In recent weeks, American cities, suburbs, and small towns have seen an explosion of protests reacting to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Even as many have commented on the racial diversity of the demonstrators, many of those organizing the marches are young African Americans activists.
But while black pastors have organized several marches in major cities like Chicago and Washington DC, they have not been at the forefront of a movement that arguably began back in Ferguson in 2014.
“While you may have had many black pastors and clergy who may have shown up at events, and you may have had a lot of people from black churches who were at these marches and protests, from 2014 to the present, by and large, this has not been a theological movement,” said Watson Jones III, the senior pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago. “It hasn’t been a movement that has started in the basements of churches, in prayer meetings, and altars that flooded out into the streets.”
Despite this, Watson believes that some of what is fueling many of the young black activist leaders ties back to this institution.
“Much of how they do what they do are examples of things that early clergy and faithful Christians did in the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s, but there is an absence of clergy leading this movement,” he said.
Watson joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss why the black church’s approach to activism has never been a monolith, how the community’s preaching is speaking to current events, and the extent to which the black church is struggling to keep young people engaged.
As you’ve been observing the protests that have been taking place in the past couple of weeks—and let’s also go back to 2014 after Ferguson—where would you say that the black church has been in the midst of this?
Watson Jones III: One of the things that has been sort of interesting to me, that is different from every major movement for black justice in America, is that the black church is not at the forefront of this.
While you may have had many black pastors and clergy who may have shown up at events, and you may have had a lot of people from black churches who were at these marches and protests, from 2014 to the present, by and large, this has not been a theological movement. It hasn’t been a movement that has started in the basements of churches, in prayer meetings, and altars that flooded out into the streets.
I may be a minority in this belief, but I believe that some of the impulse that we see in young black activist leaders directly tie back to the black church. Much of how they do what they do are examples of things that early clergy and faithful Christians did in the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s, but there is an absence of clergy leading this movement.
From history, we know that even in Martin Luther King’s church in Birmingham, there was some was pushback against him from his own congregation, who said they hired him to be their pastor and not a civil rights leader. Is that similar to what you see now? Or is there something different going on?
Watson Jones III: There have always been three streams and voices in the black church that dates back to the 1700s.
And in Dr. King’s day, during the civil rights movement, there were many black churches who were vehemently against Dr. King, Gardner Taylor, and others, and didn’t want to have any parts to do with the movement. This is why the National Baptist Convention split, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention was created because the National Baptists did not want to partake in the civil rights movement.
I think the difference now might be due to a few different things. The generation that fought in the civil rights movement is older now. The younger players of the civil rights movement, who were in their twenties then, are in their eighties. This new crop of pastors know the struggle from history, but we haven’t had to fight the struggle.
I think we’ve also been tackled by local realities more than we have been by national realities. So, police brutality as an example of something that is old, and it is very much a national problem, but we’ve also been locally dealing with school issues. We’ve been locally dealing with crime issues. We’ve been locally dealing with local corruption. Others have taken the voice of many evangelicals to say, “Let’s just preach the gospel.” And then maybe there are some who might’ve just simply said, “We’ve made great progress. The fight is still real, but it doesn’t require the protesting now.”
But again, I think the difference is that whereas it began with preachers, and not just preachers, but people of faith, and that stuff was very much rooted in the church, I think it’s not so much anymore. I think another shift that has happened is that the church still has a place in the black community, but it may not be central anymore. Whereas at one time the church was really the only institution we had in our community, that’s not necessarily the case now. We have a lot more third-place gathering spots that don’t include the church now.
In the evangelical church at large, it’s been a source of consternation about the ways that Millennials and Gen Z may be losing the faith that their parents had. To what extent would you say that Millennial and Gen Z African-Americans have remained a part of the church? And to what extent would you say that that’s not true?
Watson Jones III: I still think that black Millennials still generally go to church. It may look a little different in terms of consistency, but I think there still is a relationship to it.
I think the struggle may come when they don’t hear churches talking about justice. I remember when I was in Philadelphia, I’m preaching sermons that I thought were good sermons, but the question that came from one of my members was, “What does God have to say about this? We have been in this same boat since 1619, so what does God have to say about this?” So I think the frustration that many younger people will feel in the black church is when their churches have nothing to say about this.
Can you tell us more about that? For people who’ve not attended a lot of black churches, there’s a view that black churches tend to be heavy on social implications and social justice in their sermons. So are pastors wrestling with how much to preach on social issues or the message isn’t what the younger generation is seeking?
Watson Jones III: So I still believe in my core that the black church, that theologically, we don’t generally draw the line between gospel-preaching and gospel-action. I think it’s probably been more of a question of what to do.
I don’t know if we get the silence that I’ve heard from some of my black friends who were part of white churches. I don’t think we get that kind of silence, but I think it’s a question of the action. Like where is the action?
The Black Lives Matter movement started, what conversations do you remember having with your fellow ministers and church leaders about it? Do you remember any type of nervousness at all about being too closely associated with it?
Watson Jones III: When the Black Lives Matter movement was starting, I was in a different church context. I was in the church planting world, I had planted Restoration in Philadelphia, I was in different networks that were mostly white men. So some of the conversations that I was having then were more pointed at the larger white church and their silence.
A lot of my black peers who were pastoring, that the silence wasn’t a question for them. Whereas when I was in the church planting world, people like myself, we felt sort of like we were alone on an island yelling about things that were very biblical, but feeling like we had no allies to hear us.
