#BlackChurchesMatter

 

June was a tragicomic month for black churches. The racially motivated terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine saints dead and countless others in mourning. Soon thereafter reports of church arsons throughout the South flooded social media. Though some of these church burnings were allegedly ignited by electrical fires, there is still the eerie sense that black churches are under attack. Then, again in South Carolina, women pastors of AME churches received death threat letters. All of these events happened within days of each other. The last two weeks of June were tragic for black churches.

But these tragic moments have renewed interests in defining and defending the history and contemporary significance of churches predominated by black Christians. For one, the fact that so much attention has been placed on AME churches should remind us of how that denomination was established. Free blacks praying at the altar of St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were thrown out of the sanctuary because of the color of their skin. Prior to that experience these freed blacks engaged with religious zeal in helping their people with spiritual, social, and material welfare through the Free African Society. That zeal was greatly emboldened after the loveless scene that occurred at St George’s. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born praying on its knees and called Christian Africans to stand up for “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit our Comforter, humankind our  family” in the face of idol of racism.

The AME tradition wasn’t alone in reforming the Church in America. Movements like the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and the Church of God in Christ contributed to protests against racism and religious drift. Sometimes these movements were formed to address missionary and educational needs for Africans in America and in the Motherland. Others came into being as protests within the black church tradition, calling churches to holiness of life even as they fought for justice in the nation.

To be sure, the term “black church” is grossly misleading. Though it’s shorthand for those churches and collection of churches led, founded by and largely serving black communities, the term can obscure the intrinsic, inherent, and dynamic theological, cultural, and social diversity within and between churches so called. For instance, a Church of God in Christ in rural Mississippi may be very different from an urbane AME church in Connecticut. Together these churches exist in creative tension, offering the Body of Christ accents and distinctives that nourish the global Church’s identity and mission.

Usually these debates happen within the holy nation within the nation. The black church is often seen as a subculture maybe relevant during Black History Month. But since running for and being elected to the office of President, Barack Obama has brought the black church debate into the mainstream at least twice. During his 2008 campaign then Senator Obama had to respond to a soundbite from his now former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. The black church and black liberation theology were taken up in discourse around the dinner table and in front of the TV scene following Wright’s 15 minutes of defamation and Obama’s initial defense of and later distancing from Pastor Wright. The uninitiated questioned the theological integrity of black churches and the validity of their Christianity. Others still defended the black church’s social and political witness during the Civil Rights movement, giving little attention to the pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the church that are seemingly irrelevant for those who don’t have time for old time religion. Though fruitful in many ways, the national debate around the black church that extended from 2008 to about 2010 was reactionary, stereotyped, and in many ways unhelpful.

Most recently President Obama has again stepped into the conversation about black churches with his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The funeral itself and the President’s garce message (along with his extemporaneous singing of “Amazing Grace”) were seen voyeuristically by cable news pundits and black academics alike. Everyone tried to interpret the moment without actually asking the people present, especially the bereaved family, how they received that moment in time. Nevertheless, once again the nation tried to sort out the unique liturgical and theological content and context of a black church and its slain. I’m not sure if we did any better in 2015 than we did in 2008. But I am glad that through the tragedies of June has come a brighter sun shining light on black churches and why they matter still.

Hopefully the ensuing months will reinvigorate our appreciation and challenge of the black church tradition, in all its diversity, so that present and future generations can know the God of our weary years through it. We indeed need revival and reform so that God may be glorified through us and that the nation receive again, as always, our prophetic witness. And as we check the nation, let’s also call ourselves to repentance.

We cannot miss this moment to remind ourselves and to tell the world that #BlackChurchesMatter.

