Where Are The African American Evangelist

Where Are The African American Evangelists?

By Tom Skinner

© 1989 BridgeBuilder. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in BridgeBuilder Magazine, published in Washington, DC. It is made available through this site solely as a research tool and not for purchase.

March/April 1989

I AM AWED AND INSPIRED BY THE SPIRIT THAT was at work in the Apostle Paul. He was so much in love with the Lord Jesus Christ, with the gospel and with his own Jewish people that he could say, “If it were possible for me to go to hell that Israel might be saved, I would be prepared to do that.”

I believe that, in our generation, there must arise young African American men and women with that kind of intensity—committed Christians who are so in love with Jesus and with African American people that they’d say, “If my going to hell could lead to the salvation of my people, I am prepared to go.” Now is the time for African American Christians in this country to rise up and take their rightful place in the body of Jesus Christ—to open up and receive all that God intends for us to have as a people.

I also believe, however, that it’s crucial to go to any people in the right spirit of evangelism. But before we consider what that means, we must examine a more basic question: Why has evangelism to African Americans been largely ignored in America ?

I must place my statements in an historical context.

America , we must recall, was founded to be a haven, a place of refuge for people who were escaping all sorts of oppression in other parts of the world. Miss Liberty stands in New York harbor as a glaring, testimony to the commitment of America ‘s early fathers to be available to those people seeking freedom from religious and political oppression. She stands there as a promise that America is a land where these people would be offered hope.

But what remains unnoticed—as Miss Liberty has stood there in New York harbor, facing towards Europe , welcoming all those European immigrants who came to America seeking refuge—to this day, her back is conspicuously turned to Harlem . Her promises apparently have not included certain people who were already here, whose backs were broken to build this new world.

Now these people—not immigrants, but slaves—brought the man-muscle energy that fueledAmerica ‘s Industrial Revolution. While white immigrants from Europe were moving into northern port cities, slaves from Africa were being sold in the South, to develop cotton fiber. It was this all-important fiber that was shipped to those northern ports to be finished off and exported to Europe. This system allowed a balance of trade to develop that would makeAmerica a great economic power.

You may well say, “That’s history. What’s that got to do with winning African American people to Christ today?”

Everything! Because we must understand how we came to the position we are in today if we are to escape it.

The fourth and fifth generations of those European immigrants who built the northern cities began to accumulate wealth and power. But the descendents of the slaves did not. And as African Americans migrated north, the wealthier whites moved out to the suburbs and the country, leaving behind the urban ghetto.

It’s urgent that we understand what happened to the churches of these cities as whites moved out.

Earlier in this century, we still had in our cities what was known as the parish church. By definition it was simply a church that ministered to a defined community. Its leaders chose a community where they would locate to exalt Jesus and to meet the needs of the people. The parishioners lived in the surrounding community, and thus they walked to these places of worship.

But slowly, as the century progresses—just as African Americans were migrating from the South—whites were beginning to move farther and farther out from the center city. Integration began to be defined as that period of time between when the African American family moved into this city and the last white family moved out.

Still, for several decades, suburbanites continued to use the old places of worship. They would drive from suburban communities into the downtown neighborhoods they’d left, to worship on Sunday morning. Now they needed a parking lot, and so it was appropriated in the church budget to build around the church building a parking lot that would accommodate the people who were now driving great to worship on Sunday.

And when the service was over, there would be the announcement: “Immediately following this morning’s service we will retire to the fellowship hall for a time of fellowship”—which meant tea, coffee and cookies. Then immediately after that, everyone moved into the parking lot and began to drive out—with no contact at all with the new residents of the neighborhood.

And the people who had moved into the old neighborhood never saw the commuters because they were still asleep when the commuters drove in to worship, and they were just rising when they left. There was no relationship between them.

Now, if this downtown church was a wealthy church, it was able to hire a special staff whose ministry during the week was to try to do something to reach these people in the surrounding neighborhood. But the church itself had no relationship and no contact.

Finally, everyone decided it was too inconvenient and too expensive to be driving back and forth. “Why not build a worship sanctuary in the neighborhoods where we are?” Thus the churches packed and left, leaving avoid as far as the witness of the Christian church to the inner-city. Eventually, the city would become a symbol of abandonment, guilt—a “problem.”

In the meantime, among those people migrating into northern cities were my own parents who, during World War II, came up from Greenville , South Carolina , and settled in Harlem . They discovered that the patterns of segregation were not that different from the south, and they were faced with enormous problems in adjusting to these urban centers. As Christians, the question for them and many others became: “What of the Christian witness in our cities?”

Not that our community was devoid of churches. We had them. But somehow the issue of evangelism—that is, reaching out and declaring the Good News in word and deed so as to influence people to put their absolute trust in the person of Jesus Christ—was gone.

In African America, we were not devoid of churches, and we were not devoid of preaching, but we were weak on spiritual witness—this throwing out of the net, this calling people forth to a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ. Evangelism was occasional, notpermanent among us.

