Zora Neale Hurston, the preeminent author who would be 123 years old today, once averred that “the Sanctified Church is a protest against the high-brow tendency in Negro Protestant congregations as the Negroes gain more education and wealth.” By “Sanctified Church,” Hurston was referring to the growing constellation of black Holiness and Pentecostal churches that emphasize the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and whose worship culture and Christian spirituality is enthusiastic, ecstatic, countercultural, and at times otherworldly. In a real sense, many in the Sanctified churches sought to preserve the inherent dignity in expressions most noted among the peoples of West Africa who were enslaved in this country. Leaders like Charles Harrison Mason were intentional in keeping the holy dance and shouting as central to the liturgy, a revolt against the assimilationist ways of other black Protestants who imitated Anglophilic respectability and refinement in their services.
More than just about the shouting, the Sanctified Church was a reformation, a call to righteousness and justice within the Church. Reformers like Charles Price Jones, Mason’s contemporary and one-time colleague, believed that the lack of spiritual vitality, biblical ecclesiology, and moral anchoring made black churches deplorable and such reformers prophetically critiqued the status quo, not just of white supremacy, but also among black people. A little more than a century later, the churches that were birthed from this prophetic urgency are now in need of reform and revival.
Though I grew up and have sustained connection with the Baptist church, I was deepened in my faith and nurtured in my ministerial vocation first among Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose deep spiritual insights remain central to my understanding of the Holy Spirit. But maybe more with them than with the Baptists I long saw a need for self-examination (I have a whole lot of critique for Black Baptists, but I’ll save it for a later blog). To be sure, many Pentecostals love the Lord and walk with integrity, but so much of today’s black Pentecostalism is, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
A four paragraph article posted at accordingtochris.com in December caused great controversy, alleging that the typical black church is slave religion. Many people asked for my thoughts about the article. I held my peace, certainly finding many elements of the article unfounded. But, by God’s providence, I was able to find the author’s podcast in which he responded to the criticisms brought about by the article.
Christopher Green, a 38 year old licensed minister in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and creator of accordingtochris.com, gave much needed context to his hyperbolic article, stating that the “typical church” he was referring to was in large measure pointed toward black Pentecostalism. Chris grew up in COGIC, is the son of a COGIC bishop, and presently lives in Memphis, TN, the international headquarters of the Grand Ole Church (which, by the way, has its roots in Jackson and Lexington, MS). Affirming that he loves the church, Chris does go on to say in the podcast that he is deeply exhausted by the hyper-sensationalism and performance elements of black churches he’s attended, and that the miserable and morally bankrupt lives of many churchgoers should be a sign that something is wrong.
In too many black Pentecostal churches, every Sunday the praise team leader, the preacher, and most assuredly folks in the pews want to feel the glory, have chu’ch, sense a mighty move of God, get they praise on, and so on. Chris reminds his listeners that he, like many of them, loves a good shout and ecstatic praise. He goes so far to say that the black church is the “final citadel for our Africanisms,” maintaining that our churches should not only respect, but also preserve and promote, the forms of praise and preaching typically identified with black Pentecostals (and many other black churches). But it’s the shouting and glory-rich emotionalism that becomes exhausting, especially when folks have shouted but then leave the service to return to broken marriages, impoverished communities, domestic abuse, drug use, promiscuity, frivolous consumerism, etc. No change in the sanctified life makes getting our praise on nothing more than Marx’s opiate for the people—a drug that leaves you addicted and searching for the next, and newer, high.
Indeed, like Chris, I love worship where hands are lifted, folks are shouting, and the felt Presence of God is in the place. But I don’t simply want a religion I can feel sometimes. I want a religion that I can think through sometimes and that empowers me to change situations to the glory of God and to the flourishing of our communities. And to do that, we need more than powerful music, charismatic preaching, and a sho’ll nuff good time. We need teaching and strategy and biblical theology and faithful spiritual disciplines. If we’ve been having church for one hundred years in the same community, and the community looks like a favela, and the people are bound to sin and systemic evils, then there’s something wrong with that religion.
This is not only true for many (though not all, of course) Pentecostals, but also many Baptists. As someone who’s Bapticostal (with a lot more thrown into my Gospel gumbo) I lament that so many of our churches are whitewashed tombs, alive in name only, salt that has lost its savor. If I had my way, I’d close a whole bunch of churches in Jackson and throughout Mississippi (and not just the Sanctified kind. I’ve got major beef with these want to be black bourgie religious social clubs that pass for churches too, but, again, that’s another blog).
So, though I think Minister Green’s article was hyperbolic, sensational, and in some ways misleading, I do hear his clarion call for reform. And I pray that a mighty remnant will reply to that call in the words of COGIC’s founder, Bishop C. H. Mason, “Yes, Lord!”
This is how a Bapticostal might do it: