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Not Dead Yet: Tony Evans Celebrates the Vitality of the Black Church

Eddie Glaude Jr.’s 2010 Huffington Post article “The Black Church Is Dead” set off a wave of discussion within the African American community. According to Glaude, the black church is complicated. In some iterations and spaces, the church represents “a prophetic and progressive institution,” while often having “pastors who are quite conservative.” For Glaude, the minister’s conservative theological position hinders the progressive and public witness of the black church. This theological frame stifles the institution’s significance for the black community and the black church must be set free to pursue its prophetic purpose.

In A Survey of the Black Church in America: Exploring Its History, Ministry, and Unique Strengths, Tony Evans responds to Glaude’s thesis and proves the black church’s vitality, strength, and contributions to Christian theology and to society at large. Evans sees the black church as a remedy to society’s interpretation of the Christian faith, especially in light of the sociopolitical distortions of the term “evangelical.”

Evans writes with love for biblical orthodoxy and for the African American community. He argues, “When we examine the New Testament definition of the church and juxtapose it with the functioning of the historical black church, it becomes clear that the two institutions were very similar” (94). Contrary to Glaude’s opinion, Evans believes the black church is a faithful, living representation of the Christian faith that in many ways exemplifies the biblical definition of ecclesial community.

Roots for the Black Church

Black theology has a mature philosophical, religious, and theological discourse. Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas, and president of The Urban Alternative, exposes this rich heritage to a broad audience. His retelling departs from common interpretations because he stands between common majority and minority narratives. This primer helps evangelicals understand the richness and distinctiveness of the black church and its invaluable contributions to the Christian tradition.

Evans challenges common motifs about the formation of the black church. For example, many people view it as merely a reactive movement that emerged from white Christianity. Evans writes,

When one comes to understand and appreciate fully the circumstances that came together to give rise to this unique institution, it becomes clear that its makeup consisted of men and women of tremendous depth, intellect, wisdom, and pride who were willing to submit all of these virtues to the work of a sovereign God. (94)

Evans’s analysis resonates with Henry Mitchell’s in Black Belief, where he argues for African cultural influence on black religion. Hence, Evans dedicates an entire chapter to investigating African traditional religion and the heritage bestowed on African American churches, specifically “the focus on oral communication, the tendency toward orthodoxy and a supreme view of God, and an essential connection between theology and life” (90). These notions weaken African American Christianity’s perceived indebtedness to white Christianity.

According to Evans, there were five key factors in the birth of the black church: (1) the slaves’ search for meaning amid dehumanization, (2) the evangelization of slaves during the Second Great Awakening, (3) a natural integration of their religious foundations with their oppressed conditions, (4) the Bible’s consistent message of relief of oppression, and (5) the resonance of the black preacher’s role with some traditional African cultures.

This framing explicitly departs from the liberationist motif common within black theology by forging a stronger connection between the historical black church and black evangelicalism. He positions the latter as the heir of historical black institutions while distancing it from black theology at large.

Foundations for Black Evangelicalism

Evans shares his experience navigating double consciousness as a black evangelical, which began in Atlanta at Carver College and continued at Dallas Theological Seminary. For instance, during college, a white medical doctor paid him to lead an outreach to “Christian blacks in his area” but “never once came to the Bible study he initiated” (9).

Evans positions black evangelicalism as the heir of historical black institutions while distancing it from black theology at large.

Painful stories like this reveal the unhealthy division caused by race, despite unity on doctrine. Amid these tensions, Evans developed a commitment to biblical and theological truths consistent with mainstream evangelical thought while desiring to minister within predominantly black contexts. This set into motion his burgeoning black evangelical commitments.

In the 1970s, Evans wasn’t alone in this sentiment. He connects himself to a larger black evangelical tradition following Tom Skinner, John Perkins, and William Bentley. “Black evangelicalism,” Evans argues, “refers to a movement among African American Christians that emerged out of the civil rights era and the rise of evangelicalism in the white community, which seeks to wed the strengths of the black church with an emphasis on a systematic approach to theology, ministry, and social impact” (136).

The key difference between black theology and black evangelicalism, according to Evans, is the way experience and exposition interact. “Black expositional theology” views Scripture as the standard for life and the black experience, which corresponds to black evangelicalism. This approach is reflected in Evans’s preaching, which has been well received by many theologically conservative Christians.

Yet black evangelicalism contextualizes from the unique experience of African Americans, because ignoring “structural sins of dehumanizing separation, disparity, and subjugation brought about by past cultural sins of slavery and legalized racism” results in a partial approach to Scripture (175). Evans concludes, “We, as African Americans, have been subjected for hundreds of years under the result of an incomplete hermeneutical approach to Scripture” (174).

That incomplete approach caused the development of what Evans calls “black experience theology,” which prioritizes human experience. Thus, while Evans affirms some of James Cone’s efforts to answer the experiential questions of black communities, he urges caution, noting that “Cone’s interpretation of the relationship of Jesus Christ to liberation failed to integrate it into the whole of God’s salvific purpose for mankind” (149). Evans desires Scripture and the advancement of the kingdom of God to take precedence over personal experience. “Culture and experience may raise the vital and necessary questions,” he argues, “but they can never be the starting point for determining the meaning of Scripture” (174).

Black evangelicalism’s uniqueness lies in its ability to contextualize Christian doctrine for the needs of predominantly black spaces. In America, black evangelicalism’s ability to minister to two worlds helps the movement prioritize oneness between black and white Christians and promote racial reconciliation through personal responsibility and biblical justice.

Additionally, Evans views evangelism and discipleship as markers of black evangelicalism. In his understanding, these are opportunities to help Christians see the importance of personal responsibility and biblical justice. Black evangelicalism offers a vision of holistic ministry with an emphasis on cultural and social concerns, which Evans connects to the black church’s integration of biblical principles in all of life.

Learn from the Black Church

Evans leans into personal experience to provide a historical and theological analysis of black evangelicalism. This approach limits his engagement with scholarship and leads him to omit some historical figures and details appropriate for a history of the black church and black evangelicalism. The result is an oversimplified history at times when discussing the roots of the black church because it mutes the diversity in discourse among black theologians.

Black evangelicalism’s uniqueness lies in its ability to contextualize Christian doctrine for the needs of predominantly black spaces.

Nevertheless, A Survey of the Black Church proves valuable for its fundamentals of black evangelicalism. In an age where black Christians with evangelical sensibilities long for a theological, cultural, and historical home, Evans’s book provides a perspective on black evangelicalism’s roots in the orthodox tradition.

At the same time, Evans addresses the frustration of many black Christians with evangelicalism as a sociopolitical and theological movement. For those who’ve participated in what the New York Times called “a quiet exodus,” Evans offers a resource to move beyond evangelicalism and into “kingdomology,” which celebrates “the saving content of the gospel as well as its comprehensive scope” (196).

For those observing the current dispersion of black Christians from evangelicalism, Evans opens the door to an understanding of what black Christianity can offer the movement. The black church isn’t dead—it holds on to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Its continued existence contributes to the ongoing expansion of God’s kingdom.

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