Thursday, November 1, 2018

Thanking God for Black Southern Baptists

Note: Throughout this essay I will use the term "Black Southern Baptists" anachronistically at times. Therefore, you should take it to mean "Black Baptists from the South" whenever you encounter it referring to Baptists living before 1845.

In the first century of Christianity, nobody accomplished more in terms of spreading the gospel where people thought it couldn't spread and in terms of bringing together Christians people thought couldn't be brought together than did the Apostle Paul. He gave leadership to the church in Antioch of Syria, which was perhaps the most ethnically diverse and most exciting churches in the history of Christianity. From there, Paul left to become the father of cross-cultural evangelism and church planting. All of the apostles undertook this mission, but Paul succeeded beyond them all. Why was he so successful? Of course, the biggest reason is that God gave him a unique calling and a unique gifting for this task. As a consequence, Paul was uniquely motivated, and motivation means a lot. Few people are successful at things that they aren't trying to do, after all.

In addition to all of those things, I've noticed that Paul was extraordinarily thankful for people of all kinds. Whether this arose naturally from the man God made Paul to be on the one hand or was a careful strategic decision on the other hand (or some combination of the two?), I can't say. I simply observe that it was true. Paul gave thanks for people, and he generally did it at the beginning of letters, before he tried to teach anything or correct anything.

Book Expression of Gratitude

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.”

Paul was giving thanks for people whom he had never even met and for a church with whom he had never gathered.
1 Corinthians

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus”

Paul was giving thanks for a very troubled church whose interpersonal, moral, and theological failures he was writing to correct.
2 Corinthians This troubled letter is one of the rare exceptions which Paul did not open with an expression of thanks for the church.
Galatians Disappointment and astonishment replace thanksgiving in this epistle addressing the Galatian heresy. By the way, this actually serves, I think as evidence that the expressions of thanksgiving in the other letters are not mere boilerplate letter-writing formalities for Paul. He doesn't give thanks when he can't do so sincerely. He just has an amazing knack for being able to do so sincerely when others would fail at the task.

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers”

Paul gets caught up in his doxology for so long in Ephesians as to make you think that he'll never get around to his expression of thanks for the church, but it's the very next thing that he does.

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you”

In many ways, Philippians IS a thank-you note in its entirety. In this letter, Paul even gave thanks for the activities of his enemies!

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”

As with the other prison epistles, we get a clear picture of Paul's own sufferings in this letter. Paul was thankful for other people and said so even when he himself was suffering.
1 Thessalonians

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers”

The Thessalonians, it appears, were at least somewhat disappointed in Paul's not having returned to visit them. They also were disappointed that, although Paul had preached the resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ, some members of the church had died and their bodies lay in their graves. Paul gave thanks for people who were complaining and worried about some things.
2 Thessalonians

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”

Paul identified thanksgiving for fellow believers as a moral obligation. Go back and read that verse again!
1 Timothy In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul didn't bother. This is one reason why I think Paul was being strategic about his epistolary thanksgivings.
2 Timothy

“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.”

But, in the second of his personal pastoral letters, the thanksgiving just broke through again!
Titus Another personal letter with no thanksgiving in the introduction.

“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers”

Getting ready to make a strong appeal and to attempt to make peace among separated and estranged (now-)fellow believers, Paul returns to the preparatory balm of thanksgiving.

I realize that I probably took too much of your time going through that list of epistles, especially since it was a labor to demonstrate to you something that you likely already knew. Sorry. I just thought it would help what I'm trying to do in this post if I would lay out a set of biblical evidence that warrants, I think, the drawing of at least these conclusions:

  1. There is biblical precedence for us to look for reasons to be thankful for every individual Christian and every group of Christians.
  2. Giving expression to our sincere, heartfelt gratitude for other believers can coexist with expressing difference of opinion or even with moments when we are tempted to engage in contests of our wills.
  3. The kind of thanksgiving that most resembles the Pauline model is a thanksgiving coupled with a hopeful intercessory prayer that genuinely and earnestly hopes for the best for fellow believers.

Applying These Principles to Black Southern Baptists

It seems to me that some of what we write or say as white Southern Baptists is not as bad in-and-of-itself as it is made bad by the absence of this Pauline model of thanksgiving from the recipe. I'm starting off November by giving thanks for Black Southern Baptists, because I think it makes the conversation better for me to do so. I want to give thanks for the group as a whole, and then I want to give thanks for some individuals.

Thank God for the African Influence upon Southern Cuisine

I've been to England, folks. You know that joke that says that (among other things) in Heaven the cooks are all French, but in Hell the cooks are all British. There's a reason why that's funny. It's not that British food is run-screaming-into-the-night horrible (although, black pudding), it's just that there's nothing there worth much emotion one way or the other.

On the other hand, I've been to Senegal and I've taken a lot of Southerners to Senegal. Everyone loves the food there. Every. Single. Southerner.

The truth was sitting there right under my nose, but here's what finally turned on the light bulb for me: I learned about a myth over there. In West Africa, there are people who think that it is lucky to eat peas. My Mom and Dad taught ME that people eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck. How did a West African myth wind up in Arkansas? Then I thought it through. The fried chicken over rice, mixed with mushy carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and just the right seasoning! The eggs for breakfast! The penchant for pork as a special treat! This is the food I grew up eating! It makes sense, doesn't it? The slaves were the ones doing the cooking in wealthy Southern households. Southern food is connected with West African food.

Other people have known this for a long time, but it took international travel to bring it into my view.

So, thank you, Black Christians from the South, for every mouthwatering potluck of my childhood in my 100% white country Southern Baptist church. You weren't there, but you WERE there in every spoonful!

Thank God for the African Influence upon Southern Music

I don't know enough about musicology to know whether Wintley Phipps does or does not know what he's talking about with regard to the musical roots of "Amazing Grace," but my case doesn't rise and fall on his.

Some of our worship music comes from Germany ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). Some of it comes from England ("And Can It Be?"). But for that portion of it that comes from America, the influence of black Americans is indelible. Alongside the recognized category of the Negro spiritual (and these songs made it into my personal hymnody even in a white church), the influence of black musical styles by way of the blues, rock-and-roll, and gospel music genres has touched everything composed and written in my lifetime.

Our worship music is better because of the influence of black Christians upon it, and for that I am thankful.

Thank God for African Influence upon Southern Baptist Missions

When we formed the Southern Baptist Convention and the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board), we only initially sent a handful of missionaries to a handful of countries. The choices that we made at that time tell us what we cared about in that age of our existence.

We sent missionaries to the Far East because of William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and the fascination with the Far East that had captivated West Europeans since the days of Marco Polo. We sent missionaries to Italy, because we were ready to storm the gates of the Vatican with a water pistol. But neither Italy nor Brazil nor any other destination came second upon the heels of China as a missionary focus for Southern Baptists. Rather, from the opening days of the IMB, we have been laboring the share the gospel in Africa.

The details of this effort represent the twisted amalgamation of sin and nobility solely within the reach of sinful humanity to achieve. Southern Baptists genuinely wanted to win the population of Africa to Christ. They also wanted to solve the problem of American racial slavery. Those Southern Baptists who were too racist to countenance the integration of black Christians into their own churches and communities on the one hand, but too Christian to accept the status quo of racism, chattel slavery, and religious segregation, thought it the best solution simply to ship all of the slaves back to Africa. As a key part of this plan, several important Southern Baptists had supported black Baptist missionaries like Lott Carey in endeavors like the Liberia project.

The sad history of Liberia is as good a demonstration of the disaster that sin brings as I know, but the result of Southern Baptist missionary work in Africa has been a success story. We most certainly would not have gone as early or in as much force to Africa to share the gospel had it not been for the influence of black Southern Baptists upon our decision making. The importance of that decision is a story that is still being written. It is not difficult to imagine today that the two first target areas for Southern Baptist missions—China and Africa—may be the home of the churches that carry the gospel into the world if American evangelicalism finally implodes.

To extend that line down through today, I doubt that I would be involved in Senegal as Dave and I are involved today if it were not for the pioneering influence of black Southern Baptists. Indeed, the sending of missionaries from America in general is indebted to George Lisle, the first American missionary (and a black man). Thank you for turning our attention toward Africa. I have been blessed by that.

Thank God for African Influence upon Southern Baptist Preaching

I know everyone falls all over themselves to laud the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, and I know that there are clear differences between Southern Baptist white preaching and Southern black preaching. Nevertheless, I think that you can trace significant differences between European and Northern preaching on the one hand, and then Southern (white or black) preaching on the other hand. In my opinion, the best Southern Baptist preaching brings a balance of logos, ethos, and pathos that is often missing—particularly with regard to pathos—from more European preaching. I think that our black brothers have helped us in this regard.

Last year at a training event in Africa, one of our teachers was teaching disciples about some of the finer points of ecclesiology. This included, among other things, describing how to address conflict when it arises among church members. After the training session was over, I said to the teacher, "I noticed that whenever you were delivering the lecture material, you spoke in French, but whenever you were playing the role of a disgruntled church member, you shifted to the Jola language. Why is that?" His answer, simply stated, was that his African language was more suited to the conveyance of emotion than was French. I'm no expert in linguistics, but I fear that Southern Baptist preachers might have wound up as boring as an Anglican rector were it not for the influence of Africans upon our discourse. There is, after all, a beauty in a Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon that is exemplary to us without being foreign to us. What's more, we love to hear black Baptist preaching.

So, I suspect that I am a better preacher because of the influence of black Southern Baptists, and there are few things that I love to do more. I'm grateful for anything that makes me a better preacher. Thank you.


I could extend this article for a long time. I'm thankful for black influences upon our theology and our ministries to urban areas. I'm thankful for famous black theologians like James Deotis Roberts and famous black pastors like E.V. Hill or Tony Evans. I'm thankful for black colleagues and friends like Jamar Andrews, Michael Allen, and my new friend, Walter Strickland.

When I say that I am thankful for them, I mean that I have needed them and that I need them still. My life is made richer because of the influence of these brothers and sisters. Indeed, among other things, I'd probably be a lot more racist than I am if it weren't for people like that. It scares me to write about race, because it is so easy for me to make inadvertent mistakes whenever I do so. So if anything in this article is a mess, please hear my testimony that it would be worse if it were not for these folks.


There's a way of saying that God had His hand working something good out of the American slavery experience that sounds awfully arrogant falling from the lips of a white man: "Well, God brought the gospel to Africans through slavery. This was clearly something that God used for His glory." That just sounds a lot like, "You people really ought to be thankful that we enslaved you so that God could save you and improve your lives."

Well, when it comes to Romans 8:28, I not only affirm it, I cling to it. Even the experience of American slavery, I think God has worked together with everything else for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. But in saying that, I'm not offering some one-sided assessment that black Southern Baptists are better off for the unfolding events of history. That's not mine to say. Instead, I'll just say that, even though the line of depravity and wrong is so painfully visible in the story that brought most black people into the Southern Baptist family who are among us, among whatever else God has done to bring something good out of the bad, He has made my churches better churches and has made me a better man because of your influence here. It would be sinfully dishonest for me to pretend that all the things you gave me were things that I made for myself.

Thank you.