Theology The Arts

African-Americans, Culture, and Reformed Churches

Lisa Robinson

Recently, John Frame’s page on Facebook posted this question;

Why are there so few African-Americans and Latinos in the PCA? Or in any Reformed church, for that matter? This is, I think, an important question. The Church of Jesus Christ is to embrace all nations, as God fulfills in Jesus his promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3, Matt. 28:19). This does not mean that each congregation must have a quota of members from every people-group, but it does mean that the church as a whole should reach out to everybody.

I can’t speak for Latinos, but for African-Americans I suspect this might have something to do with it:

This video suggests that cultural preferences play a significant role in church affiliation for African-americans, even at the expense of questionable theology and church practice. And yes, it is true that as long as we affiliate with churches that we find culturally compatible, the sad reality is that is that Reformed churches don’t really stand a chance. My own journey to the PCA involved sacrificing cultural preferences amid a primarily white congregation although there is a small multi-cultural presence. While it has been a rich exchange for Christ-centered worship, I know that the cultural gap is huge for many African-Americans. Though it varies somewhat, Reformed worship is not only foreign but a difficult pill to swallow in most cases.

I came across this insightful article from Dr. Anthony Bradley that he wrote a couple of years ago (there’s also a powerful video that is worth watching). He cites the abysmal percentage of African-Americans in the PCA and pretty much concludes that the bridge may not be wide enough to raise the percentage significantly. He states,

I guess my central question is why do the conservative Presbyterians (OPC, EPC, PCA, etc.) seem surprised to hear that they probably will never have a lot of blacks? What do they assume about themselves that makes that sound discouraging? What is it about black American culture that is being ignored that should not make this surprising? There are reasons that the PC(USA) doesn’t have many blacks either and there’s really no reason to think that the conservatives are going to trump those percentages. Briefly here’s why: (1) Presbyterians tend to be cultural elitists (and turning black folks into cultural elitists in a culture of white privilege is not sustainable) and (2) black culture (and most of American culture, for that matter) thrives in hierarchical organizational structures. Therefore, black churches that thrive either have episcopal structures (like black Methodism, COGIC, etc.) or have Baptist-like ecclesiology.

He raises some good points. What makes Reformed worship so rich liturgically and theologically also works against welcoming participation from black culture. As I understand it, not all Reformed churches are committed to the regulative principle (there is disagreement in the PCA). The conservative nature of worship is not all that inviting and can have an elitist air even if it’s just perceived that way. Given the race relations in this country and the dismissal of blacks (historically) with the accompanying assumption of capitulation to white privilege, there is most likely a reluctance to sign up. So while it may be true that cultural preferences represent a barrier to participation, we can only blame cultural preferences so much. These are huge hurdles to overcome.

But this makes the last sentence of Frame’s statement so crucial when he says “but it does mean that the church as a whole should reach out to everybody”. I think the only way that the percentage of African-Americans will increase in the PCA and other Reformed churches are intentional outreach by the congregations. As long as they are perceived as elitist white churches, they will generally be avoided. I am truly grateful that I landed a church where the pastor has a huge heart for outreach in the diverse community we are situated in. The love of God and neighbor is vividly present. But prior to his arrival three years ago, the church set a rather exclusionary tone with respect to the surrounding community.

This is not the way church should be. The work of Christ abolished the hostility of ethnic/racial differences on the cross and his resurrection provides hope of gospel-centered multi-culturalism. An eschatological picture of the kingdom, with every tribe, tongue and nation worshipping together, should compel us to make that as much a reality today where everyone sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.

17 thoughts on “African-Americans, Culture, and Reformed Churches

  1. Bill

    Hi Tyshan,

    I’m not sure if you will get a notification of this comment but do you mind letting me know the name of your home church in Dallas? I have been searching for a church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that has both sound theology and will welcome me for a while. I am not looking for predominately Black church per say but rather one in which I will be accepted as a fellow member.

