There’s no shortage of talk these days about a “new Black Church” led by a dynamic movement of anointed, intelligent, and innovative up-and-comers. At the same time, many contemporary scholars are debating the question of whether there’s such a thing as a “Black Church” in the first place. Though often portrayed as a singular, monolithic entity, the constituent congregations of the “Black Church” often share little more in common than the Christ they preach and the skin color of their members.
Without a doubt, recognizing the diversity among African American churches and congregations is essential for understanding the landscape of African American faith today. But while the distinctive differences that have so long divided predominantly African American Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational churches are apparent, a more urgent matter of widespread relevance currently demands our attention — the empowerment of young African American Christian leaders.
Many people focus on the differences that exist among denominations and local churches, but our attention might be better spent focusing on this critical challenge faced within many of our churches. Young people are always labeled “The Church of Tomorrow,” which suggests two things: (1) that their spiritual gifts, leadership, and contributions are less meaningful, insignificant, and/or invalid at present and (2) the presupposition that tomorrow is in fact promised. As countless young people leave the doors of the church, and still others sit restlessly in the pews waiting for a tomorrow deferred to finally arrive, the question we must confront is clear — when is “tomorrow” today?
The situation can be portrayed as a track relay race. Our parents in the ministry were passed the baton of the Word of God by their parents and find themselves running the race of leadership as the next generation prepares in anticipation of receiving the baton in the exchange zone.
Our forerunners in the ministry generally fall into one of three typological categories as they approach the exchange zone. (1) Some of our parents finish strong and cleanly pass on the baton to the next generation to run the next leg of the race. (2) Others of our parents, hearing the acclamation of the cheering crowd, decide to run an extra lap and skip the waiting generation in the exchange zone. Other racers with fresh legs soon pass by as these overzealous individuals run out of energy and solemnly realize that they held on too long to a baton that should’ve been passed to the next generation. The overlooked and disenfranchised next generation ponders their befallen state and searches for other constructive outlets for their energy and talent that was intended to be expended in the race. (3) Still others of our parents approach the exchange zone with timidity, fearing that they will slowly fade out of the picture as they relinquish possession of the baton to a seemingly untested new generation. With the combination of the outgoing generation’s insecure ambivalence to let go and the awaiting generation’s consequent loss of self-confidence, the baton exchange is botched. No matter how well the previous lap had been run, no matter how talented the next runner may have been, the baton is dropped; the race is lost.
Does the Church have the luxury of not preparing its young people for flight, leaving them and their gifts in a perpetual holding pattern? Can the Church afford to continue mistakenly equating seniority with maturity as young people stand ready yet overlooked in the exchange zone? Will the apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 12 treatise on unity in the body of Christ and the importance of each member thereof extend to a generation waiting to lead? Even a cursory glance at the state of the Black Church reveals an institution wrestling with its identity, struggling with being attractive while remaining authentic, and grappling with the challenges and realities of a new day.
Will an intensifying focus on devising better methods instead of making better men and women for the kingdom of God cause the 21st century Black Church to institutionally marginalize itself? God forbid! But the only way to guard against more “botched exchanges” is to earnestly pray for and work towards the day when tomorrow becomes today and the next generation is entrusted with the task of carrying forward the baton of leadership.