Thabiti Anyabwile, one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., recognizes the challenges facing the black church today.
In his new book Reviving the Black Church: A Call to Reclaim a Sacred Institution (B&H Books), Anyabwile brings to light the need of a spiritual revival. Facts & Trends asked Anyabwile about some of the challenges for the church and his hopes the future.
What motivated you to write this book and what would you want to see a pastor implement after reading this book?
It’s my prayer that this book might be useful to pastors and faithful lay members in reviving at least some quarters of the black church for the glory of God. I hope Reviving the Black Church helps every pastor to see how vital their ministry of the Word is to the life of their church.
I hope the book convinces more preachers to commit themselves to expositional preaching as the main—not necessarily exclusive—diet of their church. Good exposition book-by-book, line-by-line will do so many things to strengthen the Lord’s churches. Start there.
You talk in your book about churches having discipleship activities but people remain biblically illiterate. What are a couple of things a church could implement to begin closing the gap?
Biblical illiteracy is a problem across the church world. We can understand it in a country where the Bible is illegal and Christians have no access to it because of persecution. It’s less understandable in a country like our own, where the Bible is available in several translations, multiple bindings, in print and online, and with personalized engraving! It’s to our shame the Bible is “the great closed book” of our time.
But there’s a simple solution. Find ways in various settings to simply get people to open the Bible and read it. Biblical illiteracy is not a problem of reading ability; it’s a problem of reading availability. Make the opportunities available at every turn.
Pastors should read the Bible one-on-one with people they are discipling. They should encourage more mature people in their congregation to read the Bible in small groups with other members. There’s opportunity to make sure existing disciple-making activities (i.e., small groups) really do make the Bible central rather than depend too much on support materials.
One powerful and fruitful strategy is to give the congregation books about how to read the Bible and commentaries on books of the Bible for laypersons. Distribute one to two books at each midweek Bible study or during the Sunday school hour. These are simple strategies with slow results at first, but the long-term benefit to biblical understanding is immeasurable.
You devote a lot of pages in the book to biblical manhood. Why is that so important to the African-American church?
The African-American church longs to attract black men into the faith and into the membership of the church. The church has a long-standing concern not only for the physical and social well-being of men but also for their spiritual well-being.
But practices and attitudes get in the way, like beating up on “deadbeat dads” on Father’s Day and failing to hold men inside the church’s leadership accountable for their failings. The “hateration” and the hypocrisy turn a lot of men off. So we have to think biblically about our message and our model to African-American men.
Finally, we need continued focus on men because the well-being of the family is so clearly tied to the well-being (and availability!) of husbands and fathers. As go the fortunes of men, so go the fortunes of families, children, and whole communities.
The gospel has a lot to say about all these issues. Since the church is the custodian of the gospel, we need to bring fresh thought to the church’s role and responsibility in reaching and discipling a generation of men who largely haven’t known their fathers, seen good marriages, or been involved in the church.
Part 2 of your book calls for a revival of biblical pastoral leadership in black churches. Where do you see training for black pastors and formal education to be in the next five to 10 years? Are you seeing some improvement?
I think we will continue to see local churches develop their own training and apprenticeship programs. A number of good initiatives are under way to train church planters and internships to acquaint young men with pastoral ministry.
I hope we’ll see more of these over the next five to 10 years. In many ways, this local church-based training is closer to the tradition of the black church and more necessary than formal education.
But I suspect we will continue to see more people pursue formal education as well. With financial pressure and declining enrollments putting pressure on some historically African-American institutions, many young African-Americans will get this formal education at predominantly white evangelical institutions or at satellite programs offered through local churches. Those will be good educational opportunities with significant cultural challenges.
That, too, is one reason local congregations need to create their own internships and training programs to keep talented African-American men tied to the community and the best parts of the cultural heritage of black churches.
What are the top three things you would say to a church planter just starting out?
First, don’t think of yourself as a “planter.” Think of yourself as a pastor, because that’s what you’re endeavoring to do.
Second, rely less on strategy and more on God. So much of the church planting world emphasizes all the creative and innovative things planters are supposed to do. Much of that is helpful, but not all of it, especially if it tempts you to pragmatism.
So keep your head in the pastoral epistles and do the things you see there. That’s your job description—shepherd the sheep, evangelize the lost, preach the word, and so on.
Third, build the best team you can. Select the best-qualified men to labor with you as elders and deacons. Then invest in them as much as you can—not as someone who dispenses wisdom from atop a mountain but as a brother and fellow traveler investing together in your mission.
If your leadership team is a source of life, encouragement, and help, then you’ll find the hard work of planting lightened and life-giving.
What advice would you give a pastor who has a congregation of fewer than 100 who knows the church is in decline?
First, know that numbers do not define success and they do not determine whether your church is alive or dead. Resist the temptation to evaluate yourself and your church based on numbers.
Second, recognize that small is not a disadvantage. It’s a disadvantage if you’re trying to do what large churches do. But it’s not if you recognize there are things you can do that large churches envy. Define those advantages for your small local church and build on them.
Third, and most importantly, dedicate yourself to spreading the life-giving Word of God. Life comes by the Word. If your church seems to be tilting toward death, breathe life into it through a renewed effort to teach and preach the Scriptures.
Make sure the gospel is preached each Sunday from each text. Begin to meet with members to read, study, and pray the Bible. “Do the work of an evangelist” in a Word-dependent way. Go deep in God’s Word and trust God to spread it wide.
Is there something you feel was left out of the book that you wish you could add?
It’s beyond the scope of a book like this, but I wish there were a way to say to churches outside the African-American community, “Come learn from your sister church. Christ has left a lot of treasures here!”
I don’t want people outside the black church to think this book isn’t for them or that its subject is too particular. The challenges faced by the black church are the same challenges other churches face. And the remedies are the same.
Often people assume the African-American church can learn from its white counterparts, but fail to recognize the learning can and should go the other way too. I wish I could have made that truth more explicit in the book without losing its focus on the African-American church.
I hope this is a resource for everyone who loves their local church and all Christ’s churches and who have a willingness to learn from the black church’s history, mission, and uniqueness.
What is your hope for the African-American church?
That through the Word of God she thrive in every good thing, reaching her neighbors with the gospel of Jesus Christ! That she flower in holiness, resisting the world, the flesh, and the devil.
That she bear witness to the hope we have in Christ even in the face of peril and persecution. That she speak truth to power, holding just scales in her hands, calling for righteousness and judgment as God defines it.
That she rid herself of mammon’s “unclean things” and the wolves that find their way into unsuspecting henhouses. That she continue in the long march toward justice, love, and mercy begun in hush harbors in slave quarters and continued through slavery’s long night into the dawning of new civil rights and opportunity’s promise.
That she teach the rest of the church world the things she’s learned from her Lord and join arm-in-arm with reconciled brethren to do the work of the Lord in her part of the vineyard and around the globe.
That she work while it’s day and look to the coming of the Lord with great hope, zeal, and holiness depending on His Word. That she hear the Savior say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your Lord!”