Does Liturgy or Music Keep Minorities Away from Our Church? (Part 5)

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In parts 1-4, I briefly highlighted some of my thoughts regarding liturgy, music, and the inclusion of more minorities (or more specifically, African-Americans) in our churches. I am going to take a slight detour in this fifth segment, a detour that has nothing to do with liturgy or music. While living in southern California this was my experience. As I plant a church in Richmond, Virginia, this is also my experience.

One of the many reasons more African-Americans are not Presbyterian and Reformed (e.g., PCA, ARP, URC, etc.) is because of the lack of familiarity with its brand, or denomination/federation. On both coasts, when I invite African-Americans to church, probably 8 out of 10 cannot define what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed, have never visited a Presbyterian or Reformed church, and do not know any Presbyterian or Reformed Christians. This has many implications. Here are two.

If an African-American family, for example, were to move to a new area and look for a church, they would not visit a Presbyterian or Reformed congregation. Even if they did not have a commitment to one particular denomination, it is more likely they would attend a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational church. The same can be said for newly converted African-Americans. If, for instance, an African-American gets saved through means other than the preaching of the word on the Lord's Day (e.g., street preaching, gospel tract, etc.), it is unlikely, once he looks for a church, he will visit a Presbyterian or Reformed congregation. He, along with the minority family mentioned in the previous example, is unfamiliar with its beliefs, practices, and its brand. This newly converted man would also, more than likely, end up attending a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational church. 

This is quite interesting in light of a report that was submitted to the 205th general assembly of the PCUSA, which suggests that African-Americans had a much greater affinity for Presbyterianism at one time. After reading this, provided it is true, I wonder how we can make our denomination, or more broadly those within NAPARC, more familiar to all minorities. What can we do to have better name recognition? I have ideas. You may as well.

I hope you will take the time to read this. In a section of the report, titled, "Toward a Nonsegregated Church in a Nonsegregated Society," the authors wrote,

"The end of World War II brought a rising tide of expectations and an irrepressible demand for equity before the law. African Americans, who had once again shed their blood in defense of their country and the cause of democracy, returned home to find their own lot essentially unchanged.

While it might be expected that the churches would have provided ethical leadership for the nation in responding to African Americans' yearning and struggling for justice and equality, such was not the case. The Presbyterian church bodies as a whole did little beyond issuing platitudinous statements. Black clergy, laity, and churches, however, continued their historical role of providing to their communities educated and sophisticated leadership, often through close cooperation with secular organizations like the NAACP. Black Presbyterians were keenly aware that it was government, through the courts, and secular organizations that took the lead in calling the nation to social reform in race matters. In the South, the subject of race relations and racial justice was seldom raised from the pulpit. And as long as the problem was so much identified with southern mores, northern church people could pretend that it was a southern problem, not one with which they must grapple.

In the years between the two world wars, none of the three Presbyterian bodies that now are melded into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) achieved vigorous growth among their African American constituencies. The southern Presbyterian church (the Presbyterian Church in the United States) hardly grew at all until Lawrence Bottoms was brought into the picture as the assistant secretary of the Board of Negro Work, which came into being in 1946.

The Committee on Colored Evangelization of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) was established in 1892 and went out of existence in 1910. At the time of its establishment, there were fifty-six Black congregations with a total of about sixteen hundred members. When the committee was discontinued, congregations numbered fifty-nine and the membership totaled 2,355. (150)

Evangelizing and teaching Black people was not a popular preoccupation. "Someone remarked facetiously and yet with much truth that when one went to Africa as a missionary to evangelize the Negro he was canonized; when he stayed home to teach the Negro he was ostracized." (151)

When the Committee on Colored Evangelization was discontinued in 1910, its work was transferred to the Executive Committee on Home Missions as a Department of Colored Work. Snedecor continued as superintendent of this work until he resigned due to failing health. This coincided with the failure of the independent Afro-American Presbyterian Synod. In that same year, the independent synod was restructured as a synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). It was renamed the Snedecor Memorial Synod in honor of Snedecor, who had given so much of his life to work among African Americans.

