Woke Worship: Taking Black Panther and Barbie Savior to Church

Dr. Jesse Wilson: “This is the best article that you didn’t read this week! I always get a little nervous when white folk use words like “woke”, but Steve’s been woke for a while. Good guy. Its longer than my blogs but worth the read. Read it and let’s talk!”

 

Woke Worship: Taking Black Panther and Barbie Savior to Church

Written by Steve Yeagley

Presented at the 2018 Andrews University Music & Worship Conference

Introduction 

My task at the Music and Worship Conference over the past several years has been to read popular art and rituals alongside the theology and practice of Christian worship. In this presentation, I will explore how the conversation about race in America has been shaped recently by popular culture and what that might say about race and worship in the Adventist church.

First, by drawing on the vernacular of “wokeness” and the tenets of Afrofuturism, I will reflect on black consciousness and the black imagination. I will highlight how these are manifested in the blockbuster movie Black Panther and how they intersect with the liberating and healing potentials of black worship.

Second, I will turn to the largely unconscious mode of the white racial frame and the colonizing nature of the white imagination, as illustrated in the satirical blog Barbie Savior. I will offer a critique of white evangelical worship, proposing that predominantly white Adventist churches recapture worship as a mode of social consciousness and prophetic imagination.

Finally, from my own standpoint as a white male, I will offer some practical suggestions as to how Adventist worship leaders can challenge the white racial frame and create spaces where a racially just future can emerge.

What Do You See?

In my seminary course on faith and popular culture, I show students a slightly overexposed black-and-white image and ask them, “What do you see?”[1] This elicits a variety of responses. “What if I told you the title of the picture is ‘Renshaw’s Cow’?” I add. Faces begin to light up with recognition. I then trace the cow’s features, and nearly everyone sees it. In fact, once students see the cow, they cannot “un-see” it. That’s because our vision results from a series of learned operations in the brain. We don’t see things; we “come to see” them.

When we look at black and white in America, what do we see? Conversations about race often rely on what each of us sees or does not see. Are we bound to view things differently based on our racial identity? Or can all of us—regardless of our skin color—“come to see” things as they really are as well as for what they might become?

These are the questions of consciousness and imagination.

Wokeness and Black Consciousness

As we think of what it means to be aware of race, both as a social construct and as a set of day-to-day consequences, the term “woke” comes to mind. It was first popularized in 2008, when R&B star Erykah Badu slipped the refrain “I stay woke” into one of her tracks. But it wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement began, following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, that woke took off as a watchword among black activists. For many in the black community, “stay woke” became a call to “stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy” and to maintain a “healthy paranoia, especially about issues of racial and political justice.”[2]

As with many terms that have gained popularity on the internet, woke has since been co-opted by the mainstream.[3] Nevertheless, in its original form, “stay woke” is much more than just a cool hashtag, a clever meme, or a form of virtue-signaling. It is a call for black people to remain vigilant and to take action as if their life depended on it—because it just might.

In 2015, unarmed black people were killed by police at five times the rate of white people.[4] The number of those who have fallen to police violence in the last few years only continues to rise, including Stephon Clark who died in a hail of bullets in Sacramento on March 18, 2018. He was holding only a cell phone.

If you are black in America, you cannot help but be aware of your race. In fact, you can probably recall the moment when you were first made aware of it. Maybe it was when you were called the “n” word or when you were directed to a congregation across town where you would “feel more at home.” Or maybe it was a series of micro-aggressions that communicated you were viewed as “less than.”

Black Panther steps into this context of prejudice and racialized violence against black bodies. In fact, its director, Ryan Coogler, made his motion picture debut with Fruitvale Station, a movie based on the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, California—one of the first widely publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black persons.

Coogler deftly ties Black Panther to this earlier work by situating its opening scenes back in Oakland. But this time Coogler seeks to raise other forms of black consciousness. While still leaving the plight of African Americans very much on the table, what he celebrates is black elegance, black brilliance, and black royalty, reminiscent of the Black Pride and Black is Beautiful movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As important as this pro-black consciousness is—particularly in America’s current social and political climate—the movie’s script goes on to reveal an even deeper “wokeness,” not so much to systems that oppress black people as to questions of power and privilege within the African diaspora itself.

These questions arise from the very source of black pride in the movie—the fictional Wakanda, a powerful African nation hidden from the rest of the world by a virtual rainforest. Magnificently wealthy due to a deposit of vibranium, and technologically advanced beyond compare, much of the film turns on the question of what sort of nation Wakanda should become.

Christopher Orr, writing in The Atlantic, highlights three alternative visions of Wakanda that compete with one another throughout the film.

The first vision was upheld by Wakandan rulers of the past—that of “an advanced African civilization, thriving in isolation, untouched by war or colonialism.”[5] This isolationist vision was pursued, even when it meant turning a blind eye to the plight of other black people around the world.

The second vision, an engage done, is promoted by Wakanda’s newly-minted king, T’Challa. In one of the film’s many feminist moves, T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia, is the first to champion this vision. As someone who has provided aid to others in nearby countries, she questions Wakanda’s policy of secrecy and isolation. “Wakanda,” she tells T’Challa, “is strong enough to help others and protect itself.”

The third vision is harbored by the movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan of royal descent orphaned in a run-down Oakland neighborhood. Trained in the arts of American warfare, he sees himself as “the vanguard of a global revolution to invert the existing racial order.”[6] His revolutionary vision would use Wakanda’s resources to help black people everywhere rise up against their oppressors. “The world’s going to change, and this time we will be on top,” he declares.

Ultimately, it is the engaged vision of T’Challa that prevails.[7] But not without a lot of black soul-searching as to what it means to possess power and privilege in the face of injustice and the suffering of others.

This level of consciousness is notable, considering that many white people find it difficult to even acknowledge the systems of power and privilege from which they benefit. While some of Marvel’s white superheroes have wrestled with the responsibility that comes with their powers, Black Panther goes even further in developing these themes, precisely because it approaches them from a marginalized standpoint.

From my own observation of African American worship and the role it has played in shaping black culture, I suggest that Black Panther’s heightened social consciousness may actually be rooted in the historically woke state of black theology and liturgy.

The fact that within hours of Black Panther’s release a Wakanda Seventh-day Adventist Church sprang up on Facebook and now boasts over 9,000 members speaks to how deeply this film resonated with the experience of black worshipers. For many African Americans, worship is the place where their social consciousness has been awakened, developed, and sustained.

Michael Eric Dyson, in his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, says that when setting out to write about America’s original sin of racism, he could turn only to his days as a black preacher and to the form of worship. In fact, he structures his book chapter-by-chapter as a liturgy, beginning with the Call to Worship and ending with a Closing Prayer.

“What I need to say can only be said as a sermon,” he writes. “Sermons are tough, not only to deliver, but just as often, to hear. Yet, in my experience, if we stick with the sermon—through its pitiless recall of our sin, its relentless indictment of our flaws—we can make it to the uplifting expressions and redeeming practices that make our faith flow from the pulpit to the public, from darkness to light.”[8]

If, indeed, black worship has been a place for developing the social consciousness of an oppressed people, it has also been a place of sparking the imagination.

Afrofuturism and the Black Imagination  

Black Panther brought to the world stage a movement known as Afrofuturism. The term was coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future.” Protesting the scarcity of black science fiction writers in a field otherwise dominated by white men, Dery asked: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”[9]

Building on the work of pioneering artists like jazz musician Sun Ra (Space is the Place, 1973), Afrofuturists have set out to reclaim their future from the white imagination. They understand that activating the black imagination has far-reaching social and political implications. If black people can imagine their own futures, they have a much greater likelihood of realizing them. As Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays T’Challa, said in an interview: “Being imaginative is how things change.”[10]

Nnedi Okorafor, author of the award-winning Binti trilogy, said that science fiction is all about the question “What if?” It is an especially powerful question, she added, when asked from the perspective of a Nigerian American woman, like herself.[11] That same question drives Black Panther’s narrative. What if there was a nation in Africa untouched by colonialism? What if it was left alone to develop itself and to capitalize on its own resources, rather than having them siphoned off to the West?

When Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan American actress who played Nakia, was asked about what Black Panther’s celebration of blackness—in all of its futuristic splendor—meant for her, she replied, “It’s so liberating.”[12] Her answer touched on one of the central tenets of Afrofuturism—the liberation of the black imagination.

David Betancourt observed:

Too often the stories Hollywood studios choose to tell about black people are rooted in pain, in suffering, in injustice. Perhaps you’ve seen them: 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Hidden Figures, The Help and Amistad, to name a few. There may be triumph by the third reel, but the often-historical premise is ‘Look how bad it was.’ Black Panther is about that rare thing—black glory.[13]

Black movie-goers responded with enthusiasm, showing up to the opening weekend of Black Panther in all manner of African finery. One reviewer, Nicholas Powers, wrote:

During a slow scene, I whispered to my friend, ‘I watched 12 Years a Slave but nobody got dressed as a slave for the premiere’…. It struck me that I was so thirsty to see Black Panther because I’ve watched Black people as slaves, criminals or victims since my earliest movie-going.[14]

Powers said that Afrofuturism is pushing back against that. “Instead of victims or problems, we create space-faring civilizations and the stars are close enough to touch.”[15]

Consider an early example from EC Comics’ 1953 “Judgment Day,”[16] a sci-fi story that confronted racism through an astronaut’s encounter with a segregated planet. Not until the very last panel does the reader learn that the astronaut is a black man: “And inside the ship, the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars . . .” With a single line, the writer transforms the ebony surface of the man’s skin, which in any other circumstance in the 1950s would have placed limitations on him, into the endless possibilities of deep space and worlds beyond.

Ytasha Womack, author of a leading book on Afrofuturism, met with a group of fifth-graders on the south side of Chicago. She asked the students what they would like to see in the future, expecting answers about space ships and flying cars. Instead, all they could talk about was wanting to live in a world without violence. Womack was surprised that their imaginations had been hijacked at such an early age. “Once we could sort of peel back the layers behind what they didn’t want to see,” she said, “we could get to what they did want to see.” Finally, one girl asked, “So are you trying to tell us that we can use our imaginations and that we can create the kind of world we want to create and that we can change the things around us?” Womack said, “Yes!” It took thirty minutes of talking about violence, but “suddenly, at the end, light bulbs went off and there was this idea that they could have a sense of agency in their lives.” [17]

Afrofuturism not only seeks to liberate the black imagination as a form of empowerment but to release it as a means of healing, as well. Working with the themes of alienation and reclamation, Afrofuturists explore the future as a way to return to the past and recover what has been lost.

Powers reflects on the young Erik Killmonger who—now orphaned—watches from an Oakland playground as his uncle leaves in a Wakandan aircraft:

The boy is us. His upward gaze at the royal family abandoning him is [a] major trope in Black art:  We’re an exiled people in search of a home. Jamaican Rasta prayed to leave Babylon and go to Zion. . . . Malcolm X demanded we leave ‘the wilderness of North America’ and get our own land. Afro-Futurists made art that imagined a hi-tech, future home. . . . And now, we have Wakanda, a gleaming, sci-fi African city of Tomorrow. All of it repeats a long-standing, deep mythos that like Erik, we are strangers in a strange land. We want to . . . come home.[18]

This ongoing sense of alienation and the need to reclaim a sense of belonging is reflected in a poignant review of Black Panther by Kyle Howard. As a Christian counselor who cares for victims of race-based trauma, he said:

I’ve lost count of the number of saints who have told me that the [majority culture] spaces they belonged to left them with much doubt as to whether their lives mattered . . .For black Americans, [Black Panther] has been a long-awaited love letter from the people, cultures, and place they’ve longed to be seen and embraced by. It is a movie that concludes by affirming that black American people belong to Africa and that they are no longer a lost people . . . Wakanda depicts a world and a people for them to remember, a world they have largely lost their connection to. Wakanda isn’t a place of sheer fantasy; it is a place of healing where black people can feel and imagine a sense of belonging and affirmation.[19]

All of this has theological overtones, especially if you understand how the apocalyptic genre functions.

Black Worship and The Apocalyptic Cure

In his book City of Ruins, Dereck Daschke examined the “Zion apocalypses.” These biblical and extra-biblical literary works were written by Jewish exiles who lived in the shadows of the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jerusalem and who suffered from all of the traumas associated with those violent extractions and erasures of the past.

Like many in the African diaspora, members of the Jewish diaspora lived with persistent, if not latent, feelings of loss and longings for home. Daschke noted, “’Home’ is a master symbol in the human experience, so all-encompassing that few fully comprehend what it represents until it is lost or altered in some way.”[20] He continued:

For exactly this reason, national traumas marked by exile, immigration, forced homelessness, and refugee status all immediately create communities where the symbol of the homeland takes on extraordinarily powerful qualities. Even generations later, the idea of the land left behind can remain one of the most salient forces in the culture.[21]

What apocalyptic literature does, then, is introduce exilic readers to an “imaginative, creative space”[22] where they can work through their losses and find their way back home again. These texts present an alternative and symbolic reality where the tragedies, injustices, and disappointments of the past and present can be transformed, moving the reader in “a healing arc from trauma to recovery.”[23] This is what has been called the “apocalyptic cure.”[24]

“In short, what apocalypticism offers,” Daschke said, “is an unmasking of reality—showing believers that the reality they experience is not ‘true’ reality; and fueling the hope for (and possibly the vicarious experience of) the symbolic transformation of the world to match the divine reality.”[25]

In many ways Wakanda serves as a black Zion. Pulling back the rain-forested, cinematic curtain that conceals Wakanda from the rest of the world, the director—who now plays the role of ancient seer—reveals to his viewers in the African diaspora a vision of both their past and future. It is a place where they are no longer alienated and cut off by racism and injustice, but where their true identities and potentials are reclaimed and realized.

The liminal and creative space of worship has the capacity to offer this apocalyptic cure. As a borderland between heaven and earth, liturgy offers a symbolic setting in which the past, present, and future can be reimagined from a new vantage point. The lingering effects of past traumas, as well as the ever-present losses that come from living in an inhospitable environment, can be processed through the transfiguring and healing rituals of worship. However, this can only happen if worship is tuned—as black worship has been—to the experiences and longings of its contemporary exilic participants.

That brings us to the topic of white consciousness and the white imagination.

The White Racial Frame

In his book, The White Racial Frame, sociologist Joe Feagin defined that frame as “a white worldview that encompasses a broad and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accents, as well as racialized inclinations to discriminate.”[26]

This dominant frame is pervasive and deeply embedded in American society. Often more subconscious than conscious, it shapes our thinking and acting in everyday situations. It is culturally transmitted through institutions such as schools, churches, and the media and is reinforced by white parents and peers.

The white racial frame is made up of two main components. The first is what Feagin called virtuous whiteness. Think of it as a thick coat of moral Teflon. No matter what white people might do or say, no matter how offensive or hurtful their behavior might be to people of color, nothing sticks. White people continue to think of themselves as good and decent persons.

Feagin said this sense of virtuousness can manifest in several ways:

  • Entitlement: White people may feel entitled to what they have without understanding the ongoing injustices that often makes those things possible.
  • Superiority: White people may see European-American “civilization” as the peak of human accomplishment, and assume that people of color should simply adjust and assimilate to it.
  • Ignorance: Consequently, white people may not engage in self-critique or ask what people of color might know that they do not. This results in significant levels of ignorance.
  • Denial: White people also tend to think incorrectly or rarely at all about the devastating effects of systemic racism. This makes it easy to deny the difficulties that people of color experience.
  •  Color-Blindness: Finally, knowing that blatant racism is no longer acceptable, many white people retreat into a “color-blind” way of thinking and acting, so as not to have their biases challenged.