In fact, the gift of the evangelist was not widely known or understood. Or else it was somewhat distrusted. Generally, all preaching was done by pastors, and then only gift we knew was the gift of the pastor. When I was growing up, whenever we had what might have been termed “evangelistic campaigns”, it required that my father—who was a pastor—send for another pastor from another city to preach that meeting. The reason for this was that evangelists were thought of as sheep stealers. They were men who came to town, pitched a tent, stole people from the churches and started their own church.

Anybody who was called an evangelist was suspect and not to be trusted. So the gift of the evangelist did not thrive and develop among us. And even as you examine great preaching which came from the African American minister—who is the great preacher symbol of our time—there is one crack in our legacy. That crack was always the ability, after a magnificent preaching, to cast the net out and call people home to the person of Jesus Christ.

Rather, we opened the doors of the church. We called people to membership in the institution, but we had difficulty calling people to Jesus.

Meanwhile, our white brothers and sisters ensured that from the cradle to the grave, the gospel would be heard by their children. Along with strong, local churches, they developedparachurch ministries.

Child Evangelism grabbed those young white kids when they were preschoolers and evangelized them. When they got to school, they had Bible Clubs. In high school they hadYoung Life and Youth for Christ. When they got to college, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity or the Navigators picked them up. After college, they were grabbed by Women’s Aglow, theChristian Businessmen’s Committee, or the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship or theExecutive Christian Ministries .

But—do you know that I went through Harlem looking for these groups? And I went through the south side of Chicago , through the hill district of Pittsburgh, through the south side ofPhiladelphia , and I went to Watts to see if I could locate these ministries. And they were nowhere to be found!

Now I know a lot Of African, American Christians who get mad at these organizations for not reaching out to our people. But I don’t hold this them failure against them. They were doing what they were supposed to do—reaching their generation and their people with the gospel. It just didn’t include us.

What is sadder, from my viewpoint, is that some young African American evangelists have come along—but they felt the only way they could have credentials and authentically do the work of evangelism was to hope that some of those white agencies would hire them. And they never saw that they could reach their own people with the claims of Christ.

And so, my brothers and sisters, there’s a lot of catching up to be done in our generation if the truth of the gospel and the kingdom is going to become alive for our people.

What is the work of evangelism that we have to be about? Who is going to do evangelism among the African American community? Who are the people who are going to spread the Good News concerning Jesus Christ in such a way—by word and by deed—so as to influence more of our people to put their absolute trust in the person of Jesus Christ?

Scripture makes it very clear that all of us are called to the work of evangelism. All of us are called to have a passion for the lost. But who are evangelists—the called ones? By what signs will we recognize them?

I suggest to you, first of all, that effective evangelism requires that a person be filled with the Spirit.

There is a lot of discussion, even debate in some circles about this and about what the manifestation of the fullness of the Spirit would look like. I won’t enter that debate here, but when I read scripture, the Bible tells me that an evidence of the Spirit’s fullness is this: “They spoke the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31 )

Whenever people were filled with the Spirit they were fearless in their proclamation of the Good News. And whenever they were filled with the Spirit, others immediately identified them with Jesus. In fact, it became unmistakable when a person is filled with the Spirit that there is a relationship between them and Jesus.

This was true of the apostles—and it was mind-blowing to the Jewish leaders to witness the spirit of the apostles because they thought they had gotten rid of Jesus. They’d nailed him to a cross, buried him in a tomb, and rolled a stone over his grave. They were sure Jesus was dead.

But suddenly they were confronted by a new, bold Peter—and they saw Jesus. They looked at John, and they saw Jesus. They looked at the other disciples, and they saw Jesus.

Our greatest argument for the resurrection of Christ is not our ability to argue it from an exegetical point of view. No, it is that the world should look at us and say, “These people have been with Jesus.”

Today, if you’re going to do the work of the evangelist, your first qualification should be that you have been with Him.

I hasten to add that there is a distinction between the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. We need also to understand this as it pertains to the evangelist.

Quite often we become enamored with gifted people. And we often assume that because they are gifted, that they are also spiritual. We say, “Wow, that sister can really sing. She’s a great woman of God!” But the fact that she can sing does not make her a woman of God. We say, “Boy, that brother can preach!” He is not a man of God because he can preach. The Bible says God gives gifts as he pleases.

For 28 years, I have been preaching the gospel on every continent. I am gifted to preach. But I recognize it is a gift from God. It has nothing to do with me. If you judge my spirituality by my preaching, I will snow you—because there is no relationship between my gift to preach and my spirituality.

If you want to find out whether I am a spiritual person, if you want to find out whether I am filled with the Spirit, you have to wait until I finish preaching and hang out with me.

The fullness of the Spirit is not a state of perfection; it is a state of surrender. It is not a state of sinlessness; it is a state of abandonment to Jesus Christ—when a person simply says, “I renounce all rights to myself and I give Jesus the right to do with me whatever he pleases.”

What is the content of the evangelist’s message? Let me suggest that at the basis of the Good News lies the matter of sin. People are not sinners because they sin.

