Black and Presbyterian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Roberts

Here’s why I am not a fan of resolution 05-09 from the 223rd General Assembly.

It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies: Freedom Rising Initiative of 2016, black church growth strategies of 2012 and earlier, and the New Wineskins papers of the mid 1990’s.

Photo from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Facebook page.

My 30 years as a Presbyterian has in many ways been defined by voices who have consistently named this problem. Yet, denominationally, the problem has only gotten worse. If we’ve known this for 30-plus years, and conventional processes haven’t addressed the problem in all this time, how much longer are we gonna content ourselves with doing the same thing over and over again! This is mind-boggling to me and personally I have no time or energy to devote to this insanity any more.

Also, this resolution assumes that the future of black Presbyterianism is inextricably tied to the preservation of its roughly 400 congregations. I don’t accept that. For sure, these congregations have an important legacy and rich tradition, but history suggests that the relationship between African-Americans and the Presbyterian Church is much bigger than our 400 extant churches, much more complex, and much richer. I believe the same is true of our future.

I believe the way forward is to organize new African-American congregations, new intercultural congregations, and new multi-ethnic congregations and let the witness of black presbyterianism move forward from those new places. Enough with the resolutions. Enough with the investigating and reporting back 12-24 months later. Just enough.

And here’s a challenge!

For the last eight years, NEXT Church has been asking itself–
What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world?
What is next for the church?
What can NEXT Church do to help create what’s next for the church?

Maybe the next frontier for NEXT Church is to use the learnings of the last eight years as a foundation for planting some new churches. Black ones. Brown ones. White ones. Red ones. Blue ones. Mixed up ones.


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary.

1 reply
  1. Rev. Dean J. Seal
    Rev. Dean J. Seal says:

    To Paul Roberts, Thank you for this. I am a white Presbyterian Pastor in Minneapolis. I do not pretend to know enough about this resolution to comment on it. I have participated in a couple Next Church conventions, and I think they are helpful. But for me, what I have done is propose that the Letter from a Birmingham Jail be included in the Book of Confessions. Dr. King’s work is at the center of my life, and the life of my small almost all white congregation (We have one American African and one Native American.) I taught religion for 11 years at Augsburg University, and I started every class with a line by line, 3 hour reading and unpacking of this document. It is my firm belief that wherever the Church teaches this text, we will feel a chance to be reborn in the Spirit of being a Church of Mission, and striving for justice actively. Young people don’t care if a church is Presby or Methodist, or Lutheran, they want to know what we are Doing, I want to promote the idea of black leadership for our church in the work of this man, the most important American Theologian we have ever had. And I have a distant hope that if the Black Presbyterians can see the white Presbyterians accepting Dr. King’s leadership in our theology, they will feel more comfortable about finding a place in a denomination that is the most democratic, most conscious of the Jewish Jesus in our educational training,, and most committed to a spiritual activism that will stimulate and attract young people of every race. Dr. King is at the center of our congregational life, and it has been enriching and empowering. I hope that others may find what we have found in his work. I apologize in advance for anything in this note that is ill-informed or ignorant. I can only speak from the heart. I hope people listen to your ground level understanding about what needs to be done. It seems to me to be a clear reflection on reality, instead of the conclusion of a 20 year long committee meeting. I send you my best regards.

    Reply

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