The second component of the white racial frame, according to Feagin, is the negative stereotyping of people of color. Think of this as moral Velcro. In the white worldview everything negative sticks to people of color, no matter who they are or what they accomplish. Feagin found this to be especially true of how whites framed black people, as opposed to other groups of color. Black people are hyper-visible to white eyes and are implicitly associated with things such as:

  • criminality, violence, and danger
  • dirt and ignorance
  • being ungrateful or oppositional
  • being unable to self-determine or self-protect and therefore requiring white paternalism

All of this means that many white people are—to one degree or another—racially unaware. Very few white people would consider themselves to be “racist.” Yet they often operate out of bits and pieces of the white racial frame. And because that frame is dominant and deeply embedded, it is often invisible to us, allowing us to ignore race or to imagine that we do not have a racial identity. This can produce what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.”[27]

Consequently, it can be difficult for many of us who are white to talk about race. We simply do not have the self-awareness, vocabulary, conceptual frameworks, or critical distance necessary to think about our own racialized identity in any meaningful way.[28]

Barbie Savior and the White Savior Complex

With the white racial frame in mind, consider Barbie Savior. The satirical website[29] and companion Instagram account[30] follow an orphan-loving, selfie-obsessed Barbie doll on her missionary travels in Africa. As her profile states, “It’s not about me . . . but it kind of is.”

The whole thing pokes some serious fun at the “white savior complex,” which is built on the white-virtue framing Feagin described. The creators of Barbie Savior, who together have worked over a decade in Uganda, describe the white savior as “the wildly self-centered person veiled as the self-sacrificing saint.”[31] Their caricature is not meant to disparage cross-cultural work but to improve it.

The caption next to a picture of Barbie in a rudimentary classroom reads: “Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me! All I need is some chalk and a dose of optimism. It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here.”

Another post features Barbie taking a bedside selfie with an African child: “Today I sacrificed my daily beauty regimen to visit the local ‘hospital’ (if you can even call it that!) . . . It provided me the perfect opportunity to snap some selfies with the less fortunate.”

In yet another entry she poses in a shantytown, handbag slung over her shoulder: “Just taking a #slumfie amidst this dire poverty and need. Feeling so #blessed and #thankful that I have so much more than this!”

While Barbie Savior may use all the latest social media tools, her thinking is anything but new. “The attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners, can be traced back to colonialism and slavery,”[32] say the blog’s creators. As Teju Cole famously tweeted in response to the “Kony 2012” campaign, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”[33] This contradiction is made possible by a merging of white superiority and white sentimentality; the latter providing moral cover and psychic relief for the former.

White sentimentality is what James Baldwin called “the mask of cruelty.”[34] Whether taking the form of pity, piety, paternalism, or nostalgia, “sentimentality offers an escape from the difficult conclusions that must come from honest scrutiny of social reality.”[35] By retreating into emotional sincerity and idealism, white people not only attempt to conceal racial injustices but shun the commitment and sacrifice required to address them.

Out of this sentimentality and lack of social consciousness grows the white imagination.

The White Imagination and Evangelical Megachurches

As white people, our way of conceiving and moving into the future has often been filled with primitive peoples and alien bodies to be conquered, exploited, civilized, and assimilated. It is difficult to speak about the white imagination without talking about its colonizing tendencies.

In the white imagination we are all being carried along by a giant Carousel of Progress, while Disney’s upbeat lyrics play in the background: “There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day. There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow’s just a dream away.”[36] However, in reality the carousel of American progress has always turned at great expense, fulfilling some dreams while denying others.

In his essay “The Would-Be Wakanda,” Euware Osayande noted that Black Panther’s utopia is reminiscent of the newly-independent Congo in the early 1960s, whose democratic ambitions were quickly crushed by European and American interests in the region. He then pointed to a cruel paradox:

Buried in the red clay soil of the Congo lies an assortment of the most sought-after metals and minerals on the planet. [They are] valued at a staggering 24 trillion dollars, enough wealth to solve the problem of poverty throughout the world, let alone in Africa, yet the Congolese people are one of the poorest on the planet.

This crisis of development does not originate in a lack of initiative on the part of the people . . . It was a condition of colonialism.[37]

White colonizers have not only sought to control territories and extract their resources but to inhabit people’s imaginations, as well. This is the project of cultural hegemony. It is an attempt to persuade subordinates to embrace and live within the colonizer’s imagination as if it were their own, even if that vision is not within their best interests. Hegemony is the stuff of empire-building, and it can happen even in the context of churches and their worship.

Over the last decade or so, there have been an increasing number of attempts by evangelical megachurches to expand their territory by diversifying their congregations, if not their praise and worship bands. Some have even planted multiracial urban campuses beyond the borders of white suburbia.

No doubt, many of these have been good-faith efforts to become more inclusive. But the white imagination being what it is, there has always been the possibility that a colonizing mindset might take over; a risk that white churches might seek black bodies in the pews, but not welcome black minds and imaginations.

A 2015 study of multi-racial congregations published in Sociology of Religion found that most multiracial churches, despite their potential to bridge racial differences and promote cross-race relationships, actually leave the white racial frame intact. Such churches, often relying on a “united by faith” message, are more likely to perpetuate an individualist account of racial inequality and less likely to confront the structural elements of racism that are of concern to many Black Americans.[38]

The disjuncture between the liberating imagination of black evangelicals and the colonizing imagination of white evangelicals began to intensify after the events in Ferguson. As the black body count continued to rise across the country, it became apparent that black lives—at least in their totality—did not really matter in predominantly white evangelical congregations.

For Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae, it was a wake-up call. Since his debut album in 2004, he had gained a large following in white evangelical circles. However, he eventually realized that success came with conditions. Evangelicals were happy to appropriate his black, urban sound as long as it was promoting a white gospel. But when Lecrae decided to return to his black roots and use that gospel lens to authentically address black concerns, his white fan-base melted away. Concerts that once drew 3000 now saw only a few hundred in attendance.

Lecrae explained the situation on the Truth’s Table podcast:

I’m the son of a mother who was, who is very pro-black . . . this is who I was at my core. And then when I became a believer, I guess I was taught—whether consciously or subconsciously—to lay all that aside for Jesus . . . When Michael Brown was murdered, I just assumed that all Christians felt the way that I did—“This is terrible!”—you know? Like, “This is horrible.” So I just put it out there. “Hey guys, isn’t this bad?” And man, you would have thought that I had just said that Jesus wasn’t real . . . The visceral attacks that came my way were like a shock to my system, and it was like an awakening.[39]

Some accused Lecrae of being divisive, others told him to stick to the gospel. In 2017, Lecrae dropped a new album that included these lines:

I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith \ My Messiah died for the world, not just USA… \ They say, “‘Crae, you so divisive, shouldn’t be a Black church” \ I say, “Do the math, segregation started that first!” \ Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy \ Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.[40]

Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism was only the beginning. After the 2016 election, with over 80% of white evangelicals supporting a presidential candidate who had been openly racist during the campaign and into his presidency, the wheels came off the welcome wagon.

In March of 2018, the New York Times ran a piece titled, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.” It reported that while some multiracial churches continue to thrive, for some black worshipers the clock had run out:

Black congregants…had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel.[41]

Then came the election.

It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology. “We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people. That didn’t work.[42]

She ended up leaving the white-majority church where she had been on staff.

Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”[43]

Reclaiming the Prophetic Imagination in Worship

So where do we go from here?

It might be helpful if we turned to the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann and learned to distinguish between what he identified as the “royal consciousness” and the “prophetic imagination.”

According to Brueggemann, the royal consciousness, as it appears in Scripture, is marked by affluence (focusing on consumption rather than covenant justice), oppressive social policy (establishing hierarchies that silence poor and marginalized groups), and static religion (opposing God’s essential freedom in lieu of religious structures controlled by those in power). As dominant institutions, mostly white churches are particularly prone to adopting this sort of status-quo consciousness, with the result of limiting God’s opportunities to challenge and change the church.

Alternatively, Brueggemann said that the prophetic imagination “is capable of enabling us to live inside God’s imagination.”[44] This implies opening ourselves up to a future beyond our control, subject to the immeasurable excess and freedom of the divine imagination (Ephesians 3:20). That imagination called upon slaves and pregnant women to topple the privileged and powerful. It compelled Jesus to stand up in the midst of the synagogue and announce good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed, and recovery of sight for the blind (Luke 4:16-21). Living within God’s imagination requires us to surrender our institutionalized notions of who God is and how He operates, and open our lives to the disruptive “new thing” He wants to accomplish in and among us (Isaiah 43:19-21).

