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Saga and song

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Archives / 1995 / May

 

 

Saga and song

Leslie N. Pollard
Leslie N. Pollard, D.Min., (Ph.D. candidate), is pastor of Oakwood College church, Huntsville, Alabama.

 

When Christians discuss African-American preaching (ie., Black preaching), stylistic features generally are in the forefront. Asked to describe African- American preaching in my homiletics class, those favorably disposed would use words like "dynamic," "spirited," and "enthusiastic." Those not so favorable would use words like "loud," "showy," and "emotional." However we feel about African-American preaching, we cannot but take note of a statement by one of today's most widely respected homileticians, David Buttrick of Vanderbilt University: "All things considered, it is probable that the finest preaching in America today is black."1

In order to appreciate fully African-American preaching and under stand its effectiveness, we must not only look at the style of its presentation but also analyze its sources and assumptions. The way these elements interface within African-American preaching grants it a unique place in the history of Christian discourse. Such study promises to enrich not only African-American preachers but others as well.

African-American preaching: a definition

African-American, or Black, preaching signifies a unique sociohistorical method of pulpit discourse that was born, reared, and nurtured in the church of America's Black people. While primarily narrative in nature, Black preaching began as an indigenous amalgam of West African religious tradition and American religious culture. It developed and matured during the four-century pilgrimage of African-Americans in America. It is preaching that arose from a life of suffering, expressing the gospel through the experiences, idioms, folk ways, and images of the African- American' s identifiable ethnic/cultural community. While elevating the centrality of the gospel and interpreting communal suffering, African-American preaching aimed to teach, heal, and impart hope and personhood to the hearers.

My description of African-American preaching presupposes an acknowledgment that a people's culture impacts the way that people under stand and express theology and minis try. Once, I heard a well-meaning preacher say, "I do not believe in Black preaching and White preaching. There is no such thing as Black or White preaching. There is only Christian preaching." I understand the intent of such a statement, but it has two problems.

First, it confuses content with mode. The difference between Christian preaching and, say, Islamic or Buddhist preaching is in content. African-American preaching, on the other hand, describes the mode through which the Christian content is communicated. Second, it does not account for the very obvious differences in style and emphasis between the preaching of Anglo-American and African-American preachers.

Consider the preaching of a George Vandeman and a Charles Brooks. While both are extremely effective evangelists, how do we explain the stylistic differences in their presentation? I suppose we could say, "Well, the difference is because they are different individuals." While I do acknowledge differences between individuals, why is it that groups of individuals who look like the two preachers reflect different styles and emphases? The answer is simple: African-Americans, as do Anglo-Americans and others, utilize their collective experiences and their personal socialization as essential resources for preaching. While Brooks and Vandeman share a profound commitment to the Advent movement, their presentations reflect the outlooks, values, and attitudes of the communities that incubated their preaching ministries. And those factors impart a distinct identity to the way they preach the Word.

As a further background for understanding African-American preaching, we must contrast Black preaching with historical homiletics. Historical homiletics is grounded in the Aristotelian speaking traditions of proposition and proof. This approach has relied heavily upon the structure of introduction, body, and conclusion. Homiletical writers like John Broadus, William Evans, and Illion Jones reflect this method. African-American preaching utilizes selected elements of historical homiletics, but does not limit itself to them. This is evident when one examines the sources, assumption, and stylistic factors of African-American preaching.

African-American preaching: sources

Scripture, history, and experience are the most significant sources of African-American preaching.

Scripture. "Black preaching, almost without exception, is biblical." 2 Here "biblical" is not to be understood in the same way that a fundamentalist may understand. But it means that the images, stories, metaphors, and teachings from the Bible form the foundation of the sermon. African-American preaching does not draw a straight line from the first to the twentieth century. A contextual use of Scripture pervades much of Black preaching. I am not dogmatic on this point, but this may be a vestige of the slave period. American slavemasters routinely drafted the Bible as an ally in the continuation of their oppression. 3 Since the American slaves were forbidden to learn to read, the only exposure they had to the Bible was aural.4

The slaves who listened to this type of preaching engaged in an eclectic hearing, similar to that of Howard Thurman's grandmother. She remembers how the slavemasters had their hired preachers come and preach that the slaves should obey their masters. She recalls: "At least three or four times a year he [the master's minister] used as a text: 'Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters..., as unto Christ.' Then he would go on to show how it was God's will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible." 5

This was one way that the early listeners in African-American communities learned to discard politicized interpretations of the Word. Those few slave preachers who learned to read, read the Bible with an eye that saw freedom themes, especially applicable to their struggle in this world and redemption in the next. In that sense the Bible became the exhaustless referent for the articulation of faith to seekers of personal and corporate freedom.