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Mt Helm Baptist Church at 180: A Time to Turn Around

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“Let us as pastor and members of Mount Helm in this day of religious compromise and retreat, hold fast that faith once delivered to the Saints, and with renewed fervor lift up the name of Him who said “And I, If I be Lifted Up… Will Draw All Men unto Me.”    — Pastor T. B. Brown, 1975

This year Mt Helm Baptist Church turns 180 years old. Established in 1835, Jackson’s oldest historically black congregation traces our genesis back to the basement of First Baptist Church-Jackson, where our enslaved ancestors worshipped under the watchful gaze of their overseers. As with many black believers who came to trust in the Lord Jesus, these Christians discerned that the Gospel was liberating and life-giving, no matter what heresy was being preached to them by their slavers. This Gospel gave them saving grace and unfettered hope in the face of the systemic sins of race-based oppression. When emancipation arrived in 1865, these baptized believers founded an autonomous Baptist church named in the honor of Thomas and Mary Helm, the white Presbyterian benefactors who donated to the church our first property. Amidst the terrors of white supremacy, God kindly demonstrated divine providence in the days when hope unborn was about to die. Intriguingly Jackson’s most historic black Baptist congregation is named for a white Presbyterian family, a reality attested by the struggles for identity and ministry that ensued over the nearly two centuries of our church’s life and witness. And yet, 180 years later, the God of our weary years and silent tears keeps making ways out of no way.

sankofa_birdsmall1The Akan people speak of the Sankofa bird, a mythical creature that looks backwards as it flies forward. In this anniversary year Mt Helm has been called to look back at our past and retrieve the lessons necessary for the future. These lessons have been both positive reminders of the good we have done in God’s strength, and challenging reminders that we are often called to repent for the ways in which we have failed to give God the glory. These are lessons that still warrant our attention.

One of the great lessons I have learned is that Mt Helm did so much with so little during the Reconstruction era. From 1865 to the turn on the century, our recently manumitted predecessors had a spiritual vitality that not only prepared them for heaven, but caused them to seek a little heaven on earth. Through fervent prayer and collective economics, they made the Gospel visible through missions to Africa and by housing for a few years what we now know as Jackson State University. Evangelism and education served as the foundation of this church’s mission, a foundation sometimes forgotten throughout the subsequent years.

During the 20th century church fights and church splits led to the birth of new congregations and denominations. Times of spiritual lukewarmness and missional drift marked much of this long history. Sadly, these situations clouded the good pastors and members did in the name of the Lord. To this day, Mt Helm inspires both pride and lament in persons who know about our congregations more recent checkered past. To be sure, the last thirty years have added great consternation to this complex reputation. Short term pastorates, lasting three years on average, has led members of the Jackson community and throughout the nation to joke about our instability. Since 1977 Mt Helm has had ten pastors. I make the tenth pastor in that parade, the twenty-third of all the pastors combined. In that same space of time comparable congregations like Farish Street, Cade Chapel, and New Hope (Watkins Drive) Baptist Churches have had one or two pastors.

In his excellent book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, church consultant Thom Rainer rightly points out that serial short pastoral tenures is one of twelve signs that a church might be sick and even dying. When I came to Mt Helm in 2010 I arrived as a young preacher full of the Holy Ghost, vision, and a Duke Divinity School education.  I was naïve. I believed that simply preaching the Word, loving the people, and setting a course for transformation was all that was needed for a church that confessed its desire for reform. I soon discovered that this wasn’t enough for a congregation that was in decline for more than two decades. Change would not come quickly and not without a fight. Though most of the members knew things would only get worse if positive changes didn’t occur, a vocal minority resisted spiritual leadership at every turn. By my third year I was discouraged and dismayed. On the verge of burnout I acknowledged that I could not do this alone and after much prayer felt led to go to a ministry context where my gifts would be appreciated.

Some may wonder why I went back. What changed between then and now to lead me to believe this time would be different? Much prayer, intense talks with mentors and colleagues, and a transparent and truthful series of conversations with Mt Helm’s leadership and membership opened me up to the faith that it’s not too late for Mt Helm to turn around. Too many moments in the church’s history have demonstrated that when Mt Helm repents and turns back to God, awesome things happen. Since returning in January I see a greater responsiveness to God’s call to us. A different spirit of worship, fellowship, discipleship, stewardship, and leadership have marked our time together so far.