How might this prophetic imagination be exercised within the context of the white racial frame and predominantly white worship? Here are a few suggestions for worship leaders, with help from blogger Brandi Miller.[45]

To begin, it may be appropriate to step back and realize that not all racial problems can be fixed simply by coming together—even in worship. Of course, there is a lot to be gained by developing cross-race relationships. But if white believers are not willing to work on their own racial identity development (becoming aware of their role in a racist society and taking responsibility to dismantle it), any attempt at integration is going to eventually deteriorate.

So my first suggestion would be to educate yourself. De-colonize your mind. Engage with books, documentaries, black film, music, and art. Get into spaces where you are learning from people who come from historically marginalized perspectives, in order to challenge dominant ways of thinking. Attend lectures, concerts, and churches where you can be under the tutelage of someone who is not white and male.

Second, close the empathy gap. All of that knowledge will be but a clanging cymbal, if you don’t really care for others. Learn to empathize with those whose experiences differ widely from our own. Acknowledge that every person’s story is valid and worthy of your attention. The incarnational pattern of the gospel should be a signal to Christians that the only way to love someone else is to identify deeply with them in their context and on their terms.

Third, become self-aware. You might be knowledgeable and caring, but without self-awareness you risk going into situations like a wrecking ball. If you are white, have you thought about your own racial identity? How does that play out in your daily life? What can you do to mitigate any unfair advantages you may have received? Miller says “If we don’t understand the ramifications of how we enter spaces [like worship], how we are viewed, and how our lives and experiences differ from those around us . . . we will end up harming people by our lack of awareness.”[46]

Fourth, empty yourself. This is how Jesus handled His own divine privilege. He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:10). The call to imitate Christ’s self-emptying is particularly important for white Christians who wish to engage in the work of racial healing. While you may not be able to prevent the racializing of your identity, you can choose to deconstruct it by taking radical steps that demonstrate you value people of color above yourself and that you are looking to their interests over your own (Philippians 2:3-4).

Fifth, break the silence. The silence of white Christians has been deafening and, to a large extent, is responsible for the lack of racial healing in the church today. To be clear, engaging in the race conversation does not mean speaking for black people. Rather, it entails speaking frankly as a white person about the invention of the white race in America, about the role white Christianity has played in the history of racial oppression, about the ongoing injustices perpetuated within America’s white racial frame, and about practical, gospel-infused steps white Christians can take to address those wrongs.

Sixth, tell many stories. Does your worship service perpetuate limited or limiting narratives about people of color? In “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie told her TED audience, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”[47] The imaginative space of worship must be populated by many voices and many stories if our churches are to become a “house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7).

Finally, take action. Wokeness without works is dead. Miller observes, “Activism is the external work of transforming or overthrowing the systems we critique. It is one thing to be woke in your mind and online, but another thing completely to fight for justice in your everyday life, neighborhood, and relationships.”[48] Our worship services may be diverse and aware on every level, but if as individuals and a congregation we are not stepping up to interrupt the injustices that exist in our communities, then our worship has fallen short of the mark, as the prophets would surely attest (Isaiah 58:2-10; Amos 5:21-24).

It is my prayer that, as more predominantly white congregations do the work of becoming educated, empathetic, self-aware, humble, outspoken and active, God will open up a more racially just church and future for us all.

http://www.nadministerial.com/stories/2018/4/29/woke-worship-taking-black-panther-and-barbie-savior-to-church-1

7 Things Praise Teams Should NOT Do

“7 Things Praise Teams Should NOT Do!”

You probably know by now that I love hymns. That’s right.  If I hear the number 499, my eyes glaze over and I just start singing “Sound the Battle Cry” at the top of my lungs!! (That might not be totally accurate.) I love hymns.

But I prefer my hymns in the middle of a good praise and worship set. I prefer praise and worship. And believe me, I’ve heard it all. From dark suited deacons droning through devotional songs on Sunday morning, to gifted choristers at 11 o-clock on Sabbath, to “Father Abraham” at AYS. They all take me to a happy place, but for me, there’s nothing like a good praise team with a tight band.

That said, as a pastor/professor/worshipper and shameless self-proclaimed authority on every known genre of church music and worship, let me list 7 quick things that praise teams should not do.

Don’t Neglect Your Personal Worship

Excellent corporate worship is an extension of consistent personal worship. If you wait until you arrive at the church to begin to worship, it’s already too late.

Don’t Miss Rehearsal

We can tell if rehearsal began when the praise team got up. Take a quick Old Testament glance at the importance of the Levites, psalmists and musicians and you’ll be a better steward of your gifts and opportunities.

Don’t Put Too Many Songs in the Set

Praise and worship might be a favorite part of the service but it’s not the only part of the service. Be considerate. And if you tell me the Spirit is leading you to go longer, I’ll remind you that the person who prayed too long just said the same thing!

Don’t Walk By The Mirror

Your appearance can be an attraction to the excellence of your God and worship, or a distraction that squanders a God moment. Modesty -in context- is the order of the day. Here’s a simple suggestion. When in doubt-Don’t!

Don’t Talk Too Much

Enough said.

Don’t manipulate

As a person who has led praise and worship to a bunch of statues, I feel your pain. There is nothing worse than trying to engage a lifeless church. At times, everything is working against you; their religious background, the band, the lighting, the sound man, the placement of the set, the length of the service, and on and on.

And then we’ve inadvertently trained members that corporate worship is like a trip to Burger King. They can have it their way. Not so. One of the distinctions between personal worship and corporate worship is that corporate worship is designed to be done…corporately! Together.

But manipulation doesn’t work. At least it doesn’t work for long. Folk get sick of the clichés. Church members have heard it all, “If we were at a Knicks game, we’d be on our feet ……” Well, I’m not at a Knicks game. And if I was at a Knicks game I’d be eating a hot dog and soda….and not listening to you. You get the picture.

Don’t Take It Personal, Make it Personal!

It’s hard to share a praise and worship set with a congregation that seems disconnected and uninterested. Ask any preacher who has made a passionate appeal, and no one moves a muscle. The temptation is to take it personally, but don’t.

There are a thousand and one reasons that people respond to certain sets or songs. This doesn’t eliminate the need to pursue best practices for praise and worship, but it’s rarely just about you. If we could pull back the curtain, we’d see the issues of life that preoccupy the best of us.

Here’s the thing. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 both remind us that the congregation is a very important audience. But they are the secondary audience. God is our primary audience. Our worship begins and ends with Him. Our primary goal is to worship Him.

Praise and worship at its best is overflow. It’s sharing with the congregation what has already impacted you.  Nothing gets folk involved quite like that. It says, “We want to do this together, but He’s so good, I’ll thank Him alone.”  It’s a contagious attitude. It’s personal gratitude shared with a corporate group. When God and the congregation are placed in their proper order, something happens! Don’t take it personal, make it personal.

So, what do you think? What are some of your favorite praise and worship songs? Who are some of your favorite praise and worship leaders and singers?

The Great Controversy: Hymns Vs. Praise Worship

“The Great Controversy: Hymns vs Praise & Worship!”

Intro: The battle is intense, bordering on comical. Praise and worship has been blamed for everything from declining church attendance to the Kennedy assassination.  And when some people hear “hymns”, they see bonnets and white beards. What’s a church to do?

Last week we looked at some of the distinctions between hymns and praise and worship songs. Hymns are songs of adoration and praise to God. They are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than praise and worship songs. Praise and worship songs are generally more intimate, contemporary, approachable, and repetitive.

Now, I am to the left of most folk when it comes to church music and worship.  If it’s too loud for you, it’s probably just right for me. My playlist has gotten me into trouble for years. But I absolutely love hymns!

  • I love the theology of hymns.
  • I love the gospel of hymns.
  • I love the structure of hymns.
  • I love the harmony of hymns.
  • I love the depth of hymns.

I also love the memories of hymns. And therein lies a challenge. I think we should acknowledge that a strong element of the appeal of hymns is nostalgia. Hymns take us back. And since most of us suffer from “selective amnesia”, older is generally better.

But don’t confuse nostalgia with the Holy Ghost. There has always been this drive to hold on to the past. In 1723, Thomas Symmes was writing new music-hymns. Look at the criticism he recorded:

  • “It’s not as melodious as the usual way!”
  • “There are so many new tunes, we shall never be done learning them.”
  • “It’s a contrivance to get money.”
  • “The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly!”
  • “It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it!”

