| Apr 05, 2013
There is no doubt that there are an increasing number of bishops in African American churches, even among churches with no ties to denominations with an Episcopal polity. There are also churches that historically had a congregational polity, who now have adopted facets of the episcopacy. Because of this, many wonder why this is happening. A common answer given or one way to narrate this trend is to conclude that these men and women are glory-seeking leaders who love this honorific title. Simply stated, “They love the title ‘bishop.’” While I am sure this is true of some leaders, I believe that it is a gross oversimplification of what is happening in African American churches. There is more to the emergence of the episcopacy in the Black Church than opportunistic leaders who love to hear the prefix “bishop” before their last name.
Such simplistic answers are indicative of a tendency by too many people to over-simplify religious phenomena among African Americans. Significant and complex religious phenomena are often dumbed-down and minimized. And sadly, too many religious and ministry professionals accept anecdotal evidence and over-simplified analysis to explore the religious beliefs, values, practices and institutions of African Americans. Trends and developments in the Black Church are not as simplistic as many assume. In the remainder of this blog post and in the next post, I will explore some reasons why bishops have become so prominent today. This is not a development that happened overnight.
The Black Church Has Changed
The truth is the Black Church has been changing in dramatic ways over the past two decades. One of the causes for much of the change we see is linked to the influence of the spirituality, theology and polity of Pentecostalism. Elements from Pentecostalism have transformed the landscape of the black church in the areas of worship, with emphasis on the varied gifts of Spirit, the importance of an “anointed” preacher-pastor and the prevalence of bishops.
Beginning in the late 70s, Pentecostalism made significant inroads into mainline black denominations such as the AME church and National Baptist Convention. These traditions were historically antagonistic to some extent of Pentecostalism but over time became more accepting of certain aspects. Pastors and congregations that responded to and adapted aspects of Pentecostalism without leaving their respective denominations were known as Neo-Pentecostals or Charismatics. This is a very important development because the seeds of Pentecostalism will continue to grow and transform the traditional polity, theology and liturgy of black denominational churches. The seeds of the episcopacy were planted when these churches blended aspects of Pentecostalism into their churches. This is what gave rise to movements like the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship.
Furthermore, in the 80s, the growth of African American Word of Faith churches and nondenominational churches, as well as the prominence of televangelism paved the way for new configurations of ministry. Traditional denominational structures, congregational-based preaching and smaller family churches were radically challenged by different forms of church and ministry. These different models of ministry gained significant traction in African-American communities. Today more African Americans attend nondenominationally affiliated churches, mega-churches and watch pastors on television or via the internet than they did in the previous decades, while fewer African Americans are tied to traditional mainline denominations, many of which seem resistant to these changes. I would commend two studies on the contemporary Black Church to interested readers: Larry Mamiya, “River of Struggle, River of Freedom: Trends Among Black Churches and Black Pastoral Leadership” Pulpit and Pew. (Durham N. C., 2006) and a chapter on the new Black Church in Shayne Lee’s book T. D. Jakes: American’s New Preacher (New York: 2005).
Today, we are in the third decade of what some studies call the “new Black Church” and in this new church, leadership, worship and polity have been reconfigured. The emergence of the episcopacy has become an important part of the new Black Church.
I am not saying the “newer” is better but I am doing two things. First, as a historian, I am chronicling this development in the Black Church, so that we can better understand the phenomena of bishops in black churches. As a religious scholar, I am also trying to ascertain what this development signifies and says to us. Beyond the criticisms of this development or those who support this trend, we need to give attention to some of the issues informing this trend. I aim to take up a few of these issues next time.