What I am describing is a "seeing" grounded in experience. To illustrate: My family recently purchased a van. Now, I have been driving for more than 20 years. However, since purchasing a van, I can honestly say that I never noticed that there were so many vans on the highway. I "suddenly" saw red vans, blue vans, minivans, over-sized vans, cargo vans, passenger vans, stock vans, customized vans. Does this mean that vans were not on the road before I purchased mine? No. It simply means that my seeing was conditioned by my experience.

Similarly, experiential discernment is what happened within the African- American slave preachers. The clear ethical teachings of the Bible had always been there. However, the experience of oppression enabled the Black preachers to see themes, teachings, and images in Scripture that spoke to their experience. The Exodus signaled to them the promise of God's liberation from bondage. Soteriology be came not only salvation from sin but from social servitude as well. Ecclesiology was translated into a community seeking not only Christ, but survival as well. Eschatology promised a God who would interrupt history not only with reward but with justice and judgment.

History. Another source for Black preaching is its own history. As historian Albert Raboteau points out, African-American spirituality is the confluence of two streams of tradition: (1) African, with its spirituality, and (2) American, with its adaption.6 Both were passed down through generations of earlier believers. African religious customs with their emphasis on the spirit world, a high God, and the principles of community expressed in tales, proverbs, and stories formed a cradle in which African-American preaching was born and continues to draw on today.

Contemporary experience. African-American preaching finds much of its context in the everyday experiences of a community of marginalized sufferers. The context is one of alienation, disenfranchisement, and in many cases, hopelessness. Black preachers speak the gospel to men and women who are often reminded that they stand on the periphery of society. Black preaching affirms the significance of all humans in their role as the center piece of creation and the focus of the great controversy.

African-American preaching: assumptions

Five assumptions are peculiar to Black preaching.

Participation. Black preaching assumes audience participation. It is an oral art that uses rhetoric to create a tapestry of thought, sound, and experience for the listener. P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) argued that preaching is not a monologue, but a dialogue. His statement has been widely quoted be cause of its relevance for those who saw preaching as a spectator event. The major homiletic texts of Forsyth's period emphasized the speaker. Sermonizing was primarily speaker-centered, the preacher sending a communication to the listener. Forsyth argued against this preaching paradigm of his day.

Contemporary Black preaching takes Forsyth's dialogical concept further by asserting that effective preaching is not simply a monologue or even a dialogue, but a triangulated communication. Black preaching assumes a participatory exchange between preacher, congregation, and God. In the Black tradition, preaching is not, and has never been, a spectator event. Indeed, preaching provides the opportunity for the congregation and the preacher to give witness to the reality of God in their midst. And because God is immediately present, preaching cannot be one-way communication; it is a dynamic conversation in which empowerment takes place. Black preaching, then, is not a preacher-led, isolated, excursion into the world of the Bible, but a group tour, full of sights, sounds, and experiences.

Possession by the Spirit. This assumption separates Black preaching from historical homiletics, because the Black community views the preacher as the vehicle for the transmission of God's message. The Black congregation consciously takes a "high view" of the sermon. Preaching is not simply the shared reflections of the speaker. Preaching is a genuinely charismatic experience. Similar to the freedom of the early church, the word of God moves freely between the preacher, the people, and God. Thus, with all things being equal, it is rare for a Black listener to challenge the preacher on the content of the sermon. Of course, it goes without saying that this relationship to the sermon is also tied to the congregation's perception of the sermon's credibility.

Contextualization. Preaching as simply historical study is unappealing to the general Black audience, as it is to most others. The preacher and preaching must be incarnationalized at the level of common experience. The sermon must reflect rhetorical devices such as contemporization, colloquialism, and everyday speech. Black believers expect their minister to communicate in their common language. This contextualizing of theological lingo also makes such language less alien to listeners.

Contrary to appearances, the African-American audience is interested in theological discourse. Therefore, the wise theologian/preacher takes the insights of academic theology, sub tracts its vocabulary, and baptizes its terminology in the language of the audience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a master at this type of transformation of technical theological language.

Motivational communication. In African-American preaching there is no sacralizing of the listener's will. The Black pastor informs the audience on what it must do to complete the cycle of the sermon. The sermon is not so much a call for reflection as for action.

