The unchurching of a movement

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

African American movements for equality have long been entrenched in the Black church. The Black church has produced some of Black Americas most prolific and profound leaders such as Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev Jesse Jackson and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In fact, the leading civil rights organization of the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), memorialized the importance of the church in its name. Historically, in the Black community, the church has never been merely a place of worship, it was also the center of organizing, a safe haven for leadership development, and a social network that connected black communities long before social media. However, the present movement for racial equality, spearheaded by Black Lives Matter, has been fashioned in a distinctively secular manner. This movement is unchurched…and that may make it the most powerful and inclusive movement that African Americans have ever produced.

The Black Lives Matter movement is by no means the first unchurched movement initiated by African Americans. The Black Panther Party had no specific religiosity. The organization, in many ways, isolated itself from the Black Church by the introduction of weapons, the use of curse words, and its confrontational approach to law enforcement. Huey Newton stated, “the biggest mistake that the Black Panther Party made, was alienating and thereby distancing itself from the Black Church.” The Nation of Islam, although highly religious, represented the antithesis of the SCLC in its interpretation of scripture and its separatist beliefs. These organizations, as powerful and dominant as they may have been, were never able to capture the masses of Black Americans or garner the type of support as churched movements led by SCLC and other organizations. However, the Black Lives Matter movement has been able to garner global support largely without the aid of the Black Church. There are a few reasons for this occurrence.

First, there was a move by the Black Church away from the Kingstonian social gospel to the prosperity gospel. This shift fundamentally changed the focus and the utility of the church. Under the social gospel, there was a balance between the priestly and prophetic. Said differently, the church addressed both the spiritual/religious needs of the congregation (baptism, marriages, prayers, offerings, etc.) and the concrete concerns of the community through the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. King summarized his social gospel by saying  “Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.”

Dr. James Cone once described the phenomenon of the social gospel as being a manifestation of the Christian cross, in which the vertical axis represents the love of God and the horizontal axis represents the love of humanity. However, the prosperity gospel refocuses the role of the church from prophet to profit. The prosperity gospel redefined God’s blessings. No longer were blessings manifested in the form of justice, equality, brotherhood/sisterhood, and peace, rather, they were revealed through material and monetary items like a new car, house, or an increased bank account. The prosperity gospel became popular within the Black Church and centered the idea of individual prosperity over group progress.

“Dr. Robert M. Franklin, author of newly released Crisis in the Village, says the achievements of the African American community are losing ground, especially among church leaders who have shifted more focus onto individual achievement.” 

This move effectively removed social commentary from black pulpits and left a void that the Black Lives Matter movement has filled.

Other factors that contributed to the unchurching of the Black Lives Matter movement, was the acceptance of marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ and a rejection of patriarchy. The church has long been reluctant to fully accept members of the gay and lesbian community even in the face of the many contributions that members of the LGBTQ+ community have made to black movements. For example, Baynard Rustin, an openly gay black man, helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1963 March on Washington. However, his sexuality was weaponized against him by other black leaders including the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, who once threatened to release a false rumor to the press of a sexual relationship between Martin Luther King and Rustin. This eventually forced Rustin out of the SCLC. James Baldwin contributed greatly to the intellectual framework of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin was close friends with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. However, he was uninvited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington because some thought that his sexuality would offend the churched supporters of the march. The Black Lives Matter movement flatly rejected homophobia and incorporated the LGBTQ+ community, who had long felt isolated by the church. The church is also steeped in patriarchy. Although the black church is composed of mostly black women, the overwhelming majority of church leadership (pastors, bishops, elders) are men. During the civil rights movement, this type of sexism forced black women into supportive roles (with a few notable exceptions). The Black Lives Matter movement centered black women allowing the full expression of their genius, intellect, organizing ability and artistic creativity.

Timing has also contributed to Black Lives Matter being an unchurched movement. At one point in time, the black church was the single most powerful institution in the black community. However, according to Dr. E. Q. Truss, in his dissertation research entitled The Decline of Church Attendance in Black America: A Biblical Mandate for Black Males to Godly Leadership“studies show for the past several decades’ church attendance declined in many Baptist churches across America by 61 percent.” This move away from the church created the perfect opportunity for Black Lives Matter to evolve into an almost completely secular movement. The secular nature of the movement, also, removed certain “moral” limitations that accompanied churched movements. For example, prior to Rosa Parks, a fifteen year old named Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. She was arrested, however she did not become the national icon that Rosa Parks did. “Parks, a seamstress with a spotless reputation, was chosen to be the face of the boycott. Leaders believed that Parks would garner strong public support unlike Colvin, who’d become pregnant.” The Black Lives Matter movement rejects the notion that only unblemished black lives deserve organizational support. The unchurching of the movement removed the reputation shaming and life valuing that came with churched movements.

The unchurching of the movement has contributed greatly to making the Black Lives Matter a complete effort at an inclusive global black movement.

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