African American Preaching
African American Preaching
The well-known words of Martin Luther King Jr. tell much about African American Preaching:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check marked Insufficient Funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to arise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."1
Dr. King ends his "I Have a Dream" speech with the famous conclusion of celebration: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I am free at last."
Black preaching is distinctive in its approach because of the direct impact of racism and the African American struggle for equality. Preaching to people who feel disenfranchised affects the way you address them. I have had numerous conversations with Black parishioners who have stated that Sunday morning is the time to come and "to let go and let God" embrace their pain and encourage their hearts. The atmosphere of people in worship who collectively share their pain and open their hearts to the preaching of God's Word is like a cup of cold water to a parched thirst.
In my own experiences, when I have suffered racial slurs or have been refused to be served in a restaurant, Sunday was a time to regain perspective that "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," but that "God is good all the time, and all the time God is good." The Black preacher reminds hearers of the present and yet-to-come work of God in behalf of his people.
Dr. King embodies in just a few paragraphs five key ingredients that make Black preaching distinctive.
(1) During preparation the Black preacher must seek God prayerfully in the Scriptures so the congregation knows the message is from God. He is God's messenger, sent by God—a prophet. Black preaching is built on the reality of the dictums, "Thus saith the Lord" and "God has given me a word for you today." As 1 Peter 4:11 says, "If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God."
Another key Scripture guiding Black preaching is Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners" (NASB).
We speak prophetically to people whose daily experiences overtly or subtlely produce striving and stress due just to being who they are—Black. People in the pew want to know the preacher has truly heard from God and is basing what he says on God's Word and principles. Dr. King had power in his preaching because he clearly showed in his messages that racism was not just a moral issue—it was a biblical issue.
(2) The black preacher must be in touch with the people's pain. There is a story about a young black preacher and an old black preacher sitting near the pulpit side by side on a Sunday morning. The young preacher got up and read Psalm 23. The congregation politely said amen.
The old preacher then followed the young preacher and read Psalm 23 again. The congregation wept, clapped, and shouted a hearty amen. When the old preacher sat down, the young preacher asked him why they responded with such emotion to his reading of the Psalm. The old man said, "Son, you read Psalm 23, but I read Psalm 23. You can read it, but I have lived it."
Henry Mitchell, a noted author on black preaching, states that the preacher must, "sit where they sit."2 The authority of the black preacher is built on relationships. It was the slave preacher, one of the slaves, without formal training, who preached effectively to his people because he dealt with issues from inside "their skin and not from some alien identity."3 Black preaching constantly bridges the sacred to the secular by showing how what those people in the text went through fits what we are going through today. The Black preacher constantly points out that salvation is not ancient history—it is current events.
People know whether the messenger has experienced what he is conveying by his use of personal illustrations that show times of distress in his own life.
(3) The black preacher must dispense hope. We must show that "weeping may last for the evening, but joy comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:5, NASB).
We give this hope by telling the story, a story that is twofold. First, it is the text being preached and what it conveys for listeners today. Secondly, it is the larger story, the gospel story that Jesus has risen from the grave and sits in ultimate authority. No matter what situation the listener faces, there is hope because there is Jesus.
(4) The black preacher must preach with passion and celebration. Our preaching is not animated and enthusiastic for entertainment's sake but as a result of conviction. The black preacher must show that he believes he has a word from God. Celebration, the high point of the sermon, is where the preacher raises his voice sometimes to the point of shouting in praise to the God who is one's hope and help in every situation. You know the chord of celebration has been struck when a parishioner says, "We had church today!"
(5) Finally, the black preacher is a wordsmith and expert storyteller. The ability to paint a picture with skillful word choice gives pride to the congregation and shows we have come a long way from the slave fields to where we are today. The black preacher was usually the most educated in the congregation, so he needed to paint word pictures for those in the congregation who were not educated. The skillful art of telling the story keeps the congregation linked to the rich heritage of the black church's origin.
Notice the masterful word choice in the message by Rev. Henry Lockyear entitled, "Do You Know Him?"
He's enduringly strong. He's entirely sincere. He's eternally steadfast. He's immortally graceful. He's imperially powerful. He's impartially merciful. Do you know Him?
He's the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizon of this world. He's God's Son. He's a sinner's Savior. He's the centerpiece of civilization. He stands in the solitude of himself. He is unique. He's unparalleled. He's unprecedented. He's the loftiest idea in literature. He's the highest personality in philosophy. He's the supreme problem in high criticism.
He supplies strength for the weak. He is available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and saves. He strengthens and sustains. He guards and guides. He heals the sick. He cleanses the lepers. He forgives sinners. He discharges debtors. He delivers the captives. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent. And he beautifies the meager. I wonder if you know him."4
Attention is also given to metaphors, as illustrated in Dr. King's speech when he uses banking terms to show what America owes to her people of color. The use of repeated phrases and just the right words are marks of solid black preaching.
These five ingredients are by no means exhaustive but give a general understanding of the context, content, and uniqueness of Black preaching. When my brothers of the lighter hue ask me what their approach might be when preaching to African-Americans, I tell them not to try too hard. The best advice is to be yourself and expect a response from the audience. When someone in the congregation responds with an amen or "Praise God," just keep preaching and soak it up.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," in the Annals of America, (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968), 18:15758
2. Henry H. Mitchell, The Recovery of Preaching (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977), p 7.
4. Rev. Henry Lockyear speaking at a YWAM meeting in Hawaii.