Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Renewing Our Commitment to Theology and Social Justice. In Growing African American Churches: After The Spiritual Breakthrough, Then What?

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Delivered at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary | February 24, 2005

In keeping with this year’s theme of the Church and Black Experiences Family reunion, I would like to focus my attention this morning on growing African American churches through ministries of social justice.

Of the numerous African American super churches that have exploded with membership growth the last twenty years, few seem to emphasize social justice as an important construct for ministry. As one pastor put it, “To talk about social justice is not politically correct today and is essentially a waste of precious time. In the 1960’s it had relevance and value. Today it does not.”

While adulation as well as appreciation for these mega church pastors and their ministries have rightfully abounded, questions have been raised as to whether their theologies of prosperity and styles of ministry, and many of them cite such theologies as reasons for their tremendous growth, have obviated the need to develop ministries of social justice. Seldom do we hear some of the preachers of these large congregations addressing social problems or speaking to the concerns of the poor and oppressed. Some would argue that many of the poor and oppressed are in their churches and therefore the power of their ministries lies in their ability to give hope to people who would other wise be left hopeless and in despair.

As one minister said, “Bringing them a message of hope each week that ultimately prevents them from killing themselves and killing each other is my contribution to making a society a more just place.”

Others argue that many of these churches have grown or swelled, and there is a difference between growth and swelling, precisely because they are apolitical and have steered clear from controversial social issues. “”The gospel,” said one minister, “is about saving souls not saving society.” Later on in the conversation this pastor also admitted that addressing social justice issues would put him at odds with the people who give large donations to his ministry.

A well known preacher of a growing church in the Detroit area recently commented, “People today don’t want to hear about social justice. They want to know if God truly loves them and whether they will have food on the table today. This has nothing to do with social justice. Leave social justice to the politicians and legislators.” Needless to say this statement is very perplexing since the African American Church has had a history of addressing these concerns. The black church and black ministers has literally been at the forefront of every major movement of positive social change for African Americans since slavery. The concern for social justice has been at the heart of theologies of liberation and theologies of accommodation. Historically, it has also been a recurring theme in the quest for black political, social and economic parity in American society.

This statement also ignores the social imperatives of Jesus ministry. Although we generally read scriptures for their spiritual and theological value, the social underpinnings and political undercurrents of first century Palestine, which helped to create the context of Jesus ministry, cannot be ignored.

Any serious reading of the Gospels and the Epistles must take into account the political, social and cultural milieu that helped create the climate that gave rise to the early church. We cannot forget the politics of Rome and the persecutions. We must not forget that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, although theological in nature, were not devoid of political and social ramifications.

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was concerned about the least of these; about distributive and retributive justice for the poor and oppressed and that his ministry demonstrates the need to reach all people at different levels and in conditions in society. We cannot say that as a Jew, Jesus was oblivious to his social environs; that he ignored the plight of the poor and that justice was not at a least a penultimate concern of his ministry.

Furthermore, we know that many of Jesus’ teachings were on the subject of Stewardship; the stewardship of responsibility and accountability of one’s personal resources which had and have, profound implications for society and how it manages and distributes its resources.

Jesus was very concerned about the spiritual and social well being of the individual and society. The presupposition here is that what Jesus did to help those in need could at least model for the larger society what it should be doing to help those in need. Each act of grace, mercy and healing had social value and social ramifications for the larger society. Ministry wasn’t conducted for the sake of the individual only. It was ministry to the whole world and the all the people in it. It was not ministry done in vacuous isolation but ministry that ultimately impacted the whole of community.

The scriptures often find Jesus cautioning his patients about sharing his healing of them with the larger community. Many of the people he healed ignored his admonition because they knew that what he offered could be of benefit to others and thus couldn’t wait to share the Good News! The blessing they had received from the hands of Jesus was too good to keep to them selves. The Good News had to be disseminated to the larger community so that it too could experience the healing and transformation that would it well and whole again.

Suffice it not then to develop ministries designed to minister spiritually to a person solo almost as if he or she are insulated from the real world and then not expect it to meaningfully impact those in the larger community. After being healed by Christ, the individual must now shepherd that awareness of God’s grace and power into the social realm by giving continuing witness to it. After encountering Christ, the individual must now realize the moral imperative of sharing the gift of that encounter with a larger audience in hopes that it will ultimately lead to the positive of transformation of their lives as well as the larger community.

