Book Review: Reviving the Black Church, by Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile, Reviving the Black Church: New Life for a Sacred Institution. B&H Books, 2015. 288 pps.
Talking about the Black church is the literary equivalent of telling a “your momma” joke. In any group of friends, all jabs are fair game, at least until you start talking about someone’s mother. Then the situation gets serious. Mothers are sacred. They are the life-givers, the nurturers, the oracles. No one better talk about “your momma.” For many African Americans, the Black church is their spiritual mother. That’s why it takes courage to write a book like Reviving the Black Church: A Call to Reclaim a Sacred Institution.
Many readers will know the author of Reviving the Black Church, Thabiti Anyabwile, for his public ministry. He maintains a blog for The Gospel Coalition called “Pure Church.” He also co-founded and writes for The Front Porch. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons and The Gospel for Muslims are just two of the numerous books he has penned. For several years, he pastored a church in the Grand Caymans, but now he leads a new church plant called Anacostia River Church in Washington D.C.
In Reviving the Black Church, Anyabwile diagnoses the state of the Black church and prescribes medicine from the Scriptures. He enters into the conversation by responding to an article entitled, “The Black Church Is Dead,” which was written by Princeton professor of religion and Chair of African American Studies, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. While the article caused a vigorous debate among Black theologians and clergy, Anyabwile focuses on other questions. He writes, “Amidst all the autopsies, coroner reports, and death announcements, two questions often go unasked. What makes a church ‘alive’? And, can a ‘dead’ church live again?” He spends the rest of the book offering biblically faithful responses to those questions.
Pastor Anyabwile divides his work into three parts. The first part explains why God’s Word in the Bible should be the “source and guide” of all that the Black church is and does. The second part “calls for a revival of pastoral leadership” in the Black church. In this section he includes explanations about biblical qualifications of church leaders, the process of discipline for ungodly leaders, and thoughts on pastoral training. The final section emphasizes membership and mission as hallmarks of a healthy church.
A few sections of the book deserve special commendation. Chapter three offers an outstanding apologetic for why expositional preaching is not “white” preaching as some have labeled it. He titles the chapter, “Reform Black Preaching, Part 2: A Defense of Exposition in Non-White Contexts.” Having made the case for the effectiveness of expositional preaching in chapter two, Pastor Anyabwile responds to some critiques of the style in the next one. He writes, “If you’re an African-American, and you are committed to exposition, chances are you have had someone say something like this to you: ‘You preach like a white man.’” Pastor Anyabwile parries attacks on expositional preaching such as: exposition is culturally inappropriate, you can’t “whoop” in expositional preaching, it’s not relevant to the needs of black communities, and expositional preaching is too intellectual. The chapter will bring an “Amen!” from Black expositional preachers and challenge those who aren’t.
As the reader strides through the book, Pastor Anyabwile drops nuggets of cultural insight along the way. Few books about the health of the church from a Reformed theological perspective will mention Bishop Eddie Long, James Cone, and Gardner C. Taylor. But Anyabwile’s does. Each chapter opens with an anecdote about Anyabwile’s experience growing up in the Black church or some other aspect of Black church life. Many who pick up this book may be surprised that he was arrested and nearly went to jail on a felony misdemeanor. But his pastor, Reverend Betts, put in a good word with the judge to drop the charges. Equally memorable are passages that describe the church “nurses” who help people when the Spirit “falls” on them, and the discussion about how singing can be both congregational and conversational in Black church settings.
The book has one great vulnerability, though, and that comes in the set-up. A title like Reviving the Black Church invites controversy. The Black church is the Mother Church of African Americans. Many will interpret any critique as an attack on the cradle of faith and the cornerstone of the African American community. The Black church needs evaluation, just like all churches, but Pastor Anyabwile could have spent more time in the introduction calming fears of an assault on the Black church. The book is not a betrayal of the institution, and Pastor Anyabwile acknowledges his indebtedness to it. He writes as an insider, not an uniformed observer, a fact constantly reinforced by insights throughout the work. But as the most sacred institution in Black culture, a book that exposes her flaws needs to gain the reader’s trust at the outset.
This book had to be written. As difficult as it is to define, there is such a thing as “the Black church”—and wolves have crept in. Yes, this is true of every church, no matter its ethnicity. But the particular threats are distinct in each church tradition. With clarity and care, Pastor Thabiti points out the leaven in the Black church and provides solidly Scriptural responses. Every reader, no matter his or her race, will find simple, biblical ecclesiology expressed in this volume. Pastor Anyabwile borrows heavily from the 9Marks model of church ministry, so those who are familiar with this body of work will navigate the content easily. But he also provides everyone who reads the book with insights about the Black church rarely known by anyone who isn’t part of it.
But not only did this book have to be written, it had to be written by Thabiti Anyabwile. In spite of his public platform, Anyabwile has been a consistent model of humility and gentleness when it comes to engaging those who hold different opinions than he does (see, for example, his exchange with Douglas Wilson). Every Christian can learn from Pastor Anyabwile’s example of taking on potentially explosive issues with a firm, but delicate hand. Writing any critique of the Black church, no matter how loving and respectful, will evoke passionate responses from people who see themselves as defenders of the tradition. Only a man with a pastor’s heart and a theologian’s mind is apt for the task. This is Pastor Thabiti, one who is seasoned in ministry and spiritually mature. Whatever your opinion on the vitality of the Black church, Reviving the Black Church will move you to esteem Christ’s bride more highly.