Yes, offering transformational leadership to an established church is rather difficult for a young pastor. In my first three years I often felt like what our enslaved ancestors must have experienced: I was serving God’s people but did so under the gaze of some overseers who monitored what I said and did. Appropriate checks and balances are important and welcome; but terrorizing pastoral authority because a few really prefer a social club rather than a New Testament church wasn’t the Christian thing to do. But I complied with that enslavement at times. I felt shackled by a heavy burden. But after leaving for Alcorn State University God reminded me of the liberating and life-affirming Gospel that I have been called to preach and embody. And after spending too much time trying to please people, I chose to please God. The Lord liberated me on the Reservation beneath the shade of giant trees. The yoke is broken. The chains are off. I am free to lead as I am led by Christ in the power of the Spirit.

So this year, with God’s help, I believe Mt Helm will turn around. It won’t be easy and will take some time. But to everything God has appointed a season. Through faith I trust this is our season for revitalization, reform, and renewal. By turning back to God I believe we will turn back to what matters most to us as a ministry. We will keep the main thing the main thing and do what brings God glory. As former pastor T.B. Brown eloquently stated forty years ago, ours too is a time of compromise and retreat and we need Mt Helm to be a church that makes the Gospel visible. In the best of times evangelism and education, missionary zeal and community-focus, spiritual depth and biblical justice marked us. By returning to these values Mt Helm’s latter days will be greater than our former ones.

I pray that you join us on this journey toward God’s preferred future for us. We remember that we exist to the glory of God so that through us changed lives can change the world. This old ship of Zion has had many passengers and we still have room for more. May the Holy Spirit fill our sails and propel us to deeper ministry in the Name of Jesus Christ.

“Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord[.]” Acts 3:19 (HCSB) 

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Keep Moving to the Promised Land: Reflections on My 2010 MLK Day of Unity Speech

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Monday I had the good pleasure of serving as the keynote speaker for my hometown’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Unity Celebration. The day began at noon with a gathering on the courthouse grounds for old time religion and reflection on our decades old stride towards freedom. I stood in a crowd of blacks folks, with a couple of whites and a Latino for good measure, and imagined that most of them were old enough to not have to know King through history books and video clips. They swayed with the rhythm of the bluesy Gospel singing, possibly feeling that in some way we’ve already overcome.

After the preacher gave a fiery message (in that cadence so essential to most Southern black Baptists) about King being an anointed drum major, we marched under pleasant skies to Hazlehusrt High School to culminate the weekend’s celebratory events. As I marched from the courthouse to the high school from which I graduated in 2000, I thought about how far we have come as a people, as a nation. I thought too about how far God had brought me and how humble I remain for those who helped make me the man that I am. Flanked by preachers and everyday folks who may have marched with Martin, I felt the power of their past witness to the powers. There would be no ferocious dogs and fire hoses, however; those who looked on as we marched waved affectionately and cheered us on. There was no clear and present danger, just a brief reenactment of history that swallowed me up in nostalgia.

Once we arrived at the high school auditorium where the service was to be held, my mind was flooded with teenage memories from a decade ago. I walked into the building reminded of how I once walked those halls five days a week. What’s more, I recalled that it was more than a decade ago when I delivered my first public oration. It had taken place on that campus during a black history month program held in my Junior year. I remember not wanting to do it. My oral communications teacher asked me—no, told me— that I was to do a Dr King speech during the assembly. When I objected she quickly informed me that this was not up for debate and handed me a tape of some of King’s most memorable speeches. I was frightened at the prospect of speaking in front of hundreds of my colleagues. I was much too shy, too socially anxious, to want to do it. But I pushed beyond my trepidation and did the speech. Not wanting to revisit the “Dream” speech, one we are nauseatingly familiar with, I did parts of his “Drum Major Instinct” and “Mountaintop” speeches. The parts of those speeches where he made reference to his death most interested me. I wanted us to remember not simply the Dreamer who went to DC, but the courageous and complicated prophet who would ultimately lay down his life without any hopes of immediate resurrection.

Memories gave me pause. When I later stood to deliver that afternoon’s keynote address, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of all that had brought me to that moment. I never shall forget.

