Three Reasons Why My Heart Hurts For The Black Church

Scripture is clear in teaching there is only one church, embodied by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5–6, ESV). No true divisions exist in the body of Christ nor distinctions between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28).

Though the black church generally refers to congregations with predominantly African-American membership, I think it is more accurate to describe it as the brand of Christianity embraced primarily by that group. Its theology is rooted in Christian religion, forged by the fires of slavery, shaped by the collective struggle against discrimination, and underscored by its soulful expression of black culture. It is cross-denominational. It is an institution of power at the seat of the black community and critical to black identity.

Until recently, my view of Christianity was shaped exclusively by the black church. Five in my local community have claimed me in their number. I served as a musician for over 20 years. I accepted God’s call in my life and became a preacher at 16, formally ordained just a year ago. I know the black church, and the black church knows me.

It was through this church that I came to a saving knowledge of Christ Jesus. I have met many Bible-believing Christians sincere in the faith. Many in the church are my friends and family, people I’ve known since childhood. Within this community of believers, I have celebrated every major milestone of my life.

The Struggle

In spite of the good that I have seen, my heart hurts every day for the black church. It has long departed from the teachings of scripture and has clung to false doctrines and corrupt theology, leading many people into a false sense of eternal security. I am grieved because I believe that many of the black Christians in my community are going straight to hell.

You read right, I said hell.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of people in evangelical churches worldwide call themselves Christians and yet share this same false sense of security. This is not a problem defined by a single race, nationality, or socioeconomic class; it is a spiritually pandemic of global proportions. Jesus predicted as much when He said that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14).

This is not a problem defined by a single race, nationality, or socioeconomic class; it is a spiritual pandemic of global proportions.

Churches have managed to lead people into a false salvation through powerless preaching and false doctrine. These people are the tares that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13:24–30 that grow as weeds among the wheat, waiting ultimately be burned in the final judgement. Caught in the fish net of tare evangelism, they will die in their sins.

Lacking the sorrowful hearts that true repentance requires, they only partially entrust their lives to Christ Jesus. They fail to read the Bible regularly or to do what it says. They do not care to pray. They lack a zeal for evangelism. They seek only their own end and the satisfaction of their own desires.

By John H. White, 1945-, Photographer (NARA record: 4002141) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But what saddens me most is that, having spent all my life in the black church, I am forced to picture the faces of people I have known all my life and imagine that they could die in their sins. These are people that look like me, talk like me, walk like me. It hurts to know that many black people, even those some that I know personally, think that they are going to live eternally with Jesus and will not make it in.

Unless the black church acknowledges the powerlessness of its preaching, rejects its false doctrines, and departs from its misguided tare evangelism, people in the black community will find no escape from the slavery of sin.

Powerful Preaching

It shouldn’t surprise us that the scripture tells us exactly how to preach the Bible. In the book of Nehemiah, we see how men taught the Word of God to the people of Israel:

“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also [the Levites] helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” — Nehemiah 8:5–8, emphasis added.

The pattern established in the Old Testament repeats throughout the New Testament. Jesus in Luke 4:16–30 follows this pattern when He reads from Isaiah 42 and explains its meaning to those listening. Paul repeats this in Acts 28:23 when it says that he “expounded to [the Jewish leaders], testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (emphasis added). In 2 Timothy 4:13, he also commanded Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”

Expository preaching explains the meaning of scripture by what it says. Instead of the preacher divining a felt need of the congregation and pulling scriptures together that seem to address that need, he focuses on a single passage of scripture and explains what it means. The former depends on the preachers opinion of what people should hear from the Bible; the latter trusts Scripture to speak for itself. It is the goal of expository preaching to keep the Bible at the center of teaching at all times.

Another foundation of biblical preaching is that scripture explains scripture. Starting with Jesus and continuing throughout the writings of Paul and the Apostles, scripture was always used to illustrate the weighty biblical principles of the New Testament. In fact, at least 10% of the New Testament refers in some way to Old Testament scriptures either through direct quotation or through allegorical reference.