  2. Tyshan

    I know I fit this mold. I go to a baptist church with very sound theology ( My pastor is a DTS grad). I struggled all through college attending predominantly white churches and being one of 3 blacks in my campus ministry. Once I graduated I never looked back. There are plenty of sound black churches. I found one in Orlando, FL…(the pastor is from Dallas and a DTS grad) and I came back to my home church here in Dallas. I hate that black church is associated with bad theology because that’s really not the case. I havent pursued a reformed church, probably wont I do have a friend who did and she is growing but she left Tony Evans church for a reformed church and that was mostly based on wanting to be apart of a small church. All in all this is a great article and is true at least for me in my experience. I have definitely had, “assimilate or be ostracized moments” in my quest to be apart of a church with sound theology with good doctrine that is outside my culture.

  3. Riley

    The Baptists and Methodists brought in a lot of black folk into their folds. How did they do it?

  4. Evan

    Lisa thanks for this article. I think one thing missing from the discussion though might be the simplest explanation for the cultural divide, and that is simply that African Americans are much more demonstrative than white people. Because of this factor black people regularly enjoy shouting amen, clapping, and generally expressing themselves openly in church while their white counterparts not so much. White churches, regardless of theology can feel stodgy, and uptight to a black person because of that factor. Growing up as a white person in all black Pentecostal church, I frequently heard the refrain, “White folks just don’t know how to have church!” Although it was always stated kind of tongue-in-cheek I remember feeling the same way until I appreciated that white people simply bring their behavioral proclivities into the church regardless of their theology. Of course add the RPW and that takes it up a notch. Just my two cents.

  5. Jaiart

    Great article, having just become Christian I can say that I completely agree. I ran from Christianity due to the “cultural” influences and theology of old line black churches. I went on a long journey through atheism etc… Then finally found Christ and reform theology.

  6. jeffwiesner

    I would love to read the post on your struggle, but the link doesn’t seem to be working.

  7. Stephen

    I think you are correct. I think it is correct on all sides Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. There needs to be a bridge on all sides. Also there are some in the south that are seeking to do what you speak of in AL. I don’t know where you are but I will be praying that those changes are sought there as well.

  8. Stephen

    I understand. In Bradley’s quoted it seemed as though he was speaking of ecclesiology rather soteriology. Therefore, I don’t think that can be applied to a reformed church. PCA may be one of the only distinctively reformed denominations, but historically Baptists were reformed as were Methodists. Thus focus on a denomination may not be a fruitful footing to take just because that may cause unnecessary lines of division. Once again I don’t believe liturgy makes a church reformed. BUt i do agree that the order of worship has to be biblical (which can be in any denomination). Also there is no black reformed denomination but churches which are reformed in other denominations such as National and Southern Baptists. I know one Pastor in the National Baptist who is trying to see through with what you wrote about reaching many people in that denomination with the doctrines of Grace. Yes the percentage is small but that is the case with reformed conservative across the board. Which is why I appreciate your last point in the article about outreach because that is very necessary.

  9. Daniel Quarells

    There may be large elephant in the room that has gone unnoticed. That elephant is racism. The roles have reversed from years ago when blacks desired to attend predominantly white churches, but were forbidden. My modern and southern experience is that many blacks do not desire multi-cultural worship. The experience may differ in Compton or Ontario, but in the Deep South many blacks simply won’t attend a church with “too many white folk”, regardless of theology. Many congregations of PCA and others desire that fellowship and have set up events and programs to reach out to minority communities, with only limited success. How often do you hear of COGIC or other black churches creating programs or events to specifically reach out to predominantly white communities? It may happen, but it is rare. Actually, many sermons in some black churches are so tailored to black culture that they are offensive to people of other cultures. I think that regardless of efforts to dissolve white priviledge mindsets or stem the musical cultural divide, some black churches will remain segregated until God gives them a heart to spread to gospel to all people groups, including whites.

