"To be young, gifted and black." These words were immortalized for my generation in the Season 3 finale of the television hit "Scandal" when Poppa Pope uttered them right before he killed the fan-favorite character Harrison played by actor Columbus Short. But long before they were borrowed by Shonda Rhymes and her team they were the words of activist and musical icon Nina Simone who wrote a song to celebrate the melanated beauty of her brothers and sisters who had been kissed by nature's sun. And whether it was Nina's anthem or James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud" during the Black Power Movement of the 60's and 70's or Kendrick Lamar's "We gon' be Alright!" being played during the rallies of Black Lives Matter today, black young adults have always sought to empowered by a narrative, whether it be in sermon or song, of what it means to be Black in what Maya Angelou called these "Yet to be, United States" of America.
Throughout the history of African Americans, the Black Church has produced preachers and prophetic voices who have boldly and relevantly engaged the issues of Blackness in a theologically sound way. I don't want to get into the argument of ethnocentrism, but I will say this; I believe that God created diversity so that it could be celebrated by those who worship Him and one day, in God's time, He will gather to Himself people from every nation and every tongue to declare His glory. That being said, God created ethnicity and if He did not want us to regard it at all then He wouldn't have created it. I do think there is a problem when as Christians, any part of our Biology, even our ethnicity, is elevated over our Theology but I believe that we can love the God who made us and love HOW He made us at the same time.
I think the last few years, from the tragedy of Trayvon Martin until now, have exposed a blind spot that has developed in parts of the Black Church and I believe that blind spot is this; the illusion of racial unity and residue of progress left to us by the Civil Rights movement have caused many of us to believe that the ills of racism and prejudice are either now manageable or have been cured all together and now it's time for us to focus on other things. Add to this the decline of socially conscious and relevant expository preaching amongst many mainstream, highly-publicized churches in the modern era, which has given rise to a gospel of prosperity that doesn't really address the existential plight of the majority of the people in the pew and I believe we have a recipe for an irrelevant church. Let me rush to say that I am not calling the church irrelevant. There are many churches that are carrying on the tradition of addressing the culture with the unchanging message of Christ, promoting Biblical worship and discipleship and thereby empowering their parishioners to be witnesses for Christ even in the midst of social and racial unrest. At the same time, I have been surprised by how many "influential" black preachers have remained silent from Trayvon to Trump or worse have spoken out against those who have had the courage to speak out.
If the Church of Jesus Christ is going to be "Salt and Light" of the earth then it is incumbent upon us not only to address the narrative of blackness that is being given to our people through pop-culture and the mainstream media, but even more so it is our responsibility to search the Word of God and proclaim His narrative to those under our influence and in our care.
Why is the narrative important? Whether you realize it or not the young adults in our churches, those ages 18-40, are looking for the churches that they attend and more specifically the preachers that they are listening to, to address what it means to be "Young, CHRISTIAN, and Black." What does it mean for me to love Jesus, be saved by the Gospel, live my life on mission and at the same time navigate the nuances of prejudice, poverty and systematic racism in the nation that I love? What hope do the records of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; the letters of Paul and the Old Testament narratives offer mothers who prematurely have to bury children, young men who are afraid to be stopped by the police, or the college student taking their first semester of Black Studies who is confused and doubting because they're hearing a professor tell them that the Bible was copied from the stories of the gods of Egypt? And while it may seem okay to write these things off as trivial matters not worth our time, young adults are searching for their own answers and us as pastors may not be happy with the answers or better yet the ANSWERERS that they find.
Earlier this year (2016) of my "Old Heads" back in Omaha invited me over to his house; my wife had recently given birth to our son "Ju" (short for Junior), and we were talking about the challenges of fathering sons. Eventually, I asked him, if he would have "The Sex Talk" with his sons or if he would leave it up to Human Growth and Development class in school and just pray that it went okay. He said something to me that blew me away and helped to shape how I see my responsibility as a pastor, especially to this generation. He said, "Of course I'll have the talk! If I don't have it, then they'll make up their own rules OR WORSE they'll end up being taught by someone who has NO BUSINESS teaching them!" And whether we want to admit it or not, this has become a reality for many of the people under our pastoral care. We have neglected to have the "Taboo" conversation of blackness in America and because we have left that "voice void" as pastors our young adults have been left to fill that void with voices that may be eloquent and even educated but do not honor the God that brought us over and have not been transformed by the Gospel and therefore should not be allowed to instruct our people in matters so critical such as race. I believe that it is the will of God that the church takes the lead because ultimately if we believe what we teach, we are the only ones with the right answer. Our race problem in America is, at its root, a problem deep in the hearts of men, and the only one who can change a heart is the God who made it and the God who made the heart has chosen The Gospel of Jesus Christ as His means of transformation and this same God, who made all people, of all ethnicities, has chosen His Church to be the body that carries this heart-changing, life-transforming Gospel to the world.
It is my prayer that we who have the answer begin, in a greater way, to address the needs of our people in this age and show them, in a godly way what it means to be young, CHRISTIAN and Black!
Grace and Peace.