Celebration. Cerebration culminates in celebration. Celebration as a component of the sermon is a uniquely African-American contribution to homiletics. As far back as Cicero, it was believed that speech should delight the audience. But African-American preaching has advanced the idea a step further, by adding a celebrative, even festive, element to the homiletical endeavor. African-American preaching moves to an intentional climax. If we check the classical texts of homiletics, we won't find the idea of celebration in preaching. This absence, I believe, comes from the West's somaphobic (bodyfearing) view of the human being. African-American preaching takes wholistic anthropology seriously and engages the whole person: hearing, thinking, feeling, and action. Thus, Black preaching welcomes varied expressions of jubilation, inasmuch as they are the out come of the rational and relevant sojourn through which the preacher has led the people.

Interestingly, in many Anglo-American congregations, a substantial amount of mental energy is spent in maintaining emotional control, be cause the public expression of emotion is viewed as conveying a loss of rational control. In Anglo-American community, a sign of rationality is acting "appropriately" in the appropriate forum.7 On the contrary, African-American preaching appreciates, celebrates, and encourages the free expression of genuine emotion. This show of emotion, rooted in the notion that the sermon ad dresses the entire being of the listener, increases the freedom of other worshipers and intensifies the impact of the message.

African-American preaching: style

"Style," says E. L. Epstein, "is the regard that what pays to how." 8 Thomas Kilgore points out that "the expectancy in black worship is not about the liturgy, the music, or the offering; it is about what the preacher is going to say, and how he or she is going to say it." 9 Style and content are not mutually exclusive. Augustine in his On Christian Doctrine pointed out that style should be commensurate to the importance of the content. Thus, for Augustine, plain content required ordinary style; extraordinary content called for more elevated style.

The modern African-American audiences expect that the more significant the event, the more important the style of the sermon will be. At big gatherings Black audiences revel in the style of the message. However, when style substitutes for substance in the sermon and spirituality in the preacher, it becomes an offense that works to the detriment of the message.

What are the elements of style in Black preaching? Henry Mitchell has outlined them well, and I have included several of them here.

Freedom. "The black congregation is very permissive. It accepts a considerable variety of behavior unrelated to the message, in order (consciously or unconsciously) to free preachers to be themselves."

Call and response. Rhythm is an important part of Black preaching, and in this call and response plays a significant role. "Many preachers who pause to breathe or for other reasons receive a response from the audience."

Role playing and story telling. This aspect of style takes on the character and assumes such aspects as the tone and mannerisms of a given personality.

Slow delivery and building up to climax. The preacher deliberately uses vocal pacing as the sermon marches toward its summit.

Aphorism and hesitation. Clever, pithy statements along with the impression that the preacher is stumbling, stammering, and reaching for the message combine to produce a profound effect upon listeners. 10

Dramatic non-fluency. Non-fluency is the inclusion of extraneous vocal elements in preaching, and is used to heighten the sense of expectation of the audience. In traditional homiletics, the lower the number of nonfluencies, the higher the approval rating of the message. Black preaching, however, transforms nonfluency whether transitional, adversative, or consecutive into a rhetorical device that advances the sermon.

African-American preaching: music

Black preaching has a close affinity with Black music. Jon Michael Spencer notes: "Rhythm is the element that gives Black preaching locomotion and momentum. Without it preaching would not only be static, it would hardly have an audience."11 Likewise, Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, in the first major sociological study of the African-American church in 60 years, point out that in the Black church "good preaching and good singing are almost invariably the minimum conditions of a successful ministry." 12

Improvisation. African-American preaching uses many of the devices present in Black music. For example, consider improvisation. For the African-American preacher, it is not enough simply to talk of the text from the perspective of its facility. The Black preacher does with the text what the Black musician does with score: exercise creativity within bounds, but creativity nonetheless. In the African- American community, improvisation takes place around formulas and set pieces. A set piece is a mobile section of a sermon or song that the preacher/ musician can insert into a number of sermons/songs. The formula is a shorter, easily recognizable, sentence that belongs to the folk traditions of the African-American community that immediately trigger a response in the congregation.

