The Black Church and the Black Community: A Conversation with Anthony Bradley
You ought to read this book: Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (Crossway, 2012).
If you’re like me, you’ve got a heart to see churches reflecting the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-national kingdom of God, but you don’t know where to start. Concerning the black community, I feel like a newcomer to an ongoing conversation about major issues.
Anthony Bradley has brought together a group of pastors, leaders, and scholars to talk about the state of black families, the role of hip-hop, the Cosby/Poussaint discussion, and the effects of the prosperity gospel. After I read this book, I sought Anthony out and asked him for an interview. There was so much helpful information in this book that I don’t even know where to start in reviewing it. Better to hear from the editor himself.
Trevin Wax: Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint started an important conversation about the state of black communities all over America. How would you sum up the significance of their work?
Anthony Bradley: Cosby and Poussaint catalyzed a needed conversation within the black community between those of the civil-rights generation and those of us born after 1970. For those who suffered under Jim Crow era discrimination, fought through the civil-rights movement, suffered to become the first generation of African Americans to hold many positions in this country, and so on, it has been very painful to look back at the pathologies of many black communities and ask, “Where did we go wrong?” or “What happened?”
What happened to the social and economic gains that were made in the 1960s?
What happened to the hoped progress?
Today, many blacks are now asking, “Where’s the church in all this?” That is, “Is the black church dead, and what is her response to these new realities?” This is one reason we wrote the book. We are making the case that as long as God’s church has a presence in broken communities, there is hope because the church is where people discover the gospel.
Trevin Wax: What should the role of the black church be in addressing the social pathologies that continue to plague many black communities?
Anthony Bradley: Since slavery, the black church has served as a primary place for moral and social formation in the black community. The black church provided a refuge from suffering and a place to hear the hope of God’s plan to redeem all things because of what was finalized at the cross. We believe that her role is still important as the Scriptures teach us about the cosmic scope of redemption (Rom. 8; Col. 1).
If we want black families restored, virtues developed, and so on, that comes through the preaching and teaching of the work and person of Christ and the applications of redemption accomplished on the cross in our communities as God’s people seek first the Kingdom. This is what union with Christ is all about.
God intends to use His people, formed by the means of grace in His church, to be His agents of doing His will in the world wherever the curse is found (Matt. 5:13-20). As Reformed theologians, like Abraham Kuyper, remind us, the church is to continue preaching against sin in the lives of individuals and the errors in social institutions that do not reflect God’s intention for human life.
Trevin Wax: How has the prosperity gospel’s message of individual empowerment affected many black churches?
Anthony Bradley: Sadly, the prosperity gospel has taken the already individualistic, consumeristic American understanding of what it means to follow Christ to a new destructive level. This is why we included a chapter on this movement. Its theologically poisonous tentacles have found their way into many black churches, and it is now a major force in the black expression of Christianity in America, Latin America, and Africa.
Black pastors who are faithful to the Bible’s theology and faithful to the gospel of Christ are burdened to regularly preach against the prosperity gospel because of its presence in so many black churches as well as its emergence in contemporary gospel music. Prosperity theology is so bad that even black liberation theologians attack it.
Trevin Wax: Is gangsta rap a reflection of problematic issues within the black community or a cause of many social ills?
Anthony Bradley: It’s actually both. I am no fan of behavioral determinism because people who listen to gangsta rap still make their own moral choices. Gangsta rap is a complicated medium because it is primarily purchased by white suburban pre-teens and teens. The market drives so much of the content these days that some rappers are told what to rap about by producers because of what is known to sell. If there were a causal relationship between the music and moral action, middle-class culture would have similar outward pathologies in multiple areas.
In fact, gangsta rap serves as a signal and an enabler. You can think of gangsta rap as a reflection of the ways in which some people reflect on the narratives they encounter in their lived experiences. It serves as a signal to alert those in ministry to discern the “why” behind the music and to apply the gospel to it. It also serves to enable the mal-formed morals of those who already have certain presuppositions about the nature of the world.
The root cause of social ills in the black community is not gangsta rap but that men and women suffer from loving the wrong things in the wrong way. The music reflects that reality and, in some cases, encourages disordered love. This is why preachers need to preach the gospel to those who love gangsta rap because those men and women need to be transformed and liberated to love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). This is what the gospel does—it frees us to love in the way God created people to love.
Sadly, the market will respond to the demands of consumers. When consumers are loving as God desires, it will be reflected in the music people want to hear—for those in the suburbs and inner-cities alike. As long as people are not loving the things that God loves, we will have music that does not reflect virtue (Phil. 4:8).
Trevin Wax: How can a pastor of a predominantly white church serve alongside black pastors in meeting the spiritual and social needs of the community?
Anthony Bradley: The best way for a white church to serve alongside black pastors is to first think of themselves in a subordinate role—to first listen to what black pastors say the needs are and then to submit to black pastoral leadership. Far too often white churches approach black pastors assuming they know what is best for communities in which they do not live and for people they do not know. It is the same posture that is needed in international missions: Americans go to other countries and follow the lead of people who are there on the ground. Cross-cultural relationships in America are not different. This posture of humility will yield amazing dividends for the Kingdom.
Second, one of the reasons I wanted to do this book with Crossway was to give resources to white evangelicals, for them to use the book as a point of contact with black churches with whom they would like to serve and partner in order to say, “Here’s a book we picked up and would like to discuss with you all for the purposes of you telling us how we can help further the cause of Christ with your church in your community.”
Keep Your Head Up is a wonderful opportunity for white churches to begin new relationships with black churches to begin a fruitful dialogue. Sometimes in new relationships, you don’t know what to talk about. We want this book to serve as a national conversation starter not only within the black community but among white and urban pastors. We simply wanted to provide content for needed conversations. The truth is that we are all in this together as God’s people, and seeking the Kingdom calls for greater unity and solidarity. We wrote the book to help bridge the gap between the urban and the suburban (John 17).