Storefront pulpits get new sophistication
On a Sunday morning, the sounds of evangelism echo down quiet inner-city streets from scores of storefront churches here.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Lord is on your side!" bellows Pastor Reginald Payne to a standing-room-only crowd backing out the doors of Full Gospel Baptist Church.
"The devil is a liar!" declares Pastor Reginald Lawrence of the Church of Deliverance across the street, as if on cue. Voices from both congregations waft into traffic: "That's right pastor... say it plain!" "Amen, so true!"
Overwhelmingly, the ministers who man the pulpits of small, urban African-American churches receive little or no formal training - only 20 percent nationwide have earned seminary credentials. But now, because of a growing sophistication among African-American churchgoers - as well as an increased demand for Christian values to deal with issues such as AIDS and drug abuse - many black pastors are going back to school.
Divinity and theological schools are expanding formal education targeted at African-Americans. Churches are establishing their own Bible colleges. And some programs are sending teachers out into communities to help give pastors a fuller understanding of Scripture.
The result is a nationwide tapestry of efforts aimed at giving black preachers the tools they need to better serve their changing congregations.
"There is a major increase in demand among the black community for black clergy to go beyond the charismatic and rhetorical arts of ministry," says Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, the nation's largest consortium of African-American seminaries.
"After the civil rights movement, the burgeoning black middle class went off to professional schools and came back as lawyers and dentists, many times to find a pastor who wasn't as educated as they were and who couldn't really address their station in life," says Dr. Franklin. "We are now trying to respond to that lag."
For one, schools such as Howard University School of Divinity in Washington and Virginia Union University in Richmond, which have traditionally served black students, are beginning or expanding weekend and evening programs. The goal: to help fully employed pastors or students - many of whom are women.
"Money and time are two of the critical factors that have long held back the black aspirant to the pulpit," says Law-rence Mamiya, a co-author of "The Black Church in the African American Experience." "We know that two-thirds of black clergy work another job, so they do not have lots of time."
Also helping to fill this void has been the growth of church-based Bible colleges and university courses. In Los Angeles, the West Angeles Church of God in Christ has established its own campus. In addition, the University of Southern California is sending professors to local churches, and a Los Angeles-area program seeks to unite local pastors in conversation about current issues.
"There are number of efforts to bring continuing education to African-American pastors," says Eugene Williams, executive director of Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, which runs the pastor-dialogue program. "Many of these pastors have long studied diligently on their own and have progressed magnificently, but sometimes structured education allows you to step back and pursue it in another way."