Two weeks ago, my fiancée and I went to a Missionary Baptist Church in Kankakee, Illinois, where I live and work. I’ve been to predominantly black churches before, but this time I heard something that I had not before: the pastor of the church and the guest preacher both talked a bit about the role of the listeners in a preacher’s performance. It’s something that one can see in the black church, but I had never heard it discussed specifically before.
When the pastor gave a lengthy introduction to Dr. William H. Copeland, one of the most prominent figures in Kankakee’s black community, he encouraged the congregation to get involved. He said something like, “Preaching isn’t just the pulpit, it’s also the pew. When you ‘Amen,’ you can help a preacher preach.” He also exhorted the congregation to do no less for their guest than they would for another preacher.
For me, one of the most visually striking things about the African-American Christian tradition is the image of the preacher at the pulpit flanked by one or more other preachers urging him on. When Dr. Copeland came to the pulpit, he talked about the need for other preachers, seated behind him and on either side, to support him as well. He joked that there are some “jackleg preachers” that sit up front with their legs crossed and flipping through a Bible rather than voicing their support for their colleague at the pulpit, and told us to let him know if any of the four up there with him were doing that. Dr. Copeland preached about hell with the story of Lazarus and the rich man as his text, beginning softly and building up to a passionate conclusion and gospel invitation.
The music was tremendous, with a medium-sized choir accompanied by an organ and drum set. I don’t want to be a white person who idealizes the black church, or feels that he has to be ashamed that white Protestantism is too low key and therefore not “spiritual” enough. I mean, really, if I hear one more white person sheepishly call his congregation “the frozen chosen” because they don’t clap their hands, I might go nuts. But I have loved the few experiences that I have had in black churches, and I do hope that God’s people in this country and around the world can find more ways to worship together and learn from each other’s traditions. All of God’s people are going to be worshipping together forever, so why not start now?
© 2009, Scott Kistler. All rights reserved.