Thirty years ago Dr. Carl Ellis expressed his hope for an “indigenous Reformed movement in the African American community.”I’ve often tried to picture what this movement might look like. Will it be like the Civil Rights Movement or the Arab Spring—masses of people united for a cause and affecting sweeping social and cultural changes in a very short time? Or will it be more like the Underground Railroad—an almost mythical phenomenon because it happens in secrecy? What are we really talking about when we say an indigenous Reformed “movement”?
First, we need to analyze this word “indigenous”because it is crucial to defining the contours of the movement. Indigenous means “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.”An indigenous movement, then, comes from the community in which the movement is taking place. Rather than some other racial or ethnic group with a different culture coming into Black communities and leading a movement, Black people themselves should see the need, develop the principles, and lead the strategies of an indigenous Reformed movement. This doesn’t mean that people of other races, cultures, and communities can’t be involved. But African Americans should be well-represented and at the forefront of a movement affecting their own people.
Yet indigenous refers not only to the people involved but also to the type of theology being done. The theology itself has to be indigenous to African Americans. All Christians should be thankful and appreciative of historic Reformed theology. We have derived many great truths from it about the sovereignty of God, His grace in election, and how to study the Bible. But if, as John Frame says, “Theology is the application of God’s word to all of life,”then much more theology remains to be done.
An indigenous Reformed movement among African Americans will draw upon existing Reformed theological formulations, but it will not simply mimic them. Theology, not truth, will be adapted to the unique social and cultural milieu of Black communities. Since today’s questions and issues are different than the ones faced 500 years ago, we have “do”theology differently. We have to have different paradigms for drawing out the truths out Scripture and applying them to situations and questions that most affect African Americans.
Many will read this idea of doing theology differently as changing or compromising God’s truth. This is not at all the thrust of an indigenous Reformed movement. God’s word is unchanging and eternal. But every effective evangelist and missionary, including the Biblical writers, recognize that while truth is timeless, applications are endless. If we want to more effectively apply God’s word to a variety of cultural contexts we’ll have to figure out a variety of methods of application.
And that’s where we have to begin. An indigenous Reformed movement starts with theology and moves out into social, cultural, and ethical impact. Reformed theology that truly comes out of the African American experience will look different from the Reformed theology that comes out of, say, 16th century Europe or 19th century North America.
Take music for example. Both classical music and jazz music utilize the same universal principles of music but create drastically different expressions. As Dr. Ellis says, the beauty of classical music is the music as it is written. Classical music performances are deemed excellent to the degree that the performer reproduces the exact musical phrases that were written by the composer. But the beauty of jazz music is the music as it is performed. Jazz music is deemed excellent to the degree that the performer lives in the moment and improves based on the context of the musician and the audience. In other words, classical seeks to imitate while jazz seeks to improvise
This is the difference between historic Reformed theology and the theology that will come out of an indigenous Reformed movement. Historic Reformed theology is classical music. Indigenous African American Reformed theology is jazz. Remember that neither art form changes the principles of music. They both utilize notes, scales, rhythm, and more. But they apply those timeless elements in different ways.
How does one “do”jazz theology? Jazz theology is done by doing. It is a lived theology. It is ethical in nature and takes into account both the personal and the social dimensions of the gospel. Much of this kind of theology is already being done by practitioners like pastors and non-profit workers. So part of the mission of the movement is to capture those practices on paper and distribute them. Another aspect of the doing this kind of theology is broadening the background sources. We have much to learn from historic Reformed African Americans like Jupiter Hammond, Phyllis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano. In addition, there are more contemporary Black evangelicals like Tom Skinner, William Pannell, and, of course, Carl Ellis. Thus a fundamental task in doing indigenous Reformed theology is an education that draws on the vast resources of the multi-cultural Christian world.
So what does an indigenous Reformed movement in African American communities look like? In a sense we can only speculate about the exact manifestations of such a movement. Who knows what broader impact on the society such a swell will have? But we can make some assertions about the next step toward a movement. We have to think differently about how we apply God’s truth in African American contexts. We must learn how to do jazz theology in addition to classical theology. In so doing, we may start to see what an indigenous Reformed movement actually looks like.