Christian spirituality in this regard has social function and plays a vital role in shaping and transforming the individual believer and the social order. It is not a contemplative or monastic model of spirituality where the believer divests himself from the rest of society and lives oblivious to its perils and woes. Spirituality involves the total person and his place and role in living in and positively transforming society into a more human, equitable and just place.

Quite the opposite seems to be flourishing in numerous African American Mega Churches today. Some churches experiencing the greatest growth are charismatic and promote prosperity theology as a mainstay of their ministries. The primary concern for many of these churches, and there are some exceptions to the rule, seems to be more on developing individual black spirituality within the ecclesia where each believer is encouraged and empowered to practice an ecstatic faith that leads to his or her own spiritual and material prosperity; a prosperity made possible by the power of spiritual break through.

The December 2004 issue of Ebony Magazine ran an article titled the “The New Black Spirituality.” The following were cited as benchmarks of this new movement:

“More excitement and more-can we use the word? Adventure, with some ministers receiving adulation usually reserved for movie stars.

More new and independent denominations; some of them with their own missionary groups in Brazil, Africa and Europe. More SICs- sisters in charge, or at least out front.

More church members and more supporters of Pentecostal churches and the demonstrative, fervent Pentecostal Spirit. More mega churches open almost all the time and offering almost everything, including fast food service, economic development corporations, and expert counseling on matters from money management to marital problems and yoga. More reverse integration, with more Hispanics and Whites worshipping at historically black churches, and more blacks supporting charismatic white preachers.

Finally and perhaps definitively, there is more rhythm, more shouting, more dancing, more hand clapping, more foot stomping, more, some say, soul including musical combos, drums saxophonists and trumpet players on or near the altar or pulpit.”

Of concern to me is that this article does not cite social justice as a hall mark of this new so called black spirituality. The prosperity Gospel and Prosperity theology in the charismatic, Pentecostal tradition characterize many of these mega churches. Some pastors, as stated earlier, attribute their exponential church growth to this charismatic-Pentecostal spirit and the power of prosperity theology.

In prosperity theology the focus is on the radicalization of the individual through spiritual intercession and intervention; absolute obedience and conformity to spiritual and other authorities, the individual acquisition of wealth and prosperity, it is in essence what I call” the capitalization of theology” which culminates in personal faith as both material and spiritual enterprise. Many of these churches have highly enterprising business infrastructures and simulate and incorporate the spirit and principles of capitalism in their theologies.

The individual is taught that he or she has the keys to his or her own destiny and that the acquisition of material wealth is the one of the most important components in self determination and in achieving both spiritual and material prosperity.

In fact, spiritual and material wealth go hand in hand. Without oversimplifying here, the assumption is the more prosperous one becomes, the more spiritually powerful one becomes. The more spiritually powerful one becomes the more one is able to effect his own material prosperity in the name of the Lord. God wants us to be rich and we should use those riches to help ourselves and others, particularly the church and those who a part of the church’s ministries.

In the more charismatic churches emphasis is placed on the power of the charismata as influenced by the Holy Spirit; the value of collective spiritual consciousness and ethereal encounter; the ability of the individual believer to obtain, maintain and sustain holiness through heightened awareness of the spirit’s presence and power and the capacity of the believer to manifest fruits of the spirit as a result of this sustained awareness.

A very important term used in these mega churches is Spiritual break through. Having a spiritual break through is an important passage point on the road to personal prosperity. One must through prayer, devotion and service break through all the personal barriers thwarting ascendancy into spiritual ecstasy and material splendor.

In many charismatic churches that preach the prosperity gospel, God therefore is viewed as the God of wealth and prosperity and those who have God’s favor will eventually acquire the fruits of God’s blessings as evidenced in personal affluence.

The process of spiritual development then is highly individualized. The focus is on what God will do for me. I must become all that God wants me to become before I can be of benefit to others in my community.

Let me say that every person could benefit from having a spiritual break through and there is nothing wrong with having a view of the Gospel that encourages people to acquire wealth as Max Weber and others have suggested. All Christians need the fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit that will renew and restore them spiritually and make them whole and well again. But the question is after the break through, then what? After the individual has undergone this profound and radical personal conversion-transformation what should he or she then do? Does it or should it all stop there?

