I spent the day at the Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (SBC 21) summit in North Charleston, South Carolina. The positive spirit and energy of this gathering is infectious, and the hopeful vision is noble. But this is a gathering of leaders from throughout our connectional system, and it’s disheartening that there are no more than 8 or 9 non-black participants at the event. In my own experience, I was asked no less than 3 times why I was attending this event… why didn’t I send (insert name of African-American leader here)? The “us/themness” of our current church is distressing. The health and vitality of the black church is “our” responsibility — the whole “united” Methodist church. Where is everybody? Are we still marginalizing and factionalizing our church after all we’ve learned? Do we really believe systemic change is possible when we pay lip service to our pluralism, but fail to come to the table together? I’m sorry. This is a great vision that way too many leaders in our church remain woefully ignorant about.
Not that it is without problems. The challenges of revitalization, new faith communities, identity, purpose and mission are pretty much the same as the entire church faces, but the added challenges of heritage, empowerment, community and justice compound the immensity. The rich, varied, and defining story of black church in black culture is a bedrock foundation that means the past is as important as the present and the future. But too many leaders don’t merely seek to remember the past so much as live in it, and this is a problem. Our future — the future of the black church as well as the larger United Methodist Church — does not lie in our past. Yet, there is no future for the black church that is not built squarely on the heritage and history that gives it strength and direction. SBC 21 is calling the key leadership of the contemporary church to write a new story for the black church living its way into the future… and it is a story of hope, purpose, transformation, and promise.
Perhaps the most hopeful and compelling part of the vision is that the leaders of the black church realize how much they need each other. While the moderate mainline strives to do it alone, the black church knows that its future rises or falls for all. The vision for sharing, mentoring, guiding and journeying together is central to renewal. The Congregation Resource Center model has all kinds of potential — and as long as they don’t fall victim to old training/coaching/planning/resourcing structures, they should do well. What’s different about this iteration of SBC is that everything is organized to shift attention away from the problems of the past onto the possibilities of the future. The recurrent question here is, what needs to be different? What will take us somewhere new and meaningful?
The critical issue, at least from my perspective, is energy and how to sustain it. These events are always spiritually and emotionally charged — hallmarks of the African-American tradition and style. When people leave the rarified air of the mountaintop experience, what will sustain them? We need a new kind of system supporting a new kind of approach to support a wide variety of churches facing a boatload of old, old problems. This is a problem that will take all of us, not just some of us. This is a challenge that requires commitment and ownership, not just lip service and cheerleading. Somehow, the importance of strengthening all aspects of our denomination needs to start by supporting every aspect that is seeking transformative change.
One of the most helpful things we can do for minority segments of our church is honestly admit what isn’t working for the majority segments. Large church (successful) models are not good for the church. They misdirect and misinform. They pretend that context isn’t crucial. Formulas to follow are lies. We need concepts that transcend our limitations. No one else has the answer we need. Yes, we can learn principles and processes that we can use in a wide variety of contexts, but there are virtually no models or plans that can be lifted from one setting and applied to another. We need to be gifts based rather than resource dependent. Books, DVDs, and training events can spark some good thinking, but they don’t hold real answers. Learning takes more time than training. A weekend event or a three-hour workshop delivers information, but not formation or transformation. Mentoring works better than coaching; mentors help people unleash their own potential while coaches guide people to discover the potential the coach believes you have. Coaching is much more destination driven than mentoring, which is about discovery. Discernment is healthier than consultation. Too many of our consultants think they know what we need instead of helping us figure out what God thinks we need.
I’m not sure I fully understand what the tangible outcomes will be from all of this, but there is hope. SBC 21 is talking about transformation in ways the dominant church has yet to begin. There is leadership here that our church desperately needs. My prayer is that more and more United Methodists find out what is happening in the black church and begins to realize it is time that we focus on putting the united back in United Methodist.