Our allies were in the black church, but the large church planting movements are not led by African Americans. And so there was more of a silence and a frustration that was channeled more towards broader evangelicalism.
You’ve talked about your own spiritual heritage in the black church and where you grow up, but with white evangelicalism expanding and diversifying, you increasingly have more and more African American Christians who have come up through predominantly white evangelical institutions. What difference has that made both on the institutions, but also on these pastors and church leaders themselves?
Watson Jones III: From 2014 to 2010, we’ve definitely seen a shift in how black pastors, mainly those who came from evangelical institutions seminaries. So there were some African Americans who I feel like bought a toxic apple of “preach the gospel at the issue and push for racial reconciliation.” And the reason why I say it’s toxic is because it’s not fully biblical.
But there were many of us who remember our early black roots—and I’m not talking about is some distant pass, I mean growing up in black churches—and we did not allow evangelical institutions to squish out that passion. Because we believe that deeply biblical, and we saw it work out historically. And we just never will compromise that.
When you as an African American is leading a multiethnic church versus white pastors who are leading multiethnic churches, how might you feel those pressures differently?
Watson Jones III: I think what I have seen is a shift, and a further clarifying of what racial reconciliation means in those spaces. I think in terms of churches that have aimed at becoming multicultural that were not black, they tend to struggle on this one. But the ones that were led by black folks, especially black people who came from black church settings, there has been a further clarifying on racial reconciliation to say that racial reconciliation that does not include justice, an acknowledgment of the wrong, and the movement towards making it right is not real reconciliation.
I would imagine some of them have lost ground, at least with some white people. But I think that a lot of younger white Christians might’ve been a little more open to hearing it because they tend to be a lot more socially aware that maybe their parents were and grandparents were.
So I’ve seen that kind of shift where churches say, We are brothers and sisters in Christ but understand that this together does not ignore that in society your black and brown brothers and sisters are still taking a beating. And if you don’t say something, this is not real reconciliation.
I think that the absence of the black church in these movements is just a cultural phenomenon. I think what has been pushing white evangelicals probably have been black pastors, who either still have good relationships with white pastors who lead large churches and denominations, or black pastors who pastor multiethnic churches. I think those have been the ones who have challenged white evangelicals a lot more.
The black church in large historically is just much more detached from white evangelicalism, but then black pastors are also just a lot more localized. I think that they’re busy in the field doing work that’s a little bit more local and that doesn’t catch a large spotlight. Which I think the unfortunate part about that is that it does feed the narrative that there is a silence.
In broader evangelicalism, speaking about white conservative Christians, I think they have been pushed more because of African Americans who have been a part of the networks, who have been vocal and who have had deep, profound relationships.
White evangelicals have led their churches in marches and protests alongside of Black Lives Matter movements, and alongside of even groups that they may not even agree with on everything, to say we are Christians and we believe in justice. And I think that has come from the pushing that has taken place from minorities in those settings. I still think the vast majority is still not listening, but some are.
What is it going to take, not only from the black church but from the church at large to really support Gen Z and Millennials within the African American community?
Watson Jones III: Let me answer it first in the black church, then let me answer it to the white church, and then I’ll try to merge the two.
Every February, we have Black History Month. And at my church, while we highlight people—inventors, artists, actors, even people in our church who have done great things—one thing they’ve heard me say over the last several few years is that I see the movement for freedom and equality for black folks was very much theological.
What I mean by that is when I learned black history at school, it was a sociological phenomenon. It was Dr. King, the activist. It was Fannie Lou Hamer, the activist. It was Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist. The God part of it is completely divorced, and that’s not accurate. I mean, Frederick Douglas critiqued the American church on a biblical basis. He says, “This Christianity in America is not the Christianity of the Bible, it’s not what I see from Jesus.” That was the thrust of it, but you don’t hear that.
One of the things that I see when I read the scripture is that there is no distinction between righteousness and justice. You don’t have real justice if you don’t have real righteousness, but you don’t have real righteousness if you don’t have real justice.
African Americans did not know a time of not being a slave until 1865. Now we still have to fight after that, but [emancipation] came from years of praying. I say hands down, God ended slavery, God gave us the right to vote through the fights and the prayers of people who pushed and prayed prophetically and marched prophetically.
So I try to show my Gen Z-ers this because I believe showing God who saves us through Jesus and according to Psalm 103, because of his compassion and what theologians would call common grace, still executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. So I try to help my church see that, especially the younger generations, because that’s the question that has been asked. That is an apologetic question: Does God care for the suffering? And the Bible I read says he does. And I’m going to preach that. That God is the God of the underdog.
I think that white evangelical churches need a few things. Prophets have to really become prophets again and really call out the sin of historic racism in the white church. And I think some have done it, but some have not done it and they need to. And not just racism in terms of how you feel about people, but the silence and the excuses you make for why black people should be able to die at the hands of police officers or George Zimmerman. That that inherently is sinful.
So when broader evangelicalism does not identify with the suffering that is not just babies, but the suffering that is black, that is brown, the violent words and the vitriol we hear in The White House, the threat of violence against peaceful protestors, or just being choked out on the street when that doesn’t happen to white people—if white pastors do not learn to take the risk of preaching that, if the white pastors don’t use the power of the pulpit and the word of God to challenge this age-old demon, then the American church is in trouble.