We say, “We need to get out there and evangelize our African American communities because there’s so much alcoholism.” But I’ve got some upsetting news for you. There are professionals who don’t know Jesus who are curing people of alcoholism better than some of us Christians.

And we say, “We need to get the message out to our African American communities because there is so much drug addition.”

It’s true, alcoholics and drug addicts need Christ—but they don’t need Christ because they’re drug addicts. People are not sinners because they commit sins. Sin is the absence of the life of Jesus; sin is the failure to put one’s absolute trust in the Lordship and the authority of Jesus. Sin is unbelief. It only shows its results as alcoholism, drug addiction, stealing, murder and so on.

This point is crucial when it comes to evangelism—because what are you going to do with the people who don’t commit overt, ugly identifiable “sins”? Who don’t snort coke, fornicate, or go to pornographic movies?

The message we convey to “good” people is that they don’t need Jesus because they don’t do those terrible things any more.

It has become clear to me why most Christians are always having an up-and-down spiritual life. It is our failure to preach a mature evangelistic message.

You see, there is a two-stage gospel preached in America .

Stage one: You accept Jesus as your personal Savior. You collect fire insurance; you get a passport to heaven, along with the guarantee that if you die you won’t go to hell.

Second stage: Sometime after that—a week, a year, or 20 years later—you go to a “Deeper Life Conference” and really get into Jesus.

Now the problem is that you don’t see that pattern in scripture. The apostles preached, “If you will confess with your mouth and believe in your heart the Lord Jesus” (not Jesus as personal Savior, but the Lord Jesus) “that God hath raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In other words, they made it very clear at the outset that salvation means abandoning yourself to the Lord of a new kingdom. One who demands total abandonment of all that you are and all that you have to him. That was the evangel.

Tell the truth, you Christian leaders who are reading this, don’t you watch too many people go up and down, up and down? They come to dedicate themselves—and rededicate, and re-rededicate, and re-re-rededicate themselves. They never enter in.

The problem is, these well-meaning people never heard at the outset the truth: You can’t be a Christian. You can’t live the Christian life. You have no capability to be what God wants you to be.

But the Good News is that God, in Christ, has borne on his own body your sin. He alone has all power given unto him. He alone is able to be himself in you.

Where does that get preached? Historically, we have stood on the doorsteps of the church and waved people in to hear our preachers. We have invited people to come to our revival meetings and our evangelistic meetings—in church.

The most wonderful testimonies I’ve ever heard were in church. And I often wondered, wouldn’t it be wonderful if somebody could hear that testimony at the 21 Club? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that mighty message could be preached down in the red light district outside a house of prostitution? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that testimony could be given in the local beer joint?

But you see, we restrict evangelism. The fact is, we haven’t allowed it to burst out of the four walls of our church. We are limited by this thing called worldliness, because we don’t want to go to the places of the world.

Historically, we Christians have been afraid of the world. Maybe it is the false interpretation of all those scriptures we were quoted. “Come out from among them.” “Be separate from them and touch not the unclean thing.”

What the Bible is talking about is to come out in your conversation, come out in the way you walk, come out in the way you live, come out in your conduct. But you have to physically be in the world.

When the first deacons were chosen in the Bible, the apostles said, “Look among you and find seven men filled with the Holy Ghost and of good report in the community” (Acts 6:3). In other words, they were to be men filled with the Spirit, of whom the neighbors say, “These men have been with Jesus.”

Finally, if African American people are going to reach African American people, where is the money going to come from?

Part of what has created such tremendous jealousy and conflict among African American Christians who want to do evangelism is competition for this thing called the dollar. The perception is this: There is only a small group of “enlightened” white Christians who are willing to give some of their money to support African American evangelism.

Now here’s what happens. In order to get that small pot, I must appear to be the only one who is really doing the job. So when somebody asks me about the evangelistic ministry of so-and-so, I say, “Well, you know, he’s a good brother, but … He doesn’t have a real high view of Scripture.” Or I say, “He’s a nice brother—talented and gifted and everything. But we shouldpray for him.”

I say it is time that we free ourselves from this nonsense. We are called to reach our generation. We have to pay for it.

Can I talk to you about something? African Americans last year drank $2.1 billion worth of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. African Americans last year spent $653 million on candy bars. Candy bars! African Americans last year spent $2.8 billion on domestic beer—not counting imported beers, just domestic.

We have gone too long with this nonsense that African Americans don’t have the money and we can’t fund ourselves. We do have it.

Finally, an exhortation. Be strong in the Lord, because evangelism is a warfare! You must equip yourself in the Spirit to tread on Satan’s territory and stand there in the name of Jesus.

Paul said, “Because there’s going to be a fight, put on the whole armor, put on the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness—which is the character of Jesus.”

We are not putting on armor to fight each other—the armor is for our warfare in the world. There are going to be discouragements. But if you have a passion for the lost, a passion to see people won to Jesus no matter what the setbacks, then don’t give up! If you put the armor on, and if you stay faithful, and if you love Jesus, your message will break through the darkness!

© 1989 BridgeBuilder. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in BridgeBuilder Magazine, published in Washington, DC.