(Photo: Reuters/John Gress)
A new documentary takes a critical look at the evolution of the historical Black Church in America and puts megachurch pastors under a harsh spotlight, especially those who are treated like superstars and amass wealth from preaching a Gospel they might not necessarily adhere to.
The institution of the church is at the heart and soul of black America, for whom the church has been, among many things, an escape, a means of upward mobility and a celebratory community where its leaders are respected and members' humanity affirmed.
"Black churches are different for a variety of reasons. One, is the need to address the social, political, the cultural and economic ramifications of anti-black racism in the United States," explains Dr. Anthony Pinn, professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, in Black Church Inc.
Pinn, an atheist and expert in African American religion, is just one of several voices in Black Church Inc. that help lay out the historical, cultural and social significance of the age-old institution for viewers. Other commentators include activists and New York City pastors the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and the Rev. Taharka Robinson, T.J., founder of the watchdog website Church Folk Revolution, CNN religion writer John Blake and Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, among others.
One church historian, in a separate discussion with The Christian Post about slavery and segregated churches, compared the traditional Black Church's place among African Americans to the role of the synagogue among ancient Jews: "The church was the one place where African Americans could be human, could be leaders, could have community, could have solidarity. So the church, in some respects, is more like the synagogue was for the ancient Jews. It's a place of community, it's a place of empowerment."
But what has happened to the revolutionary and rebellious Black Church that emerged more than 200 years ago amid slavery? Instead of being tended and fed by self-sacrificing and community-catalyzing ministers, are congregants being plundered by wolves in sheep's clothing? Instead of preaching prophetically and being Jesus' hands and feet, are "Pastor" and "Bishop" more focused on tickling ears and collecting tithes?
According to Black Church Inc., produced by Moguldom Studios, that may very well be the case, if you take the documentary's 48-minute line 'em up and shoot 'em down presentation at face value.
The stated end-goal of the expose is to inspire "a conversation that will enact lasting change in our churches from the inside out." Yet, despite the expert perspective provided by commentators, Black Church Inc. relies heavily on generalizations and innuendo in its presentation.
The biggest area of corruption emerges in apparent abuses of the collecting of tithes and offerings (and "love offerings" and honorariums), when supported by a twisted gospel of prosperity that turns financial giving into a game of chance.
While hearing commentators critique pastors who preach for gain, viewers see images play across the screen of Creflo Dollar collecting cash at the pulpit, Eddie Long staring wide-eyed at a fistful of bills placed in his hands, and T.D. Jakes welcoming Tyler Perry's hands-on prayer and million-dollar donation. There are no explicit accusations made or evidence presented to show whether these mega-pastors are indeed among the targeted corrupt crop of prosperity preachers pillaging the Black Church. The viewer is left to assume, whether rightly or wrongly, that these men have grown fat from fleecing their flocks, and are emblematic of what is ailing the traditional Black Church.
It is worth noting, and as Black Church Inc. points out, that both Dollar and Long were among six popular prosperity preachers targeted in 2007 by the Senate Committee on Finance for possible abuse of their ministries' non-profit status. The documentary suggests that the investigation, organized by Sen. Charles Grassley, led nowhere, as the six ministers were under no legal obligation to comply with the probe and disclose their financial records.
Another aspect of the traditional Black Church said to be suffering due to selfish ambition, according to the documentary, is the community outreach and presence among the people that its leaders historically have been known for.
"A lot of pastors would like to escape the responsibility of being civic and community leaders to say that we're just spiritual leaders. No, if the community is attending your church, you are a community leader," says T.J., the founder of the Church Folk Revolution website.
The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, gives his opinion of such spiritual leaders: "A minister who does not say anything about anybody or cause, and just simply preaches a Gospel that he is not willing to put into action, is a minister not worth having."
While more generalizations are made that entire communities would likely flourish if mega-pastors were to keep only a tithe, or tenth of their collected offerings and donate the remaining 90 percent, no mention is made of the outreach ministries and social programs initiated by some of these same noted pastors that do benefit their communities.
Black Church Inc., while a bit lopsided and sometimes slow in its presentation, does paint a powerful picture of what the church historically has meant in the lives of African Americans and how it now serves as a lucrative platform for those who aspire to become professional pastors. Unfortunately, the intended expose mostly rehashes what many Christians have long observed as the dangers of making religion into a business. Perhaps filmmaker Todd L. Williams (writer, director and producer) should have included the voices of those who have fallen victim to the questionable teachings and practices of prosperity preachers, as their words, more so than the commentators' input, would likely hold greater sway over those who sit in their pews today.
Black Church Inc. will be available on DVD and for digital download beginning June 30. Learn more about the documentary online: http://moguldom.com/studios.