Friday, April 18, 2008

Black Churches: The Bitter VS the Optimistic

Obama's "God Damn America" church has got a lot of attention lately, and has some people asking more questions about black churches generally. How many of them are the bitter "God Damn America" kind, and how many are more positive and optimistic? Does one type actually shun the message of MLK? John Blake at compares the two kinds; you decide.

Modern black church shuns King's message
[...] Prosperity ministers preach that God rewards the faithful with wealth and spiritual power. Prosperity pastors such as Bishop T.D. Jakes have become the most popular preachers in the black church. They've also become brands. They've built megachurches and business empires with the prosperity message.

Black prophetic pastors rarely fill the pews like other pastors, though, because their message is so inflammatory, says Edward Wheeler, a church historian. Prophetic pastors like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, often enrage people because they proclaim God's judgment on nations, he says.

"It's dangerous to be prophetic," said Wheeler, who is also president of the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.

"I don't know many prophetic preachers who are driving big cars and living very comfortably. You don't generally build huge churches by making folks uncomfortable on Sunday morning," he said.


Black prosperity preachers say their message is not based on greed, though, but self-help.

Bishop Paul Morton, senior pastor of Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, says that teaching black people better money management is the "next dimension" of King's ministry.

"The Bible said that the poor we will always have with us," he said. "It's up to us to bring ourselves out of the curse of poverty."

Morton was the only black prosperity preacher contacted who agreed to talk about King's ministry. Many of the black church's most popular prosperity preachers -- the Rev. Creflo Dollar of Atlanta, Georgia; the Rev. Fred Price of Los Angeles, California; and Bishop Keith Butler of Detroit, Michigan -- all declined.

Jakes, the most popular prosperity preacher (he made the cover of Time magazine in 2001), declined to talk as well. He did, however, address his views on social justice in August on "Religion & Ethics," a PBS news program.

"I'm not against marching," Jakes said. "But in the '60s, the challenge of the black church was to march. And there are times now perhaps that we may need to march. But there's more facing us than social justice. There's personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can." [...]

(bold emphasis mine) It's not surprising that optimistic prosperity churches attract more people than angry political churches. I think most people look to their churches for inspiration and practical help, more than political organizing.

The article talks about MLK and the fights (often literally!) in the church at that time. But what I find ironic is, that while MLK had his militant side, he also talked about integration. And yet, many of the angry black churches seem to be about black separatism, and are about separating themselves from society around them and even condemning it. Where is the integration, the joining?

There's a lot to be said for optimism, and for counting your blessings and being grateful. Anger has it's place in life too, but it needs to be moderated and balanced with other things, not put at the head of the table, or at the lead of the parade of life. The prosperity churches, all things considered, seem more well rounded in that regard.

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