James Tinney notes: "Sentence forms (in Black preaching) are also distinctive. Special combinations of sentence patterns contribute to both the antiphonal and the rhythmical qualities. The sentence is usually shorter than in everyday speech. . . .There are phrases that have become familiar in almost all the black churches. Sometimes they are taken from the everyday speech of the black community ('truth is light'), from gospels or spirituals ('my soul looks back and wonders'), or from favorite scriptures ('you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'). Often these formulas are used to begin sentences or introduce new thoughts; and as much as they form natural divisions. Among these introductions are 'after a while,' 'I can see,' 'Every now and then,' and 'I saw John early one morning.' " 13

Every effective Black preacher understands and uses these rhetorical formulas. Formulas are those short familiar sayings that create mood, invoke memory, awaken aspiration, or activate imagination in the Black listener. Examples:

      "The old folks used to say. ..."

      "You don't hear me."

      "If it had not been for the Lord...."

      "You're not with me this morning."

      "The truth is the light."

      "You don't know what I'm talking about."

      "It's the truth anyhow."

      "Can I get a witness?"

Imagination. Another tool Black music and Black preaching share is vicarious imagination. Through the Negro spiritual, the Black musician created a scene at which all the participants in the here and now experienced a foretaste of the "not yet." Think of the song "Were You There?" In this song imagination is operative, and the listener stands at the cross in first per son.

Participation is also another element that Black preaching shares with Black music. Music in the Black arena is not just performed, but participated in. This is the real power of African- American gospel music and preaching.

Attestation is also common to both African-American preaching and mu sic. It is the communal affirmation of the goodness of God and the truth of His Word. It is where the audience exercises its right to "testify" to the efficacy of the occasion. Black musicians long for the audience to "get into" the music. Passive listening indicates that something is awry, either in the music, its performance, or in the listener. Black preachers find that celebration empowers the congregation to confess, jubilate, and affirm the message.

African-American preaching: God's gift

Recently I preached a series of nine evening meetings in Australia. Repeatedly pastors asked me, "How do you Black Americans preach like that?" My response? "I don't know but we just do." However, their deep interest in learning from African-American preaching with an eye toward improving their own preaching in their con text raised an important question. Is African-American preaching portable? Can African-American preaching be transcultural, transsocial, transethnic? Is it limited to one community, or might others benefit from instruction in this art and science?

Warren H. Stewart, Sr., has listed the following principles of African- American preaching that can help any preacher who wishes to benefit from the powerful mode of Black preaching.

"1. Know God to be actively involved in the continuous process of humankind's holistic liberation.

"2. Identify with the Word in such a way that the Word will both support and challenge those to whom the mes sage is directed.

"3. Allow the Holy Spirit working through . . . [your] gifts and talents to create a living experience with the Word in [yourself]... first, and then in the lives of those to whom the message is directed.

"4. Proclaim the Word in the common tongue of the majority of those who will hear [your] . . . message on any given occasion.

"5. Proclaim the Word as dialogue with the audience, and utilize the voice and body to communicate interpretively one's message and its meaning." 14

African-American preaching is God's gift to the Christian church. This preaching assures a suffering, pilgrim community that God loves and cares. Further research, reflection, and cross-cultural dialogue concerning this gift will enhance its performance and make its blessings more readily accessible to the Christian community around the world.

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1 David Butlnck, Homiletic: Moves and Structures
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 469,

2 William McClain, The Liturgy of Zion
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 62.

3 See William Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath,
War, and Women (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press,
1983), pp. 31-46, on how the Bible was twisted to
sustain the institution of American slavery.

4 Historian Albert J. Raboteau chronicles the
testimonies of some of the slaves' rejection of
slavemasters' attempts to exploit Christianity for
their own ends in "Religious Life in the Slave
Community," in Slave Religion (New York: Ox
ford Press, 1978), pp. 212-243.

5 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1949), pp. 30,
31.

6 See Raboteau, p. 42.

7 For a discussion of the differences in the
relationship to emotion and reason between Blacks
and Whites, see Thomas Kochman, Black and
White: Styles in Conflict (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981).

8 E. L. Epstein, Language and Style (London:
Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1978), p. 1.

9 Thomas Kilgore, Jr., "Preaching in the Black
Church," Christian Ministry 19 (March-April
1988), p. 19.

10 See Henry Mitchell, Black Preaching: The
Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 1990), pp. 88, 92, 93, 96, 97.

11 Jon Michael Spencer, Sacred Symphony
(Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 3.

12 C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya,
The Black Church in the African-American Experience
(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 346

13 James Tinney, "The Miracle of Black
Preaching," Christianity Today, January 1976,
pp. 14, 15.

14 Warren H. Stewart, Sr., Interpreting God's
Word in Black Preaching (Valley Forge, Pa.:
Judson Press, 1984), p. 71.

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