Just as the individual has been converted and transformed should not the social order also be radically changed as a result of the break through? Should a break through only mean that the person who has experienced it will now simply conform to the society in which he lives and never work to positively change the unjust structures within it? Does conformity to Christ mean conformity to the world? Should not the spiritual break through also mean the positive transformation of both individual and society?

The question again is what happens after the breakthrough? What happens to the person who experiences a deliverance from addiction or some other affliction and then goes back into the same impoverished, blighted milieu or social condition that may have precipitated the original onset of the addiction?

After I have received my spiritual high and experienced ethereal flight into realms of the unconscious on Sunday morning, and the Holy Ghost has come and the gospel of prosperity has been preached and I have had my break through what happens on Monday and what happens on Tuesday when I find myself faced with some of the same social stimuli that beset me in the first place?

After I have had my break through, how do I now break down or break through the social barriers still thwarting the actualization of my potential, well ness, and wholeness as a child of God. My break through has compelled me to change personally but should not society be radically and wonderfully changed as well? Is there not a moral imperative to go into the world so that it too can break through its present bondages and constraints?

How then is this individual prosperity and its attending gifts and powers translated into a concern for the uplift, transformation and redemption of the immediate community and larger society? How can my individual prosperity be transferred into communal prosperity? How can the radical spiritual transformation of the individual be bridged into the radical transformation of society? How does one spread the spiritual wealth of the gospel of prosperity, share the charismata so to speak, so that the souls of societies, if you will, as well as the souls of the individuals are equally re-born into being co-intentional creators and distributors of justice, peace and truth on earth?

To not focus social justice as a priority in ministry is one thing. To completely ignore it and give it over to the politicians is another thing that is theologically both irresponsible and dangerous.

The practice of black spirituality has not traditionally just been about me and my welfare but the welfare of the entire community. The individual must be challenged to share that transforming, empowering spirit in a larger communal context which will culminate in the spiritual and material liberation and transformation of not only the African American community but the total society. Is this not the meaning of ecclesia and Koinoinia?

In an effort to grow our churches, we must be careful not to subscribe to theologies and endorse church models that devalue social consciousness and abrogate social responsibility. We must be careful of a spirituality that stops short of social justice, instigates our detachment from the world and unquestioningly leaves the so called worldly concerns simply to worldly leaders.

It is not enough to have church and get high and happy and drunk in the spirit on Sunday mornings and then keep the spiritual blessings all to ourselves. The power and beauty of those blessings should also be sublimated into transformation of the unjust structures in society, for the church also has a responsibility to the world. John Wesley said it perfectly when he said, “The world is my parish.”

A concern for social justice should be a primary concern in growing and developing our churches and this includes charismatic and non charismatic churches; it means churches that preach prosperity theology, conservative theology or liberation theology. The church in general and the black church in particular can ill afford to have a laissez faire and fairly lazy approach to social concerns. Having critical social consciousness is an important part of our legacy of faith. Critical social consciousness and social justice are essential aspects of our Christian spirituality. We must not lose sight of this important dimension of the African American church and its ministries. We must be careful not to sell out our prophetic birthright to material interests. Wall Street Theology should not subvert straight Street Christology.

II. Now there seems to be a movement afoot in our nation where the so called Christian Right and Left have become strangely silent in the face of various social and political practices. It seems that politics in the name of religion or religion in the name of politics through its policies of groupthink and conformity are seeking to remove our right to dissent. Many of the Christian Right have taken credit for the recent election of George Bush.

The real concern for many Christians and non Christians is how this new political religiosity as shaped, defined and promulgated by certain people on the so called Christian Right legitimizes or de-legitimizes the nature of all Christian public discourse; defines what aspects of that conversation is in the public interest and influences how religious principles and worth are determined, valued and measured. During the election I received a conservative evangelical publication encouraging me to vote Republican in the November presidential election. This pamphlet took all the major positions of the Republican Party and asked how Jesus would vote on them such as Gay Rights and abortion. It completely obviated the key positions of the Democratic Party such as how Jesus might vote on health care, an unjust preemptive war, a women’s right to choose and unemployment.