What Makes It Powerful

The power of biblical preaching relies on the authority, sufficiency, inerrancy and supremacy of the scriptures. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul literally invents the word “God-breathed” (greek θεόπνευστος, transliterated theopneustos) to describe the inspiration of scripture. The very essence of God is contained within the sacred writings of the Bible, a life-changing power for believers that is manifested when understanding is given via the Holy Spirit. By simply reading the Bible and explaining what it means, that power reaches deep within men, “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Scripture measures the power of preaching in both objective and subjective terms. Objective measures included growth in the size of church membership (not just weekly attendance), monetary and non-monetary giving, evangelism and ministry participation. Subjective measures include the observable fruits produced in the life of a believer by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–24).

Luke witnessed the response to powerful preaching and teaching in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Following the sermon given that day by the Apostle Peter, Luke records that about three thousand people were baptized and added to the church in response to the preached word (Acts 2:40–47). As the people continued to devote themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” God added to the church daily. Similar accounts of rapid growth occur in Acts 4:1–4 and 13:44–49.

Jean II Restout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not only did these converts give themselves to regular fellowship, but they also sold their belongings and possessions to give to the poor. Scripture records in Acts 6:1 that the early church established a ministry for distributing food among those in need. The early converts also provided assistance to the widows, evidenced by Paul’s writing in 1 Timothy 5. In essence, powerful preaching motivated the believers towards great charity and unity.

Reason #1: Powerless Preaching

Whereas biblical preaching is powerful, preaching in the black church has a reputation for its whooping style rather than for any life changing substance. Preachers work hard to provoke emotional reactions from their audience. Today’s sermons overly rely on personal stories and clever jokes. Black churchgoers flock to provocative and gimmicky preachers that wear trendy clothes, talk like motivational speakers, and possess wealth. Some black preachers have even become celebrities in the secular mainstream media.

Whereas biblical preaching is powerful, preaching in the black church has a reputation for its whooping style rather than for any life changing substance.

The effects of powerless preaching are obvious. Among churches in impoverished black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, I have witnessed stagnated or declining congregations, tumultuous finances, and alarmingly low participation in charitable and evangelism-focused ministries. The black church struggles to confront issues within its own walls such as the absence of fathers in Christian homes, unwed pregnancy, sexual sin, and substance abuse. In my view, many more weak black churches exist than effective ones.

Now I am sure it is possible to point out churches having charitable ministries and that execute stronger-than-average evangelism. However, I am willing to wager these churches a) are unrepresentative of the community and b) exhibit a low percentage of participation compared to the total active membership. My experience in the church has shown most people lack motivation to participate in ministry at any level, content to merely show up from Sunday to Sunday.

I lay these problems squarely at the feet of powerless preaching.

What Makes It Powerless?

Modern preaching is inevitably designed to address what people want to hear from the Bible. This keeps preaching superficial because no one knows what a person truly needs other than the Holy Spirit. It presumes that the sole purpose of preaching is to solve man’s problems rather than to shine the light on our desperate need for Jesus and for the salvation He realized on the cross by His death and resurrection.

In the sole interest of practicality, pastors ignore significant portions of the Bible that aren’t seen as encouraging or edifying for the congregation. The theme of every sermon pertains to deliverance from bondage or slavery of some kind. They will intentionally pick only passages with feel-good, empowering messages. Also picked are any passages relating to prosperity and wealth. Worse, sermons are often designed either to address the personal struggles of the preacher or to boast about their personal successes.

Take note of the next few sermons you hear and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How many times was the word “breakthrough” mentioned?
  2. How much of the sermon was about reading the scriptures themselves? How many readings were from the Old Testament?
  3. Did you learn anything about a passage of scripture that you didn’t know or hear before?
  4. When preaching from Paul’s letters (Romans to Hebrews), how many verses came from the first half of the book?
  5. How often did the preacher discuss himself or his life? How often were the words “I think” or “I feel” used as he was speaking?
  6. Was something preached that exposed sin in your life or inspired life change?
  7. After the sermon, did you feel motivated to read the Bible more, reach the lost, or pray?

