African-Americans, Culture, and Reformed Churches
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.