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October 18, 2006
Column #1,312
Advance for Oct. 21, 2006
What Can White Churches Learn from Black Churches?
By Michael J. McManus

The Christian faith is more important to African-Americans than it is to whites. The most important goal of blacks is "to have a close relationship with God, while that goal is ranked fifth among whites." Three-fourths of black adults are actively involved in a church vs. half of whites.

These remarkable findings were published in an unusual award-winning 2004 book, "High Impact African- American Churches," co-authored by George Barna, an evangelical pollster and Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., pastor of Hope Christian Church near Washington D.C.

Blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites to read the Bible during a typical week, and 50 percent more likely to strongly affirm that the Bible is "totally accurate in everything it teaches."

The typical African-American church raises more money for ministry each year than an average Caucasian church, despite the lower levels of black incomes.

White churches do have something to learn from black churches.

Why do African-Americans turn to their faith more often than do other people? To find out, Barna conducted three nationwide surveys among African-Americas, interviewed senior pastors of 400 black churches and 254 black teenagers. Bishop Harry Jackson writes from his unique experience as a Harvard Business School graduate and business leader before becoming a pastor, and a bishop in the Fellowship of International Churches.. 

The authors acknowlege that black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be struggling with finances, twice as apt to engage in sexual relations with a non-spouse and four times more likely to be attending an AA-type program for substance abuse.

To cope with these pressures, blacks are more likely to turn to their faith, drawing support from the Bible, and to view their lives as a gift from God.  They seek guidance in life through prayer, Scripture, Bible teaching and spiritual counsel. By contrast, "the Promised Land sought by whites in this country is material success," they write.

Why do African-Americans make their faith a central focus of their lives? Their pastors are "able to motivate people to rise above their circumstances and limitations and focus on what really help people make sense of the existing reality and then to alter that reality to come into closer alignment with the reality that most honors and blesses God."

"Think about what it must be like to live in a world in which everyone knows you are different," they write. "Now consider your role as leader of such people.  Immediately you sense the necessity and significance of lifting the spirits of these people." And to move from inspiring the downtrodden to "representing their people eloquently to non-black audiences."

The authors cite several characteristics of black pastors which differ from white clergy:

1. The Pastor as an agent for change. Paul wrote to Timothy: "Set an example for the believers in speech, in faith and in purity. (I Tim. 4:12). Knowing that their people look to them to see a transformed life, black pastors "are surprisingly transparent about their own struggles with temptation and comfort."  That vulnerability builds a closer bond, because he seems human.

2.  Communication that inspires. Most white clergy see their preaching job as presenting biblical truths in a logical, professional manner. By contrast, black clergy believe they must be strategic, as well as right. They must preach practical messages that will motivate listeners "to reach for the dream that God has for them."

3.  Leadership in a team context. The best of America's black clergy rely heavily on team leadership, which develops the gifts of their followers. They take seriously Scripture's injuction to consider everyone the "priesthood of all believers." Pastors are "visionary team-builders, more of a player-coach than the owner of a sports franchise."

4. Investment in developing effective followers. This requires an investment of several Ts: Time to raise up world class leaders; Training, involving instruction and supervised participation; Truth, honest feedback and godly wisdom given lovingly; Trust, mutual respect and honor to enable the relationship to grow.

5. The significance of longevity. Effective black pastors have been at their churches twice as long as white clergy.

6. Building the adaptable model. There are a surprisingly large number of 15,000 member African-American churches, because clergy are flexible enough to adapt to changes in the culture, making their churches relevant.

Another difference between black and white clergy is that blacks are more politically active.  Bishop Jackson, a Democrat, has held press conferences calling this election as "an historic opportunity" for "supporters of traditional marriage to vote for candidates that represent their values" who may be Republican. (Disclosure: he is also a member of the Marriage Savers board that I lead.)


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