Much like I did several years ago, I sought to move the collective imagination of those gathered from the preacher who dreamed out loud in the shadow of Lincoln Memorial, to the anxiety-ridden, weary-bodied messenger whose mind was preoccupied with the Vietnam war, American poverty, global revolutions, and his own death. I turned to the ecumenical and cosmopolitan King, the man who forsook the limitedness of being a black civil rights leader in favor of being a prophet for justice everywhere; the dreamer who began to wonder if his dream had become a nightmare; the weeping prophet who prayed for yellow folks running from napalm bombs, brown folks struggling as migrant workers, and white folks burdened by Appalachian poverty. This King was not simply the property of black folks, nor was his message simply for the liberation of the great grandchildren of enslaved Africans. This King was one that sought to let a Jesus ethic, a love ethic, a soul force permeate his being and reach out to the least of these everywhere, regardless of color, country, or creed.

I took them from the dream to the mountaintop.

April 3, 1968, the night before his martyrdom, the Baptist minister stood in a Pentecostal pulpit in Memphis and proclaimed that he moved from dream to vision. King shared with the congregation at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ that there would be some difficult days ahead but that God had taken him, that prophet like Moses, to the mountaintop. There in a vision he surveyed the Promised Land he would not be able to enter. Nevertheless, he was certain that we as a people would get there. There had been many victories to that point—the bus boycotts, the passage of civil rights legislation. But these societal and legal highlights were not the Promised Land. Egypt was in the distance but the people were at Canaan’s edge.

Forty-something years have gone by since that time and Martin’s dream has been deferred but never denied. Sometimes a nightmare, sometimes seemingly a untopian fantasy. However, much good has happened. Much in our political and social world has changed for the better. America is greater now because of the righteous actions of a creative minority determined to keep striding toward freedom, toward the Promised Land. And many would say, have said, that the election of Barack Obama was entry into the Promised Land. The Joshua generation had finally arrived.

Yet we know better. Yes, maybe we’re in the Promised Land. But there are some giants in this land; there are fortified cities in this land. With two wars, a global economic crisis, ten percent domestic unemployment, devastation in Haiti, we still have some difficult days ahead. All is not well. The Promise has come with many problems.

And yet, hope unfettered flies upward. Truth crushed to the earth rises again. And we must keep moving forward. No more time for dreaming, time to make reality. Giants do die, Jericho walls do fall, and victory can be ours, but this does not happen simply by waiting on a president to take action or a preacher to bring fire down from heaven. We must keep moving forward. Though we’ve grown tired of moving and would rather celebrate those who moved before us, we can’t stop now. We must keep moving forward. We can’t grow weary, lest all our marching, lobbying, protesting, praying, fasting, preaching, voting, loving, and living have been in vain. We must keep moving forward. As in King’s day, there are still wars and rumors of wars, poverty is still profound in the wealthiest nation on earth, and people are still judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. Much has changed, yes, but all is not right with the world. After the celebrations, after days of unity, we must still arise and keep moving, lest we die as dreamers yearning for a promised place we can only enter when we choose to, by all means, keep moving forward.

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Too Busy to Pray: The Freedom for Pastoral Ministry

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There have been a few writers who maintain that pastors are generalists. We must do many things and hopefully do them well. This is especially true for pastors in African American congregations and communities. It has long been assumed that the pastor is to be present and productive in every way imaginable; the pastor is to be preacher, teacher, social justice advocate, counselor, surrogate parent, mentor, business-minded, politically connected, a managerial genius… You get the point. The problem is that pastors who are all of these things and more are so spread out that ineffectiveness and burnout often follow. To be sure, pastors should be concerned with a whole host of things, but we should never be too busy to pray and be in the presence of God.

Pastors are not professionals, if by ‘professional’ we assume the emulation of corporate images of the CEO and manager. This does not mean that there are not things pastors and churches can learn from business cultures; rather it means that the pastor’s ultimate identity is not grounded in Wall Street but the Way of Jesus. E.M. Bounds is right when he says, “The preacher … is not a professional man; his ministry is not a profession; it is a divine institution, a divine devotion.” Thus, the pastorate, properly understood, is not defined as a profession but as a vocation.