The problem is that Jesus was made to look like a Republican and the overtures suggested that if anyone voting against these concerns were neither patriotic nor Christian. Other moral issues that are part of Jesus ethical concern which happened to be views shared by Democrats were completely ignored.

The problem is how the gospel was distorted in the name of politics; how proof texting and misrepresentation of the gospel for one political party’s advantage over another went virtually unchallenged. An additional problem is how numerous preachers who supported Republican candidates or Democrats for that matter neither dissented nor protested how the gospel was being misused and misapplied which upset members of their congregations.

One dissenter was personally reprimanded by her pastor and was told that good Christians have no right to challenge or question those in authority and that she would be better off taking her membership to another church. As she turned and left his office, he quipped, “By the way are you a Democrat?” Sadly, those persons who challenged this mishandling of the Gospel were stigmatized and virtually banished from their congregations. The point is that religion can become a dangerous thing when it is used by political parties to further their self interests. It is even more dangerous when the practice of religion takes away the right of Christians to dissent and oppose the misuse and misapplication of the gospel in the name of politics or for any other purpose. This concern goes back to what I said earlier about the danger of practicing theologies or models of church that remove our proclivity for critical social consciousness and strip away our appetite for social justice. The church nor its leaders should not have the power to de-legitimize rightful protests to real or perceived injustices be they inside or outside of the church.

Is my value as a Christian determined by how well I uphold the politics and platforms of a political Party? Does being a good Christian mean that I no longer have the right to critique government; that I relinquish my right to challenge the status quo and give prophetic witness and urgency to those concerns; that I cannot call an unjust war unjust; that I cannot broaden the moral concerns for justice and peace beyond the parameters of concern defined by one political party or another or that I longer speak truth to power?

Does being a good Christian mean that I become an absolute conformist, turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to untruth and injustice and that my worth is measured insofar as I mimic the uni quack and double speak of the media and power establishment and tow the party line? Did Jesus die on the cross for this purpose; so that I can keep my peace and hold my peace and not be a catalyst for justice and peace? Does being good Christians mean that we blindly support our leaders and the poor decisions they make without offering legitimately grounded, morally feasible alternatives? Does being a good Christian mean that I surrender my right to think; my right to bring critical analysis and creative consciousness to the table and that I remain silent in the name of a stupefied, conforming spirituality? Must I dumb down spiritually and theologically in order to stand up morally?

Does my practice of theology confiscate my conscience and strip away my capacity to function creatively and prophetically as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit command?

Has the Christian religion come to this after all these years of suffering and struggle?

I might feel warm and fuzzy when I leave the church and be in the after glow of Christ and the Holy Spirit in and one me and that’s ok, but what happens when the warmth turns to cold and fuzz wears off? What happens when I leave church? Does the church leave with me? One preacher said the most important part of church is what happens between the benediction of last week’s service and the invocation of this week’s service. What now?

What happens when we say that abortion is wrong but killing innocent children in war is not? What happens when we give employers the right to not pay over time but then give them permission to exploit workers in foreign countries at minimum wage and maximum profit? What happens when we spend billions on wars that kill people, pay billions to corporations who pad their bills and cheat the government and then balk at helping the poor, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the dispossessed and education of our children in urban and rural backwashes of this land?

Are we Christians part of the hypocrisy to which we have been called to speak, “Thus saith the Lord”? Where is the dissent, where are the voices of conscience and protest from the rank and file of the church? Are we so ensconced in our prosperity, so cloyed by our affluenza, so immersed in our own spirituality, so mesmerized by our own theological and spiritual superiority and self righteousness, so preoccupied by our own wanting and getting and spending that we can no longer hear the cries of the needy? Why aren’t more Christians speaking to these concerns? Have we traded the cross of Christ for the cup of comfort, the bread of life for the bread of betrayal, the cudgel of critique for the currency of complacency? Has our concern for social justice been compromised and de-legitimized in our effort to be good, slap happy, hallelujah praising, spirit filled, money getting, non getting out of the boat and non boat rocking followers of Christ?

We saw in the last election how gay marriage, abortion and other concerns dominated the headlines, and were skillfully manipulated by the press and politicians and labeled as antichristian values, while an unjust war in Iraq, poverty, disenfranchisement, government corruption were virtually ignored. Those who have spoken out have been silence and labeled non Christians, liberals, pagans, and even God forbid, heretics and lunatics.