After Snedecor's death, several persons were chosen to give leadership to the work among Blacks. Although this succession of men worked hard to move the church to shoulder its evangelistic responsibility, they could not overcome the apathy now grown to aversion. As the Snedecor Synod, and thus an integral part of the General Assembly, the Black constituency still experienced anemic growth. In 1918, there were 1,492 members; by 1933 that number had only increased to 1,847.

The place at which Black church growth did occur was the cities. In the period following World War II, successful PCUS mission centers were established in Louisville, Richmond, Atlanta, and New Orleans. A feature common to these locations was the development of strong Sunday schools and attention to the social, economic, and educational needs as a part of the evangelistic thrust.

Work for and among African Americans in the southern Presbyterian church continued under the Board of Home Missions until 1946 when the Board of Negro Work was formed. The creation of this board represented not only a change in structure, but a change in attitude. Lawrence Bottoms, who played a key role in this development, describes the changes this way:

"[The Home Mission Board] governed and functioned like a plantation system. The executive secretary of the Board of Home Missions worked through certain key ministers who carried out the instructions given by the Board and endeavored to develop the work within the synod and presbytery without the body knowing exactly what they were doing and where they were trying to go; and the body was governed by these key ministers who operated and functioned under the instruction of the Board of Home Missions. The members of the Synod (Snedecor) and the presbytery did not learn to use the tool of government, social organization, economic process and social process, or political process. ... Neither did they learn about Presbyterian belief. ... The work was carried on in a paternalistic fashion in the hope that the people being led by these ministers would become good people who would adjust to the systems of segregation and be comfortable in those systems without causing any difficulty." (152)

Substantial growth of Black membership in the PCUS began under the leadership of Alex R. Batchelor, who was appointed secretary of the Division of Negro Work in 1947. Lawrence W. Bottoms, serving first as part-time regional director of Christian Education, succeeded in getting Blacks and Whites to plan together for new urban churches, such as All Souls Church in Richmond, Virginia, rather than have Whites plan for Blacks as had been the practice before.

Bottoms later became full-time regional director of Christian Education, then associate in the Division of Negro Work and, at the death of Alex Batchelor, director of the Division of Negro Work. Bottoms' unusual background had prepared him well for an unenviable task. A deeply spiritual man, he had grown up in the Church of the Covenanters, earned his A.B. degree from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and completed his theological course at the Reformed Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before coming to the national staff, Bottoms had served PCUS pastorates in Selma, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; and Miami, Florida. In 1974, he was elected the first and only African American moderator of the PCUS General Assembly.

In 1949, this work among African Americans was placed under the Board of Church Extension as the Division of Negro Work, along with the Divisions of Home Missions, Christian Relations, Radio and Television, and Evangelism. This placement of the work in the church's structure overcame some of the sense of isolation that the Division of Negro Work had experienced and was strategic in achieving a more integrated relationship with other aspects of the church's work.

Batchelor writes of that period: "In 1946 something happened in our church. It seemed that God spoke and commanded us to go forward in Negro Work. This was a voice to the whole church." (153) It happened to coincide with the post-World War II period when many new nations in Asia and Africa were gaining independence. Change was in the air and African Americans were pressing the case for democracy in the United States with unprecedented vigor. Batchelor, appealing to the best instincts in the White constituency of his church, observed that the usual procedure in a Christian fellowship is not for the minority to have to make demands, but for the majority to take the initiative. In other words, the majority ought to care so much about the minority that it anticipates the latter's needs and addresses them. "If it fails to do so, it opens to question the extent to which it has appropriated the Spirit of Christ." (154)

A piece of hard evidence that a new day was on the horizon in the PCUS was the appointment of Black staff persons at the national level to guide and administer the work among African American churches. Batchelor seemed of a different spirit than most of his predecessors, and an important clue to his effectiveness was his employment of capable Black men and women to share responsibility for the work. In addition to the appointment of Lawrence Bottoms, Leon Anderson succeeded to the position of regional director of Christian Education and Mrs. A. L. DeVariest, staff member of the Board of Women's Work, conducted training workshops for church leaders and youth.

During the post-World War II era, the Black constituency of the PCUS experienced substantial growth under Bottoms' and Batchelor's leadership. Some forty new churches were started and, during a five-year period, the Black membership increased from three thou- sand to about seven thousand (155)" (pages 113-17).
Posted December 29, 2014 @ 10:09 AM by Leon Brown

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