As a vocation, a calling, the pastorate is by its very nature “full-time”. There is not a moment when the faithful pastor’s head, heart, and hands are not aligned to the whole counsel of God and to the service of the Lord’s Church. But this should not be misconstrued as being applicable to some kind of professional context where the pastor is always sitting in the office and running errands. There are many men and women in ministry who cannot do this for varying yet legitimate reasons. But congregations should never create and expect demands that take the pastor from prayerful preparation or for family life.

In order to do ministry most effectively, pastors in the 21st century must live out this vocation as freely as possible. I do not mean that pastors should do no work. Indeed pastors are very busy people and we do much more than preach a 20 or 40 minute sermon on Sunday. Because pastoral ministry requires so much from the pastor, the pastor should not neglect the most important and central elements of his or her authority and action. Acts 6 shares the calling of the first deacons. They emerge due to pastoral necessity: the apostles must be free for ministry of the Word and prayer. To be sure, tending to other matters was of importance, but the apostles invited the deacons to share in the pastoral call as to protect themselves from burn out and from displacing the primacy of prayer and preaching. This echoes Jethro’s admonition to Moses in Exodus 18 about the need for delegated leadership in assisting Moses in his pastoral work.

So in order to be free to do this most glorious work, pastors cannot be inundated with unproductive busyness; and the pastor must be free for full time ministry to fight full time devils. Pastoral ministry is spiritual warfare, selfless service, and sanctified life in the world. When churches free their pastors to do this eternal business, they and the larger community benefit greatly and are blessed richly.

In order for pastors in the 21st century to commit wholly to this work, they need congregations that cheerfully and generously support the pastor’s need for sanctified time, protecting it earnestly, and to take care of the pastor’s material needs. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (cf. 1 Cor 9:3-18)

H.B. Charles, a Baptist pastor in Jacksonville, FL, may be the most eloquent on this subject when he writes:

“Members love pastors who are always available. But it is not good if he is always available. He will be more help to you if he shuts himself up to pray and study. You want a pastor who has something to say, rather than someone who has to say something. This requires times to prepare. Give it to him.”

In a very real sense, this is what full-time ministry looks like when seen primarily through the lens of Scripture. All other work and witness the pastor offers flows from this.

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God’s Trombones: The Black Church’s Certain Sound in Uncertain Times (BTLI Reflection Part IV)

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Me with Revs. Neichelle Guidry-Jones and Akeem Walker

Is there a word from the Lord?

Indeed there is a word from the Lord and as God’s trombones we must play a certain and sure sound. In a time of extreme fatherlessness, abject poverty, epidemic teen births and sexually transmitted diseases, inadequate healthcare, failing public schools, thriving private prisons, crumbling urban infrastructures, astronomical debt, moral decay and decadence, etc., the church has the unique mission of being salt and light in a dying and dark world. But how are we to do this? How are we to remain faithful to Jesus and to his commission? How do we turn to the Holy Spirit for power that goes beyond black or white power, or political power? How do we remain the Church, not just another organization or institution doing good? How do we offer something uniquely theological in a world that slowly drifts from any notions of the supernatural and the spiritual?

These were some of the questions we entertained, wrestling with them through the topics of Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), Theodicy (the doctrine of suffering and evil), and Christian Leadership (applied theological ethics). How does the revelation of Jesus Christ, to whom we bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, speak to the collective suffering of the black experience, and how do we in the 21st century lead the Church in leading America toward liberation?