The danger of living in these times is the church universal losing forever its prophetic voice, turning a deaf ear to poverty, oppression and injustice; joining forces with the power establishment in stupefying the masses into a mindless group of automatons who have no voice and cannot be heard amid the cacophony and cries for Global, social and economic injustice. Once the church joins forces with Corporate interests and powers in gutting the concern for social justice and equality the church becomes a tool of the existing powers instead of a prophetic voice calling them into account and challenging their return to God.

The church thus must not allow the concern for equality and social justice to be relegated to the back burner or labeled as being longer in style, obsolete, subversive or relevant to the present times in the name of any theology, spirit, tradition or style of church. Silence in the wake of social injustice in any form is not required. As Dr. King once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Furthermore, it is very tempting in these times for pastors to adopt church growth theologies and paradigms whose only concern is spiritual and material prosperity; where the only focus spirit of individuals and not the soul of society; where every effort is expended in personal self aggrandizement and personal gain rather than transforming the world around them.

A more viable approach would be to cultivate a ministry lifestyle or milieu in which pastors adopt paradigms of spirituality that encompasses the needs and concerns of the total person; and that spiritual growth becomes the most important element in congregational life.

All churches can grow spiritually. Most churches can grow numerically. Not all churches can grow into super mega congregations with thousands of members. Such spirituality must encompass a broad array of designs and functions that speak to every need and condition of the people of God. The point that I am making here is that in an effort to grow churches we must ask grow them into what and for what reason are they growing? Who will benefit and why?

Because of the tremendous financial success of many mega churches, it is very tempting to do as they have done by developing apolitical, non social approaches to ministry that do not question or challenge the status quo. We should not simply adopt such strategies because they might potentially bring more bodies into our pews and put more money into our coffers.

We must do more that develop church growth methods that bring more people into the church, challenge them to have a spiritual breakthrough but don’t equip or challenge them to change the world.

It seems to me that many of the powerful mega churches are smaller local churches are in a very good position to effect positive social change locally and nationally. Such change can occur by developing ministries that grow the people spiritually and encourage them to experience meaningful spiritual breakthrough but also equips them to break through society by transforming those social and political structures that prevent the continued stupefaction of the people of God. III. Let me delineate here briefly some basic things that churches can do in the realm of social justice. Let me also state that the many churches have not developed social justice ministries because they are generally perceived as confrontational, health hazardous and life threatening rather than care-frontational, life fulfilling and life empowering. Addressing social needs can be but should be a care frontational; that is the concerns are care fronted in the love and spirit of Christ for the betterment and enhancement of the individual and society. For some the price to pay for social justice is too costly and too time consuming.

First, let me again that silence is not required. We must not comply with our own spiritual stupefaction in the name of politics, religion, a new black spirituality or for any other reason. We must not relinquish our prophetic voice for renewal and change. The right to speak to such concerns is theologically and biblically grounded in a concern for justice and wholeness for the entire community as evidenced by the prophets and Jesus. Second, we must remember that whatever social and religious trends have gained popular currency in growing Christian churches, they should never obviate our concern for social justice in our world. Poverty, disease, hunger, unemployment, crime, mis-education and other problems are still are of utmost concern in many African American communities and the church should develop outreach ministries that speak to those concerns.

Third, every church can develop a ministry of social justice by investigating and addressing the key and ultimate social concerns of its surrounding community by empowering a social justice ministry whose primary purpose is to investigate those social concerns, activate strategies for addressing those concerns and galvanizing the appropriate community resources to eradicate those concerns. Here churches can partner with other churches and agencies to address the immediate and ongoing needs of the community.

Fourth addressing social justice means regularly informing the congregation of social justice issues locally and nationally. Part of the responsibility of a ministry of social justice is disseminating the right information at the right time so that citizens can be properly informed of key issues needing their attention and participation.

Fifth, social justice ministries must work to hold all branches of government accountable in its distribution of justice to the African American Community in particular and the nation in general by establishing liaisons and linkages with state and national representatives, law enforcement agencies and with representatives of the business and economic communities as well as the judicial system. Sixth, preach social justice from the pulpit and hold the congregation accountable in doing its share to help those in need.

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