 

I love it! That was the criticism that your hymn writers got when they introduced “new” music. Certainly, some of the criticism then and now is warranted.  There are strong hymns and sentimental hymns. There are good praise songs and some not so good. But we generally prefer old wineskins to new, even if the old wineskins are tired and ineffective.

No one fully understands what Paul meant in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 when he encouraged the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” But it is clear that he’s encouraging variety. Frankly, we need good hymns and great praise and worship. We need variety. There are 4 gospels, not 1. Each with a different perspective of the good news. There are multiple generations in our churches, not one.

I’m not advocating for an eclectic service that has a totally different feel from one week to the next. But it’s important to realize that God is God to us all. Young and old. Traditional and contemporary. As much as I love hymns, my default is to favor spiritual songs-new songs.  I believe God’s priority is for us to sing a new song, do a new and fresh thing, Ps.96:1, Ps. 105:2. Even if that means breathing new life into old lyrics.

I teach Christian Worship and Black Liturgy. In his book, Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin reminds us of several healthy tensions or balances that churches should establish with their music and worship in church.

Head and Heart

Our music and worship should engage our entire being. It should reach our emotions without stooping to emotionalism. This is incredibly important for a generation that values a tangible experience with God. Some of us are much more comfortable in a fairly cerebral worship setting. That’s good but not good enough. We are holistic beings and God wants to impact every part of us.

Vertical and Horizontal

God is our primary audience in worship. It’s what distinguishes our worship services, hymn singing, and praise and worship from empty entertainment. ( Sidebar. There is a legitimate and productive role for entertainment, but that’s for another blog.) But although God is our primary audience, He is not our exclusive audience. We have a responsibility to lift each other in our worship services with song, testimony, exhortation, and word.  

Ephesians 5:19 encourages us to sing to “address one another”, in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In other words, it’s not enough to focus our attention solely on God with our music and worship. God says we need to also focus on how our music and worship can lift up the church.

Rooted and Relevant

Hymns are appealing because they have rich theological roots. They also remind us that we are a part of a body of believers that is much older, and broader, and bigger than our local church. Hymns carry memories and traditions that we value.  But hymns can fade into traditionalism when they are unfairly compared to spiritual songs of a new generation. They both have their place. Roots without relevance is useless.

When modern worship and contemporary praise and worship songs are strategically sprinkled with classic hymns, it is a recipe for a spiritual feast.

So, what are your thoughts? What would you change about the music in your worship service? Is it rooted? Is it relevant? Is it too cerebral? Too emotional?  Share/Comment/Thanks

What Happened to My Hymns?!

What Happened to My Hymns?!

I miss my hymns. That’s not nostalgia, that’s a need. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…”  Colossians 3:16

So, I’m preparing for this blog and researching the most popular Christian songs of all time, and the list is long:

  • “ I Just Need You.” Toby Mac
  • “ Shackles” Mary, Mary
  • “Oh, Happy Day” Edwin Hawkins
  • “I Can Only Imagine” Mercy Me
  • “Oceans” Hillsong

Just to name a few. Really? Those are great songs, but if I’m in a dark place, I seriously doubt if I’ll have Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” in my headphones! “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave can inspire me in a single service, but “Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It!” by Fanny Crosby has inspired me for a lifetime. It’s the power of hymns.

A hymn is a song of praise and adoration to God. In ancient Greek culture, hymns were not necessarily Christian. Hymns were melodies praising the gods of the day. It seems that Christians shared the practice and directed attention to the one true God. Sounds like Kirk Franklin or Lecrae, but that’s for another blog.

Hymns are generally more formal, classical, and liturgical than spiritual songs. They have been a mainstay of Christian worship services for generations.  But they seem to have fallen on hard times.  Praise teams gather where the chorister once stood. The sale of hymnals has plummeted. And for years churches have chosen to drop the morning hymn from their order of service.

But change is in the air! Robert Webber, David Brooks, and other Christian writers and researchers have noted the beginning of a postmodern return to more traditional and historical worship forms. Hymns are growing in popularity among young and old alike, and not a moment too soon. Because hymns play a unique role in the Christian life. What’s so special about hymns?

Hymns Teach Scripture

The late minister and educator R. W. Dale once said, “Let me write the hymns of the church and I don’t care who writes the theology.” Dale understood the value of hymns for teaching the Bible. Hymns from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, to “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” to “Holy, Holy, Holy,’ can teach more theology in 3 minutes than many people hear in 3 months.

Hymns Round Out God’s Personality

Hymns, spiritual songs, and praise and worship songs are different by design. They highlight different attributes of God. Different shades of his character. Praise and worship songs remind us of the nearness of God. They are intimate. We need that. But God is more than my “buddy”, God is my King. Hymns are more transcendent, more mystical, more majestic. We need that too.

Hymns Encourage Depth

I mean no harm, but if I hear one more lazy lyricist tell me, “One of these days and it won’t be long, you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone”, my head is going to explode!  In some of our services, we are drowning in clichés:

  • “Touch your neighbor!” “Turn to your neighbor.”  “High five your neighbor” (You get the picture)
  • “Won’t he do it?”
  • “Give God some praise.”
  • “I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…. I’m gettin’ ready to close” “…..I’m gettin’ to close….”

Hymns are a refreshing return to phrases that actually mean something! The lyrical content of hymns is generally richer and more intricate than praise and worship songs. Not better, necessarily. Just richer, deeper. We need that.

Hymns Add Variety

Don’t get it twisted. I’m still a fan of praise teams and I prefer my lyrics on the screen. I love my hymns, but not as much as Tamela Mann, Thomas Whitfield, John P. Kee, Hillsong, Vincent Bohanon & SOV, Sir the Baptist, and a grip of other Christian artists too long to mention. But variety is not only the spice of life, it’s the salvation of a predictable worship service. Do yourself a favor and spice up the service with a well -placed hymn.

Hymns Make You Sing!

The Bible is saturated with song. It seems that a happy heart Is inspired to sing. And talent has nothing to do with it. Hymns were written and structured to be sung with other believers. Not alone, but together.  Of course, that’s a goal in praise and worship also. But what many of those songs lack is familiarity. Great hymns are stamped in our memory banks.

Hymns Connect Generations

The only thing more challenging than leading a multi-generational church is leading a multi-generational worship service. What pleases one group is a problem for another. Solution? Try weaving familiar hymns into the order of service or the praise and worship set.  Grandma might not know, “Hallelujah! We Have Won The Victory,” but she does know, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!” Sing them both.

So, what do you think?  What are some of your favorite hymns and why? What memories do hymns bring to mind? Are they still singing hymns in your church? Would they work in your service?

What Memphis Reminded Me

What Memphis Reminded Me

Yesterday brought back strong memories. I can still see the face of the television newscaster fighting back tears and announcing, “Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.” Just 10.5 miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, April 4, 1968.

50 years later, I’m standing about 300 yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony where he was shot. Thousands of us have returned to that spot to remember that giant and that day. The speakers were amazing. Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Sister Peace, William Barber and others walked us through the history of a civil rights movement that changed this nation. They pushed us toward the ballot box to continue the fight for change.

At 6:01 PM the bells began to toll and the crowd hushed. They recognized that at that very moment 50 years ago a shot rang out and King crumbled on the balcony. Moments later the mood changed as Al Green sang songs that lifted our spirits and launched us from that place, determined to keep the dream alive.

I announced that this week’s blog title would be, “ What Happened to My Hymns?” I’ll get to that next week. Being in that historic gathering yesterday in Memphis reminded me of a number of things. Some important. Some, not so much. Here are a few.

There is nothing quite like the Black Church

There was one thing that most of the civil rights leaders past and present had in common. They were children of the black church. Even the ceremony itself reminded me of the magic of that institution. At times like a lecture. At times like a revival.  The music, the preachers, the fraternities, the speeches, the emotion, community, the choirs. Then and now there’s nothing quite like it.

We don’t realize how good the Aeolians are!