To gesture toward answering this question, let me speak no longer in the plural but in the singular. Though Cone was a necessary critique of dominating whiteness in the American academy and church, we must note that he was not the first “black liberation theologian.” In a certain sense the black church’s genesis is that of black liberation theology. Indeed the black church isn’t monolithic and generalized definitions are harder to pin down. But it must be noted that all the independent, predominantly black churches and denominations that emerged during slavery and de jure Jim Crow were protest movements that defied the political theo-logic of American racism. What is stunning is how enslaved Africans could discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy in the preaching and teaching of their slavers. Jesus as the hermeneutical key to understanding the faith led them to see the Christ as a co-sufferer; that by his incarnation and crucifixion the King of Glory elected to live like a slave and to in all ways suffer like us. In this way a profoundly Christocentric theology emerged, one in which Jesus was best friend, bright hope, a way out of no way, the Righteous Judge, a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. In Jesus our ancestors saw the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage as somehow their story too. They read themselves into the biblical text with sanctified imaginations that helped them through this barren land on their way to Canaan’s edge. The God that delivered Israel was their God, a God for them. Didn’t our God deliver Daniel? Then why not every one?

This ethic of liberation preached in coded tongues in the hush arbors was passed on to later generations who would break free both physically and institutionally from an apostate church that refused to break its idols. Who the Son set free was free indeed! And since Jesus lifted them, why should they be bound, even at the altar? This protest movement was iconoclastic; it broke the very racial imagination that sought to dominate black flesh. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many others had charted the way toward a Christianity that was liberating. Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Daniel Payne, William Colley, Charles Price Jones, William Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, and countless others took the Gospel torch and continued to run the race set before them.

Some scholars have erroneously thought that the prophetic element of the black church died following abolition and resurged under the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and then died again in the so-called post-civil rights era. Nothing is furthest from the truth. The black church in diverse and divergent ways, with a complicated history, has persevered in greater and lesser degrees as a prophetic conscience for the nation. It has shown up in different ways. For many black Baptists, the prophetic content of the preaching and living was in its missions to Africa and in the commitment to education of the masses. For the Pentecostals, it was retained in Mason’s insistence that black worship affirmed its embodied nature in the face of phobia toward all things African and in his pacifism that led him to be imprisoned for conscientious objection. Black Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals were preeminent in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. And many black churches from the 1970s forward have invested time, talent, and treasure in missions, charity, justice advocacy, and comprehensive community development efforts.

Understanding this will help move beyond the stereotypes made of the black church by scholars who rarely if ever attend and are committed to black churches. When Eddie Glaude, a religion professor at Princeton University, wrote a scathing eulogy for the black church published online by the Huffington Post, it raised appropriate questions about the state of black churches while also igniting ire from those in the black church community who have dedicated themselves to the transformative and tedious work of redemption in the forgotten areas of the American Empire.
To be sure, the black church isn’t beyond criticism. So much has been left undone and so much must yet be done. Too many have succumbed to newer heresies of the Prosperity doctrine, secular humanism, etc. But the black church, as a sociological phenomenon born of theological necessity and urgency, is still a gift of prophetic sight for our country. What must be done in deeper ways, especially for Baptists and Pentecostals, is to think more critically, more theologically, about the relationships between Christian doctrine and Christian duty, between our worship and our witness, in this present age. Too many of our churches are maintaining and not thriving, therefore not able to contribute distinctively and daringly to the context of liberation. In order to have a clear and audible voice, we have to do the hard work of constructive theology. In other words, we must highlight or create a theology of liberation that speaks to our context. I am convinced that one needn’t turn first to Cone and others for such insights. Even though they are helpful, I believe that our traditions already have within them wonderful theological and ethical resources for impacting our communities. After we have done this we can come to the advocacy and academic tables as equals, learning from them but also contributing worthy reflections and strategies that must be included if we are to change our society holistically.

Moreover, we must move beyond narrow sectarianism and denominationalism. We of course have our differences but we will never know how much we have in common if we continue to fight those played out turf and tribal battles. We are moving toward a post-denominational age when myriad Americans aren’t concerned about our brand religion but about how Jesus can really transform their lives for the better. There is much different churches can learn from each other and ultimately work together collaboratively.

Now that I’m back from Princeton, I have renewed zeal for the unique contributions of theologians and churches to human flourishing. We are seemingly recapitulating the story of the 1950s and 60s. May the Church be present as it was then.

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