Faithful Doctrine

Doctrine shapes our comprehension of God. A man’s theology determines everything about how he sees the world around him. An atheist lives as he wishes, for he does not believe that he is accountable to a sovereign God. His theology denies the existence of God. However, the way he lives wouldn’t differ much from that of a professed Christian who misunderstands the doctrine of grace since he “continues in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1).

Doctrines (“teachings”) of scripture reveal God’s character, His nature, and His worship. This is why the Apostle Paul wanted assurance that Timothy and Titus were faithful to sound doctrine. Paul instructs Titus not only to “teach what accords with sound doctrine,” but also to find elders that would also “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9; 2:1, emphasis added).

Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The importance of sound doctrine was so important to the New Testament writers that numerous books (Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, etc) begin with weighty theological teachings regarding salvation and the gospel. Doctrine always precedes the giving of practical instruction in the Bible. One of my favorite examples comes from chapter 1 of first Peter:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.” — 1 Peter 1:1–2, emphasis added.

Peter writes for the practical purpose of encouraging believers suffering great persecution by the hand of Nero, even to the point of death and seizure of property. Yet just two verses into his letter, Peter speaks to a) the doctrine of election, b) the doctrine of predestination, c) the doctrine of the believer’s sanctification, d) the doctrine of the new priesthood established by Christ’s death on the cross, and e) the doctrine of the trinity. Peter wanted the “elect exiles” to know that God had a divine purpose for their suffering and that they could look forward to the eternal inheritance given to those whom God has chosen for salvation in Christ Jesus.

Reason #2: False Doctrine

A natural consequence of powerless preaching is that it produces a wrong view of God, or at least one that is inaccurate. Professed Christians under powerless preaching fail to recognize false doctrine and false teachers. They accept a garden variety of beliefs about the faith. Indeed, the problem with many of these Christians is that they possess little comprehension of doctrine or its importance in the life of the believer.

Professed Christians under powerless preaching fail to recognize false doctrine and false teachers. They accept a garden variety of beliefs about the faith.

Even within a single church, there may be multiple conflicting doctrines taught. Some churches mix traditional baptist doctrine with charismatic practice, word of faith teaching, and moral relativism. Particularly troublesome are non-denominational churches that have either ambiguous or non-existent doctrines because it is almost impossible to figure out what they actually believe.

In the black church, deliverance from suffering is the sole, most important doctrine taught. Every sermon teaches some version of how to press through tough circumstances, how to break the chain of bondage, or how to overcome persistent sin. This man-focused theology shows people a subservient, un-glorifying view of God.

True Evangelism

All preaching is evangelistic by definition, and all who evangelize are preachers of the Gospel. You won’t find the word “evangelize” found in most English bible translations because it is actually rendered “preach” or “proclaim” (Greek word εὐαγγελίζω, transliterated euaggelizō). Any preaching in the New Testament implies the work of evangelism. Therefore, we learn what the Bible teaches about evangelism by studying the preaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter and the apostles and its’ effects.

Returning to Acts 2, we see that the preaching of the Gospel was the catalyst of early church growth. Note in Acts 2:41 that “those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (emphasis added). Luke gives a similar accounting in Acts 4:4, writing that “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (emphasis added).

Allow me to draw a few of important points out of this passage. First, note the nature of Peter’s evangelistic sermon. He begins by quoting the Old Testament minor prophet Joel and expounds the text. He does not shy away from exposing the guilt of sin in his listeners (“this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”). As he is preaching, Luke records that the audience was “cut to the heart” and were immediately compelled to respond to the preaching of the Word.

Secondly, Luke makes a distinction between those who believed in the Gospel and those who did not believe. He judged between the two groups of people who heard the Apostles preaching based upon how each responded to it. Those who believed devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, experienced unprecedented unity of mind, and were very generous in their giving as noted in Acts 2:42–47.

Thirdly, Luke only counts baptized believers as members of the church. These were not merely averages of weekly attendance at the local home assemblies and did not include all listeners within earshot of Peter’s preaching. Luke further asserts the sincere faith of those identified with the church in Acts 14:48 when he writes that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed, ” speaking of the converted Gentiles reached by Paul and Barnabas.