Where did that come from? Well, I was listening to the national HBCU mass choir sing, “Beams of Heaven” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it occurred to me that I was missing something.  What was it?  The Aeolians. The HBCU mass choir was fine and twice the size, but not even close!  It reminded me again why the Oakwood University Aeolians are the 2017 Choir of the World. I’m afraid we take them for granted.

The more things change, the more….they don’t! 

Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 supporting city sanitation workers. They were underpaid, disrespected, and the targets of systematic racism. King died supporting workers. 50 years later, Memphis is 64% black but 88% of senior managers in the city are white. Those are plantation percentages. The problems of crime and poverty and unemployment plague the city, but the downtown area is a growing shrine to gentrification. There’s work to do.

Movements are messy, and leaders are flawed. 

King was no choir boy. The leaders of the civil rights movement- male and female- were a mixed bag of energy, ideas, courage, and cowardice.  They were deeply flawed, but like the early Christian church they turned their world upside down. If you’re looking for a perfect movement, you’ll be waiting.

Friends come in all colors 

The bells tolled at 6:01 pm. It was the most important moment of the rally yesterday. Ironically, the speaker at that time was not a black pastor or politician, but a white Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pflegar. He has been an important player in the black community for years in Chicago. He wasn’t a token, he earned his spot.

The crowd began to boo when the mayor of Memphis and governor of Tennessee-both white- began to speak.  On the surface it seemed like a racial statement. But the jeers turned immediately to cheers when congressman Steve Cohen followed them. He has been a warrior of a representative for the black community-and he is white. You might not want to identify the friends or enemies of a movement by the color of their skin.

Our ancestors did more with less 

I was struck by the fact that most of the “builders” on the platform were in their golden years. They were recognized for the colleges, businesses, fraternities, and service organizations they had sacrificed to build. I’m afraid that sacrifice is a profanity to many in my world. We usually worship in churches and study in universities that our parents and grandparents built at great sacrifice. Of course, there is the problem of debt and the declining dollar. But the greater problem is a black community that is at times all talk and no action.

The power for change is still the power of God 

To the natural eye, the answers to the problems in the black community are obvious: economic investment, quality education, voter registration, etc. Those are powerful and legitimate answers. But James Lawson and the senior statesmen of the movement reminded us yesterday, that while we are pursuing those legitimate resources, the real answer comes, “not by might, nor by power” but by God’s spirit and power. Sound silly? I’d rather do it the way King did it than the way the scoffers and complainers aren’t doing it!

So those are a few of my thoughts about King and the movement. What do you think?

3 Reasons Adventists Should Celebrate Easter

3 Reasons Adventists Should Celebrate Easter

Intro: What are your plans for Sunday morning? Where will you be? In a few hours Adventists across the country will enjoy a special spring weekend. On Sunday we’ll be shopping in malls, watching the Elite 8 of March Madness, or perhaps just relaxing with friends. We’ll probably be every place but the best place- somewhere celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Celebrating Easter.

Now, I get it. I’m writing this blog from a glass house. At this very moment I’m preparing for Alumni weekend on our university campus. Thousands will be here.  Saturday will be a full day of worship and Christ will be at the center of it all.  Now, we may mention Easter somewhere along the way, maybe not. That’s not good enough.

Easter deserves special, undivided attention. Easter is one of the few days on the calendar that grabs the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite all the commercialism and confusion, Easter is a day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That alone is reason enough for Seventh Day Adventists to celebrate Easter.  Here’s why:

“Of all professing Christians, Seventh Day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ.” Ellen White, Evangelism p. 188.  

As imperfect as the holiday is, it’s an opportunity to lift up Jesus. And frankly, Adventists are internationally known for a lot of things, but lifting up Jesus is generally not one of them. The resurrection that Easter celebrates is also especially meaningful because it’s a pillar of our faith.     Paul puts it this way.

“ And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”

I Corinthians 15:14

So let me give you 3 reasons that Adventists should celebrate Easter.

Number One: We should celebrate Easter because it’s not about the day but the Daystar!

The problem with Easter is the stuff that distracts: Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, Easter parades, and Easter fashion. And for some Adventists the biggest distraction is that it’s celebrated on Sunday. They miss the utter irony of criticizing Christians for celebrating the resurrection on the day that Christ was resurrected. Go figure.  But don’t be distracted. The main attraction of Easter is Jesus and His resurrection. Everything else is secondary at best.

And please spare me the “pagan origins” of Easter arguments.  If we go down that road, let’s take a stop at the pagan origin of the names of weekdays and months, church steeples and clergy robes, wedding rings and flowers at funerals.

And don’t forget money. Surely you’ve noticed the pagan symbols on some of our currency? So, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood, I’ll hold your money while you work through these issues. You’re welcome.  Point is, lift up Jesus.

Number Two: We should celebrate Easter because we need to fellowship with other Faiths.

There are not many opportunities for different faith traditions to get together without a fight.  We generally emphasize our differences. Adventists need a reminder of how much we have in common with other Evangelical Christians. With certain obvious exceptions, we agree in most areas of doctrine with most mainline Christian denominations. In fact historically and theologically, Adventists are as about as close to the Methodist church as another denomination can get.

Here’s the thing. Easter Sunday is a great time for Christians of all faiths to focus on the thing they have in common-their appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and His resurrection.  Fellowship and friendship lead to dialogue.  Honest dialogue is what we desperately need. It helps us understand and respect the beliefs of others and it allows us to share what we believe.

Side note: if the idea of worshipping with other believers is a significant issue with you, then my first advice is don’t go and don’t judge. My second advice is, grow up. You’re not real light if no one sees you. You’re not real salt unless you’re mingling. No contact, no impact.

Number Three: We should celebrate Easter because a Resurrected God can Resurrect You!

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be made alive!”  1 Corinthians 15: 20122

Last week, Elder George Earle and his wife died within days of each other. Few men have left a clearer mark on their generation. As a young preacher I loved his sense of humor and uncanny leadership skills. But now we prepare to funeralize him.  And that story is played out everywhere, everyday. The resurrection promises victory over death.

But the resurrection also promises power while we live. Romans 8 says that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead can live inside of us. That’s real power. Resurrection power.

  • Power to resurrect our broken lives.
  • Power to resurrect our messed up marriages
  • Power to resurrect our frustrated dreams
  • Power to resurrect our wasted gifts and talents

That’s the real meaning of Easter. It’s another chance to say, “ I need you”, or “ I thank you.”  It would be great to say that with other believers, but that’s not a deal breaker. Find a way to celebrate Easter that works best for you. It may be in a church or in your secret place, but don’t miss this chance to celebrate the Risen Savior. He lives!

Snoop! “Why We Need To Judge”

“Snoop! Why We NEED To Judge.”

It has been an interesting week. Calvin Broadus Sr., a.k.a. Snoop Dog, released his new project, Bible of Love, and it broke the internet. From gangsta rap to gospel music?  It was a recipe for controversy. Snoop is an icon.

  • Since his debut album in 1992, Doggy Style, Snoop has sold over 32 million albums worldwide.
  • His name is practically synonymous with weed. In 2015 he launched, Leafs by Snoop and became the first major celebrity to brand and market a line of legal marijuana products.
  • Acknowledged pimp, player, and convicted drug dealer, he has been a poster child for the excesses of popular culture.

These days Snoop is more the business mogul, game show host, and doting father, but his legend lives.

Full disclosure? I’ve never been a Snoop fan.  Motown fans like me still don’t think the words rap and music go together. Just sayin.  But I was excited when I heard that Snoop had converted to Christianity. God can redeem anything and use anybody. He has proved that through the likes of David, Solomon, the Apostle Paul, and frankly…you!

I got the album. Album was good, not great.  Lyrics ranged from light to questionable, but that really didn’t bother me. Why? Because I assumed it was coming from a new Christian not a seasoned theologian.

I’ve said this before and it bears repeating. Snoop professes Christianity.  If Snoop is a fraud, he’s in good company, because all of us are frauds from time to time. There’s grace for that. I assume he’s sincere, as I do with all new-believers. He needs to be taught and mentored.

Those who are close to him need to disciple him. They need to teach him the word of God, and how to make his actions line up with his confession. But here’s the thing. We don’t do him a favor by giving him a pass. My fear is it’s already happening. His greatest danger might be his Christian “friends.”

