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The Black church today

Art Cribbs | 3/2/2011, 5 p.m.

Professor Hopkins agrees and adds, "America sees that and thinks 'We thought that was the Black church.' Prosperity gospel is a recent development, but the whole personal salvation and social justice has been there since the Black church began."

Smith chided, "Black parishioners are interested in large gatherings of praise where Darfur, Sudan, Angola, the Congo, and Colombia never get mentioned. (They) are interested in large gatherings of praise where they can gather for an entire week of getting their praise on and getting their shout on, speaking in tongues and spending their dollars."

A national conference of Black clergy convened in Los Angeles in 2005, where conveners were urged to stand against popular culture, secularism and violence. The African American Church Strategy Team, a coalition of eight Black Presbyterian churches, brought together 121 preachers and lay Christian leaders from 10 states. The theme of the four-day gathering was "Reflecting Scripture in a Post-Civil Rights Era: Declaring Our Lord Jesus from the Pulpit, in the Pew, on the Pavement."

The Rev. Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, a senior fellow of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the USC and the former pastor of First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, takes exception to the term "post civil rights" in his criticism of what has happened in many Black churches.

"Today we hear talk of the post civil rights era and that is precisely a problem we meet with the so-called post civil rights church," he says. "When you speak of Black clergy now, you are speaking of a large percentage who have yielded to materialism," Murray complains. "They have yielded to consumerism. They have yielded to 'me too-ism' just going to preach and work people's emotions up and then say, "I'll see you next Sunday," and those people walk out to go through hell."

The Rev. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, professor of biblical languages and literature at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., staunchly criticizes secular Christianity. He told the Los Angeles Times six years ago, "Too many preachers have become so enamored with fame, money, large congregations and the art of preaching as entertainment that they have forgotten their calling."

At the Claremont School of Theology, Murray instructed students preparing to serve Black churches, "I define Black preaching as liberation preaching: 'I have come to set the captives free'. It isn't the elevator of social acceptance that sets us free. It isn't the occasional flashbulb that goes off in your face. It is the understanding that I have been sent to set free the captive: the captive mind, heart, and spirit."

Despite criticism about the shifting emphasis from liberation preaching to enriching preachers' pocketbooks, Black clergy continue to retain high regard within the African American community. But, there are cautions that respect may be eroding.

The Rev. Dr. C. Dennis Williams, pastor of Brookins Community African Methodist Epsicopal Church in Los Angeles, is concerned about behaviors of some high-profile preachers which placed them in a negative public light.