-American men by the negative judgments of a church community” (p. 220).
In summary, this book is excellent. My only fear is that people may neglect it due to the presence of “Black Church” in the title. Like his previous work The Decline of the African-American Theology, Reviving the Black Church provides admonitions that are applicable to every church, every denomination, and every Christian because they are rooted in the Bible. Of course, Anyabwile recognizes this truth and mentions it repeatedly, but potential readers may miss this point. Neglect of the Bible, emotionalism, experientialism, poor church polity, leader worship, lax church discipline, and inward-focus is a problem in every church and this book provides solid, biblical approaches to reviving not just the Black Church but the Church universal. May it be so!