The Favorite Verse of a Fallen Generation

It is said that the favorite bible verse today is no longer John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, “ Judge not that you be not judged.”  Follow any post about Snoop or any other controversial new believer and you can’t get away from that verse and the comments.  “Leave him alone!” “ Stay out of his business.”  “Who are you to judge?”  Its sounds so progressive. It sounds so loving. It’s not.

The problem with Matthew 7:1 is that it’s generally taken out of context. The issue there is not Should you judge, but How should you judge!  In fact, the passage teaches valuable lessons on how Christians should judge correctly. That passage and others teach that it’s wrong to judge motives, but it’s a Christian responsibility to judge or evaluate words and actions. Because if we don’t, there will never be genuine growth or discipleship in the body of Christ. Real love constructively and confidentially confronts me.

Loving Snoop Dog To Death

This is an age that values tolerance over truth. An age suspicious of absolutes. It’s a spiritual age but not a religious age. It’s an Oprah age. A mystic age. It’s uncomfortable with religious expectations and accountability. That is a recipe for disaster for new believers, especially new believers like Snoop. New believers need the support of a loving community that teaches them to discern truth from error- inside them and around them.

And that is the very reason Christians are encouraged to judge, to measure, to weigh the evidence.

  • Jesus commends “right judgement” in John 7:24.
  • Romans 16:17 encourages Christians to “mark” or judge those who cause divisions in the church.
  • I Corinthians 2:15 says, “ But he that is spiritual judges all things…”

Young Christians need mature Christians to speak the truth to them in love, Ephesian 4:15. They need loving, honest evaluation from mature believers to help them reach their spiritual potential. And celebrities need direct, honest, confidential discipline more than others. They probably rarely get it.

Snoop has already demonstrated a willingness to shift from one religious idea to another. In 2009 he joined the Nation of Islam. In 2012 he converted to Rastafarianism and changed his name to Snoop Lion. In 2013 members of the Rastafarian movement criticized Snoop for not living up to his beliefs. Snoop’s response was his beliefs were personal and “not up for outside judgement.” Not true. Only God can perfectly judge our hearts, but Snoop needs mature believers to judge him, to discipline him, in the context of a loving relationship, so he can grow.

Critical or Charitable Judgement

There are two basic types of judgement, critical and charitable. Critical judgement is the judgment of the stereotype: superior, insensitive, hurtful and harmful.  But all Christians need charitable judgement if they want to grow. Judgement that looks to help and not hurt.

  • Charitable judgement reads actions and not motives.
  • Charitable judgement builds up, not tears down.
  • Charitable judgement is based on principle and not preference.
  • Charitable judgment is quick to cover and not expose.
  • Charitable judgement removes the log in my eye, before the splinter in yours.

That’s the kind of judgement that Snoop needs and so do we. A judgement that brings out your full potential.  A judgement that can save you from one of your greatest enemies. Yourself.

But that’s what I think. What about you?

Black Panther And The “Problem” Of Black Conferences

Black Panther and the “Problem” of Black Conferences

Black Panther has inspired amazing interest in black consciousness, self-determination, and all- things African. For many, it wasn’t enough to buy a ticket to the movie, they bought entire African-inspired outfits, and posed for pictures in front of life-sized Black Panther posters. It was an event.

But I noticed something interesting as I read comments from several Adventists who attended Black Panther. It seems that a number of people who took pride in Black Panther have problems with black (Regional) conferences. Interesting. There’s seems to be a disconnect here.

How can you applaud black self-determination in a movie and criticize that same black self -determination in the church? How can you applaud black ingenuity and black invention and black institutions in a movie and not support them in the church?

Regional conferences were formed in the Adventist Church in 1944, at a time when the church and country refused blacks full participation. Their growth over the years is nothing short of a miracle. Stanford Economist Henry Felder noted that between 1945 and 2008, the Adventist church in North American grew 242%. But the growth in Regional Conferences over that same period was 1059%. Amazing!

But Regional Conferences have become a “problem” for some in the church because they seem divisive and dated. Doesn’t Christ want us all to worship together? Haven’t we reached the point where black and white conferences are unnecessary? As I often say, this is a blog and not a paper. The issues of Regional Conferences and missional structures and Adventist ecclesiology are far too complex to be handled in 1000 words, but let me share some comments and you can share yours.

Regional and State Conference are BOTH Multicultural

It is a passion of this present generation. The desire for different cultures to work and worship together. Well, it’s the reality of both Regional and State conferences. They are open and welcoming to all cultures, and cultures across the spectrum are represented.

Now the labels might be a bit confusing if your assumption is that State=White and Regional=Black, because things have changed. If you attend a camp-meeting in the Greater New York Conference, a State conference, you’ll probably see fewer white faces than in some Regional Conferences. It’s rapidly approaching the same situation in the Florida Conference, the Potomac Conference, and other State conferences. It’s already the case for State conferences in all of the major urban areas: Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Chicago, etc.

Here’s the thing. If your passion is desegregation, then you’ll be happy to know that all State and Regional Conferences are open and inviting to all. But if integration is your passion, not so much. People continue to choose to worship in their own ethnic and cultural groups, regardless of conference affiliation. Why is that? This blog’s not long enough.

The “Colonizers” Are Back!

The rumor was that our racial problems were over when we finally elected a black president. “Post racial” was the term. But there was a backlash during the Obama presidency and a total collapse with the election of Donald Trump. Now the rate of hate crimes has exploded, frat boys are marching with tiki torches, Muslims are demonized, and the “other” could be anyone from a white liberal to a black professional.

“Colonizers” Come To Church

As amazing as Regional Conferences have been, they weren’t what Black Adventists requested in 1941. They requested full integration and participation- and they were denied. Why? Because there’s no racism like religious racism. Then and now. There were two organizations that gave Donald Trump 83% support in the 2016 election – The Ku Klux Klan and white evangelical Christians.

And frankly, if you look up the word “colonizers” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of the Adventist church. Why? Because you can’t fix a problem that you refuse to face.

Colonizers Offer Suggestions, Not Sacrifice

Some suggest closing Regional Conferences because they “duplicate structure.” Now, State Conferences and Regional Conferences are both legitimate church structures. Both welcome everyone. Both advance the mission of the church. But an argument can be made that Regional Conferences do it more efficiently.

9 Regional Conferences cover the same territory as 42 State Conferences. Historically, they have done more and grown faster for less.  So, if duplication is the problem, then some State Conferences should be first in line to be closed. And if we’re talking mergers, why not merge the low performing State Conference into the local Regional Conference?  But that’s rarely the discussion. Why?  Because it’s easy to talk about sacrifice if you’re not making it.

“Colonizers” Come In All Colors

“Colonizers” do more than capture territory, they capture minds. I support the freedom of choice. Attend the church that allows you to serve most effectively. I pastored for years in Regional and State conferences. My churches were predominantly black in both settings. That’s my call. That’s my passion. I have no desire to pastor a Korean church or a Spanish church or an Anglo church, although I support those who do.

But I was always amazed by black people who would argue the value of multi-culturalism and the evil of black conferences- while continuing to attend black churches! It’s hypocrisy 101.

No one can advance the agenda of the colonizer like the brother that’s been colonized.

It’s All About Mission

I am a pragmatist by nature and a missiologist by trade. My mantra is, “form follows function.” I am for the structure that most effectively advances the mission of the church. The mission of the church is to make disciples-fully developed, fully devoted followers of Christ.

That is why I challenge both Regional conferences and State conferences. I support churches that are missional, and I support closing or merging churches that have demonstrated- over time- that they are not. Same for conferences. There is nothing- absolutely nothing- sacred about structure. They all need change!

But that’s me. What do you think?

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

Adventists and the Wakanda Weakness

By the time you read this blog, Black Panther will have reached $1 Billion dollars in box office sales. It was at $944 million world- wide on Wednesday, but it opens in China on Friday, (and I understand there are a few folks living there.) From comic book to cross- cultural sensation, Black Panther is impossible to ignore.

But it hasn’t been without controversy. The ancestor worship, blood rituals, talking with the dead, and astral projection have stirred up conservative Christians and not a few Adventists. Believe me, I think I’ve heard from most of them!