Lastly, note that preaching in the New Testament scriptures always occurred outside of the local church assemblies in synagogues and public places. This was true for Peter in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Paul went from synagogue to synagogue preaching (Acts 17:2) and even preached once while standing beside an idol in the middle of a pagan memorial (Acts 17:22–34).

Reason #3: Tare Evangelism

Evangelism in the black church is largely opposite of what scripture teaches if it is even addressed at all. Inviting people to church is all that evangelism entails in these days. It is also viewed as a job reserved only for the few in the church who may have a special “gifting” of evangelism. It has become so stigmatized that many churches create watered down ministries that all but avoid the preaching of the Gospel and call it “community outreach”.

By Tunisbering, via Wikimedia Commons

As with many Christian churches, those in the black community focus on numerical growth through efforts designed to entice sinners into the church. Thanks in part to movements like the emerging church sweeping the globe, churches make sinners feel comfortable and well entertained. Pews fill up with people who come for its Starbucks atmosphere or concert performances. This is why ministries pay top dollar for skilled musicians and worship leaders to draw people into services with contemporary, secularly influenced music.

Thanks in part to movements like the emerging church sweeping the globe, churches make sinners feel comfortable and well entertained.

One major reason for this is that black Christians tend to view the church as a hospital for the sick based upon a misinterpretation of Mark 2:17 when Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The rationale is that since sinners are spiritually sick and Jesus is the head of the church, sinners should come to church and receive healing. However, that is an unwarranted and incorrect interpretation of the passage given its context. Jesus was not bringing sinners into a local church and preaching to them, nor did He ever identify sinners as part of the church.

Also, despite the clear instruction of Christ in Matthew 18, churches refuse to discipline professed Christians who practice sin because they are afraid to offend people, driving them from church. Yet not even Jesus prevented His own unbelieving disciples from leaving. When Jesus offended His disciples by something He said, the writer John tells us that many of them “turned back and no longer walked with Him” (John 6:61–71). Why did He just let them leave? The answer is plain from the text:

“’It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’” — John 6:63–65, emphasis added.

Borrowing again from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares, it is certain that many of our churches are full of tares and light on wheat. The church has failed to protect its borders from those who do not belong among its numbers, and works very hard to bring in more like them. It is then no surprise that we find professing Christians who are “lovers of self, lovers of money” and “lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1–5).

Changing the Course of the Black Church

I believe that it is time for the black church to die. It has tried to make Christianity more relevant to the African-American experience but lacks the real power of God’s divine word. Though stylish and full of platitudes, it relies on a fake form of godliness designed to arouse emotions rather than cut hearts.

I call on the black church to put away its differences and join the universal church in preaching the Gospel boldly in every place. We must be willing to look beyond our racial identity and see the Jesus of the Bible for who He is, not for who we want Him to be. He is not divided — He is one and requires us to be as He is. A true disciple of Christ will comfort in finding unity in the brotherhood of Christ, not in racial or national heritage.

We don’t need a gospel catered to the black culture. Sure, we will lose some people along the way but that’s OK, “for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is better to be loyal to the word of God than to family, race, or nationality.

As for the hurts of my heart, I do not grieve as one without hope. I am optimistic that the churches in black communities can change by the power of the Holy Spirit if they are willing to embrace the authority and sufficiency of scripture. It has the prescription for every situation facing the black community. However, it is not a prescription that tolerates adjustments, additions, or omissions — we must only do precisely what the Bible says to do.

Lastly, we need more trained preachers and teachers. We have for too long let men step into the pulpit with little to no training in rightly dividing the word of truth. This must stop. With souls at stake and lives depending upon the preached word of God, there is no reason why Christians in the church should continue to tolerate blatant deception in the church — especially from the pulpit. I refuse to stand for it anymore. I hope that you will too.

Further Reading

Ellis, Dr. Carl, Jr. The African-American Church: Past, Present, and Future, Christianity Today, 7/11/2013.
Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. Too Many Black Churches Preach the Gospel of Greed, New York Times, 3/19/2015.
MacArthur, John. Biblically-Anemic Preaching: The Devastating Consequences of a Watered-Down Message,