Black church worship: A historical and theological interpretation of a people who were pressed, perplexed, and persecuted
February 5th, 2020 / By: Donald Gene Burgs, Jr. | Guest Columnist / comments
I am often asked by white congregants if the church is moving toward unity and oneness in Christ Jesus, and if our convention (SBTC) has moved positively toward the “Look Like Heaven” emphasis. What is the reason for the emphasis on the black church and black worship in the month of February?
First, black worship is connected with black life and it is characterized by a religious sense inseparable from the suffering that determined it. When black people gather together for worship and praise to God, it is not because they have made a decision about the theological merits of Luther’s 95 Theses or of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Second, black worship has been wrought out of the experience of slavery, lynching, ghettos and police brutality. As my deceased father would preach speaking in terms of our pain, “… we have been ‘buked and scorned” and “talked about--sho’s you borned.” In worship, we try to say something about ourselves other than what has been said about us in society. Through sermons, prayers and songs, we have transcended societal humiliation and degradation to explore heavenly mysteries about starry crowns, long white robes and gospel shoes on golden streets.
For us, the church has been the citadel of hope--a sanctuary of peace. Whereas the church has been the only place where we could go with tears in our eyes without anyone asking, “What are you crying about?” We preach, shout and sing the songs of Zion according to the rhythm of the pain and the joy of life WITHOUT being subjected to the dehumanizing observations of intellectuals such as sociologists, psychologists and theologians.
In worship we can be who we are as defined by our struggle rather than be defined by modern society. Furthermore, our gathering for worship has been dictated by a historical and theological necessity that is related to the dialectic of oppression, and our attempt to liberate ourselves from it—for which we would have no reason to sing, “How I go over, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over ...”
Third, black worship was born in slavery on slave ships and nurtured in the cotton fields of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. It was birthed out of the struggle of black slaves seeking to define their humanity according to their anticipated freedom, and not according to slavery. For slaves, there was present the divine dower of “D Lawd,” who was greater than the white structures that enslaved them. When black slaves were tempted to give up in despair, this power (D Lawd) gave them hope that slavery would soon come to an end.
The source which black people used for explaining this power was the Holy Scripture as interpreted by our African heritage and our desire for freedom. Black worship is biblical! One of the most amazing facts of history is that many black slaves could not read, but their hermeneutics was not derived from an intellectual encounter with the text, but from a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Because slaves were able to make a radical epistemological distinction between the gospel of Jesus and the religion of the whites, the slaves came to a different theological conclusion about God. When African slaves heard of the Old Testament story of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, they identified themselves with the Hebrews and their white slaves masters as the Egyptians—and for them no exegesis could change that. It is this theological certainty that enabled them to sing, “… Oh Mary, don’t you weep, oh Martha don’t you moan, Pharaoh’s army got drownded in the Red Sea; Oh Mary, don’t you weep, oh Martha don’t you moan.”
Therefore, the theme of God as the liberator is found throughout the history of black religion. The theological conviction that the God of the Bible is the liberator of the poor and the downtrodden was and is the mindset of black people even today. For us as black people, God is a mighty God, our heartfixer, our mind regulator. In our worship he is known by the presence of his divine Spirit with us, giving us not only a vision that society must be transformed, but also giving us the power and courage to participate in that transformation.
Finally, black worship is a series of recitals of what God has done to bring his people out of hurt, harm and danger. In black worship, God is that divine miracle who enables his people to survive amid wretched conditions. In black worship, God is holy, personal and all-powerful. Our understanding of that fact is what drives us to sing, shout and preach, “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me that I am his own.” In black worship, God is everything we need in order to triumph over terrible circumstances.
But wait! You cannot leave out Jesus of black worship! In the black church, Jesus is known for his identification with the poor—and there is NO distinction in essence between God and Jesus. Jesus is our constant companion, the one who walks with his people. He is the oppressed one who experiences the brokenness of humanity.
Now that you have a better insight and meaning of the black church worship experience, my dear beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you for one Sunday in the month of February to go worship with your local SBTC black church and experience our unique heritage of praising our Lord!
Editor’s Note: Pastor Donald G. Burgs, Jr. is the president of the SBTC African-American Fellowship and has submitted this column as the nation commemorates Black History Month.