  10. Lisa Robinson

    Stephen, yes that does make sense. I don’t think of the order of service as distinctive, but the categories through which Reformed theology is applied that is distinctive to the Reformed tradition. So I don’t necessarily see at as high vs low church. Also, my definition of a Reformed church is one from a distinctive Reformed denomination and not necessarily one that professes Reformed theology. Note Dr. Bradley’s reference to specific denominations in his quote that I cited. That’s what I’m thinking about but that may be limiting on my part. Having spent several years in Bible churches, I know that there are those with varying Reformed beliefs in leadership but it does not necessarily guide liturgy of the church. But it will guide the theology of the church. In terms of black Reformed churches (meaning a specific denomination), I don’t know that they exist though I know some have a substantial representation. Overall, however the percentage is so small.

  11. Stephen

    That helps me understand your point of view as does your other comment. I think however, that it can be dangerous to think that worship is actually reformed. I think there are actually some Arminian churches that have a similar order of service. I think that we should focus on the soteriology rather than the type of worship because a reformed church in the suburbs and in the inner city are going to be different. What you are speaking of seems to be more High church worship rather than reformed. If it would be helpful I could name and send you many traditional black churches or churches that are not high church which are thoroughly reformed. I also think the initial premise of a lack of black reformed is a misnomer. It may be the case in the PCA but not as much in reformed churches period. I also think we often feel that we are all alone in our reformed-ness but there are a lot more out there than we think and just have to find them. Does that make sense?

  12. Lisa Robinson

    When I say Reformed worship, I’m referring to the structure of the entire service that reinforces God’s sovereignty over the lives of his people and his covenant with them. Here is the typical order in our service to give you an idea;

    Call to worship (reader response based on a selected passage of scripture)

    Hymn of praise

    Prayer of Invocation (short prayer from elder)

    Call to Confession (based on a selected portion of the Westmnister Catechism or passage of scripture where we are called to examine our hearts before God

    Silent confession of sin

    Assurance of pardon and peace of God (the pastor reinforces God’s work through his Son)

    Response to God’s grace (congregation sings a hymn or song)

    Scripture reading

    Prayer together as God’s people

    Worship by giving

    A doxology of praise (short chorus sung by congregation)

    Greeting one another

    Preparation for hearing God’s word

    Applying God’s word (sermon)

    Responding in song (hymn)


    The liturgy puts an emphasis on God’s work. What I absolutely love about it is that it is pure and simple yet rich and reinforces faith. Does that help?


  13. Lisa Robinson

    Yes, I definitely agree about the bad theology. But to make that leap from cultural identity to sound worship takes a great deal of education. There too I have found it challenging since education often gets confused with arrogance or academia. And I say that as a former charismatic who spent years engaged in sensory oriented worship.

  14. Stephen

    I actually go to one in the LA area. I go to Community of Faith Bible Church at 12025 Industrial Ave, South Gate , . There is also Fairview Heights 1215 Marlborough Ave Inglewood. Also Greater Union in Compton. Citizens of Zion in Compton and Mount Zion in Ontario are more reformed not as much as the others. Let me know if you would like more info. WHat is the one that you know of?

  15. azuspeak

    Can you name some reformed black churches? I only know of one. Do you know of any in the Los Angeles area? I’ve been trying to find one and have been coming up short…

  16. azuspeak

    Lisa–thank you for your insight on this. I, too, had to make a cultural leap into a more reformed church and out of my own cultural heritage. My concern with the lack of inclusion in PCA or reformed churches is that African Americans continue to stay in churches with bad theology for the sake of identification. I’ve written about my struggle with black church/white church (, and some of my arguments have developed since I joined a Reformed church while I lived in Washington, DC about a year ago.

  17. Stephen

    Interesting article. I do not know a lot of Black Presbyterian churches but I do know of a good amount (relatively speaking) of reformed black churches. May I ask what the basis for that understanding is? Also what is reformed worship?

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