When I was a young adult, I sat in the pew at the funeral services of a close friend in my neighborhood. He had been shot in a robbery at the shoe store where he worked part-time. The loss was as thick as gray fog hanging over the neighborhood as the Rev. L.K. Curry, the African American pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago, rose to deliver the eulogy.
When he finished preaching, something had changed in my soul. Amazingly, I felt hope.
His preaching of the word of God had shifted my outlook and perspective. I wondered what he did and how he did it: How did he make the Bible suddenly relevant, fresh, alive and real? How did his words and his delivery alter my reality?
I have been on a quest ever since to discover the essence of that style of preaching – both the message and the method. The genius of African American preaching, I have learned, can transform not only individual believers but our entire country.
African American preaching style, after all, was the mighty tool Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow leaders of the civil rights movement used to reshape America into a more just nation.
A heritage of such power deserves to be studied. Inspired by King, theologians began looking at black preaching in academic circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And at long last, I am proud to be the director of the world’s first Ph.D. program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric, which launches next year at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
Of course, African American preaching is not just sermonizing by a pastor who is black. Six main characteristics, I believe, define this potent tradition:
- Experiential preaching. The preacher, by means of an eyewitness style of picture painting and narration, stirs the senses. As a result, the worshiper does not just hear about John the Baptist in past times; John the Baptist is present in the room, seen, heard, touched and felt by all. The Bible comes alive by an experiential encounter.
- The inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The sermon is not simply the words of a human being, but the very voice of God speaking through the preacher.
- The centrality of Scripture. Not rigid Biblical literalism, but a constant view of the Bible, above all other sources, as the inspired and dynamic source for understanding the world and the wise guide for life’s decisions.
- Biblical scholarship to meet human need. The sermon is never academic alone. Biblical scholarship addresses worshipers’ practical needs in their daily lives.
- Suspense that leads to celebration. The preacher structures the sermon to hold suspense as long as possible, and after the suspense is resolved, the preacher celebrates the good news. The weight that the black church places on a powerful and uplifting conclusion is unparalleled in any culture.
- The performative nature of the sermon. The word of God must be embodied in the total person of the preacher, including head (rationality), heart (emotionality) and body (physicality). The word must be incarnated.
Noted scholar of African American preaching Cleophus J. LaRue points out one more characteristic, deeply rooted in black history: the African American preacher finds in Scripture an all-powerful God who intervenes for liberation when God’s people face marginalization and oppression.
Just as the preaching of King and other leaders helped transform this nation in the days of the civil rights movement – just as that eulogy in Chicago transformed my life – African American preaching, in all of its beauty, depth and history, can once again change the perspective of this nation. And the time is at hand. In our new program, we will develop teachers of preaching whose work in the classroom and in the pulpit will inspire.
African American preaching was one of the prime factors that broke the back of Jim Crow segregation in 20th century America. We believe that kind of transformation can happen again in the 21st century.
Frank A. Thomas is director of the Ph.D. Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He is the author of “They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration In Preaching,” and co-editor of “Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present.”