In 2007, scholar Robert Michael Franklin wrote that “one of the challenges ahead of the African-American community is the preparation of public theologians for church and society.” Today, some 11 years later, this still rings true. Those of us within the so-called African-American church can boast of billions in collected contributions, millions of adherents, thousands of church buildings, hundreds of mega congregations and countless spirit filled services. Yet, our collective public theological and intellectual witness remains faint and feeble, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than among those who constitute the church’s leadership, namely its pastors.
Presently, the most pervasive images of African-American pastors in media and public discourse are of the high-profile superstar pastoral types and the infamous wolves in Shepard’s clothing that have been publicly exposed to be hustlers and sexual predators. Obviously these images, though sexy for general conversation, do not come close to telling the whole story of pastoring in African-American communities.
In reality, African-American pastoral images are quite diverse and richly textured. However, despite this reality the stories of certain pastoral models go largely untold and underappreciated. As a result many pastors have a narrow view of effective Christian leadership that too often does not include models of prophetic public ministry.
Today, given the myriad of social issues that plague African-American communities we are desperately in need of more pastors who are committed to the public theological and intellectual tradition. These are pastors who understand their calling to nurture and equip the church to be rooted in a commitment to examine and critique social practices and cultural understandings in the light of the gospel and insights into justice and the good society. Practically these pastors express their public theological commitment by producing sermons, books, articles, essays, lectures, and speeches etc. that are informed by quality social analysis, prophetic moral vision, and guided by insightful interpretations of the Scriptures and Christian tradition.
Undoubtedly, most pastors would not describe their calling or work in this way. The fact is the public theological pastoral model has never been overwhelming popular. Though most pastors want to have public influence, few are interested in sacrificing the time to develop a thoughtful public theological voice that speaks powerfully to the critical social issues of our day.
Moreover, many pastors find little incentive to being a public theologian. Often engaging in public theological ministry can mean losing friends, losing church members, losing preaching engagements and risking ecclesiastical status. These are high risks that many aren’t willing to take and I can’t say I blame them. Then, of course, there are those pastors who misguidedly believe that doing pubic theological work invites partisan politics into the church and detracts from their work of equipping the saints and preaching the gospel.
For these reasons the public theological pastoral model has been a marginal tradition in the matrix of African-American Christianity. Yet, despite the minority status of African-American public ministers and pastors the world has been changed for the better because of their work. Much of the ideology that undergirded the US civil rights movement was the result of the work of public theologians like Benjamin Mays, Martin L. King Jr., Pauli Murray and Prathia Hall, to name a few. In addition, many of the freedom struggles during recent decades have involved legendary public pastors such as Gardner C. Taylor, James Forbes, Otis Moss II, Barbara Clementine Harris, Cecil Murray and Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Furthermore, we can’t begin to measure the social impact of countless sermons, books, articles, and lectures etc., that have been produced by a host of African-American public pastors whose names we don’t know.
It is this rich public theological tradition that we must preserve by sending out the clarion call for the rise of a new generation of Christian pastoral thought leaders. Though there are many academics, activists, scholars, journalists, bloggers and others doing exceptional public theological work, we need more pastors to find their public voice and step up to the plate. Without the voices of the pastors who lead people and serve communities in deep crisis, the collective work of social uplift will be even more challenging.
It should be stated that I’m not naively advocating for all pastors to become public theologians. The reality is most pastors do not have the calling, passion, or requisite skill and training to do quality social analysis and criticism; and obviously you don’t have to be a public theologian to be an effective and impactful pastor. However, if a pastor doesn’t have the skill or the passion it would be wise for them to utilize and invest in the work of public theologians that do.
Though often overlooked and underappreciated there is a growing scattered movement of pastors doing significant public theological work and having an impact in their communities. Resisting the temptation to call some of their names, just know that these African-American pastors are using their theological voices to address many important social issues like mass prison incarceration, poverty, educational inequality, gender discrimination, marriage equality, racial prejudice and environmental justice and I’m proud to serve alongside them.
Hopefully more pastors will join this movement of public ministers. Very possibly, the moral conscience and social witness of our Christian communities depends on it.