My feelings? It’s a comic book not a Bible. It’s literature. It’s art. It’s certainly not without flaws, but short of the Bible, what medium is? And even the Bible at times uses flawed parables to teach flawless lessons. If you don’t believe that, then you’re ignoring the Rich Man and Lazarus. If God uses imperfect people to communicate the gospel, he can certainly use imperfect art to teach noble lessons- and Black Panther is full of them.

I think there are good reasons for not attending movies, if that’s your choice. I think it’s more sensible to carve out some personal guidelines for movie viewing, whether it’s at a multi-plex or on your phone, and last week I listed 4 questions I ask media all the time

  • Will I leave worse?
  • Will I leave weak?
  • Will I leave bored?
  • Will I leave broke?

Works for me. Work out your own. But let’s move on.

It looks like the real star of Black Panther is not T’Challa, or Nakia, or even Okoye and her female fighting force. The real star of Black Panther seems to be the kingdom of Wakanda. It has caught the imagination of the world. Carvell Wallace wrote in the Washington Post, “What makes Wakanda so attractive is the fantasy of an African nation untouched by colonial influence.” Yes, but it’s more than that.

This fictional East African nation is intentionally hidden from the realities of a messed up world. The mysterious and expensive metal vibranium has made Wakanda prosper in a number of ways:

  • It’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
  • It offers free universal health care.
  • It offers free education from kindergarten to university.
  • It has one of the highest life expectancy rates on the planet.
  • It has discovered the cure for cancer.

No wonder Wakanda is the star of the show! But in spite of all of her strengths, I think Wakanda has one glaring weakness. It’s a problem for imaginary kingdoms and it’s a bigger problem for “imaginary” Christians. It’s the problem of isolationism. The intentional or unintentional decision to separate from the people who need you the most. What do I mean?

Well, Wakanda’s answer to crime, confusion, and “colonizers” is to hide. That’s an oversimplification sure to rile some Wakandans, but it’s basically true. They won’t even allow their youth to attend non-Wakandan universities. King T’Challa was a rare exception.

Wakanda is right about the dangers of the world but it is wrong about the solution. Like many Christians in general and Adventists in particular, the answer to evil in the world is to hide in plain sight. It doesn’t work for at least 2 reasons.

It Hides The Benefits

Wakanda is rich and in need of nothing. That’s a call to responsible engagement. That’s exactly the point Nakia made early and often to T’Challa, the Black Panther. Wakanda had enough resources to help itself and others. That’s not just a word to Wakandans, that’s a word to the church.

In 2011, a major health study of more than 11,000 subjects confirmed that African American Adventists defy health disparities and experience a much better quality of life than average Americans-white or black. Life expectancy was even longer. It ain’t Wakanda but it’s significant!

Our unique combination of healthy living and practical spirituality is desperately needed in communities of color. But far too often they don’t get it because we “don’t get it.” There is no impact without contact. We can’t be salt and light if we’re not connected.

It Hurts The Benefactor

Isolationism presents another problem. It creeps back to kill you.  You see it clearly in Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Killmonger grew up in the world that Wakanda neglected. They neglected him when his father was killed. They neglected him through his struggles as an orphan. He grew older and bitter, and he finally came home to destroy. They didn’t help, so they got hurt.  The Bible records an almost identical story in the life of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20.

When you live disconnected from the real world, you generally stop offering help and start offering criticism. You live in an echo chamber. You’re hearing voices, but the voices you hear are your own. No criticism, no accountability, and becoming more useless by the minute.

T’Challa got it only after he’d lost his kingdom and almost lost his life. Wakanda was almost destroyed by a monster of their own making. Will we get it before it’s too late.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it. Comments, cracks, critiques, and criticisms are welcome.

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

Black Panther and the Adventist Movie Myth

I’ve been tricked! Hoodwinked! Bamboozled! …I think that’s a word. After a time of research and writing, it’s dawning on me that Ellen White never actually said that our guardian angels “stand weeping at the door of movie theaters.” (Actually, she came pretty close. But that’s for another blog.)

Now why is that mythical but missing quote on my mind? Because it occurred to me that if it’s true, a lot of guardian angels have been patiently waiting outside Black Panther showings lately. The movie has become a movement. I’ve already seen it -for purely research purposes- 2…. ok, 3 times. It has taken the nation by storm.

  • Cinema Blend reports that it will be the most financially successful superhero origin movie of all time. In 2 weeks it has grossed $412 million domestically and $700 million world – wide.
  • Black Panther is the first mega budget project – super hero or otherwise- with a black director and predominantly black cast.
  • The stars and cast are everywhere. Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa, is on the cover of Time magazine this week. The feature article title sums up the phenomenon well, “The Superpower of Black Panther.”
  • #Wakandaforever has become more than a hashtag. Millions of people have adopted the mythical African nation as a symbol of everything from self- determination, to black liberation, to artistic excellence, to feminism for women of color.

But this is not a Black Panther blog. Believe me, I’ll be back for that. For a black academic/preacher, Black Panther is the gift that keeps on giving! No, this is a quick word on Christians as consumers of popular culture; movies, music, sports, you name it. In a world where we are bombarded by positive and negative sounds and images, what are we to do? How are we to choose?

Before I suggest what does help, let me suggest what doesn’t. Myths. Unthinking, unbiblical, unresearched urban legends. They do more harm than good. They offer quick answers to often complex questions. Here are 3 unhelpful movie myths.

  1. Adventists Don’t Go To Movies – Perhaps you don’t, but that myth is way off base. Adventists have visited movie theaters, in large numbers, for years. In 1975, Insight Magazine sited a survey that showed 48% of Adventist youth attended the movie theaters. And that was almost 50 years ago!
  2. Adventists Can’t Go To Movies – This is the myth that the movie prohibition is buried somewhere in our baptismal vows or fundamental beliefs. Not there.
  3. Angels are weeping at the door – I began with that one. Believe me, if our angels dropped off every time we dropped in to the wrong places, we’d have bigger problems than Black Panther!!

So, what is a Christian consumer of popular culture do? It would be a lot simpler if immediately following the book of Revelation, the Bible provided a comprehensive list of appropriate books, movies, and music. Simple, yes, Sensible, no. We don’t mature by having decisions handed down, we grow by exercising our powers of choice under the direction of the word of God and the influence of the Spirit of God.

The favorite colors in the Christian crayon box are black and white. We don’t do well with grey. But popular culture is full of grey areas that demand that Christians think, watch, and pray. Now let me be clear. I fully support those who choose not to attend motion pictures. I can think of several good reasons for that choice. But the fact is, most Adventists are probably already choosing to attend movie theaters. So instead of acting as if they don’t, we should probably invest our time exploring guidelines that will help them make wise choices.

For those who choose to visit the local movie theater, let me suggest some quick questions you can ask about the movie before you buy that ticket.

Will I Leave Worse?

Philippians 4:8 is a helpful measure, “  Finally brethren…whatever is true…noble…right…pure…lovely…and admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.”  The Christian battle is staged primarily between your two ears. Motion pictures, at one level, are pieces of art. They have the power to teach powerful lessons in creative ways. But they can’t be divorced from the same standards you apply to other influences.

Will I Leave Weak?

This is a personal question. I Corinthians 8 and I Corinthians 10 are passages that illustrate an important principle.  What might be fine for me, might be bad for you. Your experiences have made you vulnerable to certain temptations that mean absolutely nothing to me. For instance, Black Panther was packed with noble lessons, but if you have a thing for bald- headed black women, you might not want to go. Just sayin.

Will I Leave Bored?

Life’s too short to waste on bad media or entertainment. Some of the most creative minds in media today are in the motion picture industry. Some hit close to home for Adventists. Hacksaw Ridge was the true story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist who was the first pacifist combat medic to receive the Medal of Honor. It got 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. If you’re choosing, choose well.

Will I Leave Broke?

That’s the stewardship question. Is it the best use of my money?  If you take a date to a $15 movie and leave broke, you don’t need a movie, you need a job!

Just a few thoughts on the Black Panther and consuming popular culture. What do you think? Did you like the movie? Did you see the movie? Is it safer to stay away from movies altogether? How do you choose what to see?