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.

"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."

Expanding opportunities

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."

Correspondence education has helped as well. The International Seminary near Orlando, Fla., for instance, offers degree programs through seminary-trained faculty in dozens of places nationwide.

One that has attracted attention here is called Harvard in the 'Hood. Run by Pastor Larry Lloyd, it has become a model of how to improve the formal education of established pastors.

For about $1,200 a year, students may obtain first, second, and third-year diplomas in theology and choose their own fourth-year subjects to obtain a bachelor's degree. Some then pursue additional studies through correspondence courses or graduate work with International Seminary or other schools.

International Seminary is not accredited by the American Association of Theological Schools, so some institutions do not accept its undergraduate credits. But Mr. Lawrence of the Church of Deliverance says the courses helped him all the same.

"Just having the Bible and a calling from God to preach is good," says Lawrence, who founded his church in 1995 after preaching in various local churches for about five years. But after taking two years of training with Mr. Lloyd, he says limited instruction and missionary zeal are not enough.

"You're apt to misinterpret the Bible, the meanings of the stories, and the words they contain," he says. "I learned that constructing a meaningful sermon that moves people is about more than just whooping and hollering. You've got to make systematic points based on the intended meaning of Scripture."

At a recent Saturday lecture to 25 pastors-in-training - 15 of whom are already established preachers - Lloyd explained one of the keys to successful pastoring: The audience, not the speaker, is key.

"In any communication, it is the receptor, not the speaker, who determines the meaning," Lloyd told the gathering. Realizing this, he says, Jesus preached to the poor in a dialect, rather than his own language of Aramaic. Similarly, says Lloyd, pastors can use the language of the 'hood in interpreting the Bible for their church members.

"It lets urban youth know in words they can understand that Jesus was speaking about not only those who are financially poor but those who have been rejected by the larger community," says Lloyd, who has three master's degrees. "It opens up the meaning of Scripture to them."

Women's growing role

According to leading theological schools, a growing percentage of those who are demanding more understanding of Scripture are aspiring women preachers. Many are moving into openings in institutional chaplaincy that have not been dominated by men, as traditional pulpits have been.

"Today's women are more intellectual, more informed, more questioning," says Hope Harris, a pastor of Church of God of Prophecy for nine years, who is training with Lloyd. "To deal with these more sophisticated women, we have to become more sophisticated ourselves."

Moreover, the issues in the communities have become more complicated as well, and new preachers - both women and men - must be prepared to deal with them.

"No matter how much education and experience a pastor has had, there are a host of challenges that confront him or her when they enter a community, and many are unprepared," says Franklin of ITC. "You have to be counselor, father figure, secretary, and handyman."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.