The Theological Emphases and Style of African American Preaching

Eric C. Redmond
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Preaching in the African American tradition has certain theological emphases in addition to its distinctive style. Two of these emphases are justice and hope.


African American preaching is part of what Lewis Baldwin calls “that tradition which refuses to separate religious faith and moral considerations from politics, legal matters, and social reformism.”[1] It readily speaks to issues of race and racism, greed and poverty, and police brutality and the value of human life. It has been a tool for bringing movement toward civil rights in the United States, for speaking out against Apartheid in South Africa, and for promoting the just treatment of both genders and of various sexual orientations without condoning sexual sins and misconduct. Kenyatta Gilbert notes:

The spoken Word in America’s Black pulpits has long been esteemed for its persistent calls for justice, church reform, moral and ethical responsibility, and spiritual redemption. These commitments have been central to the Black church’s identity. More importantly, though, these commitments to the spoken Word provide a way to take up the more fundamental matter of how one may, for example, determine what relational continuities exist between the prophets, priests, and sages of Scripture and the basic character of the Black preacher’s peculiar speech and communal obligations.[2]

In a similar vein, Robert Harvey suggests, “In the days of past, the clarion call and mission of the black church was two-fold: it served as a beacon of hope for the lost-soul seeking grace and mercy, but it also functioned as an oasis for all issues affecting the community. The black church served as a voice in the wilderness, crying out that equality and justice belonged to all persons, despite race, social status, or lived experience.”[3] Included in the church’s justice practices was the preacher: “The black minister preached a transformative message of salvation, but also served as a community representative and social activist, preaching a message of social change, equality, and unconditional love.”[4]


African Americans’ experiences with suffering and injustice profoundly shape the preaching in the African American pulpit. As Albert Raboteau writes, going to the Bible to find words of hope, comfort, and joy has been part of African American life since the days of slavery:

In 1792 Andrew Bryan and his brother Sampson were arrested and hauled before the city magistrates of Savannah, Georgia, for holding religious services. With about 50 of their followers they were imprisoned and severely flogged. Andrew told his persecutors “that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ. . . .” Slaves suffered willingly because their secret liturgies constituted the heart and source of slave spiritual life, the sacred time when they brought their sufferings to God and experienced the amazing transformation of their sadness into joy. . . . One source that sustained Christian slaves against temptations to despair was the Bible, with its accounts of the mighty deeds of a God who miraculously intervenes in human history to cast down the mighty and to lift up the lowly, a God who saves the oppressed and punishes the oppressor.

“Exposition is not a style. Exposition unveils the message of the text.”

Frank Thomas, noted scholar of African American preaching, suggests the ability to transform an individual and nation from despair to hope is a hallmark of African American preaching.

Sunday to Sunday, preaching in the African American tradition has offered hope to a people who often found little for which to hope in their contemporary surroundings. Even with the unfortunate advent of Prosperity Gospel preaching, hope remains a hallmark of African American preaching. This is most evident in the celebration aspect of African American preaching.

Exposition and Celebration

Exposition thrives with celebration, and celebration—in its many forms—is best when coupled with the exposition of the Scriptures. Exposition lends its authority to celebration when the celebration arises from the central idea of the sermon, which is the central idea of the text in expository preaching.[5] Celebration, in turn, adorns the greatness of exposition by creating an outlet for the preacher and congregation to share and express the joy of the words from God revealed to them. As Philip Pointer explains:

Cultivating celebration is vital. Without it, the preacher misrepresents a critical segment of the divine message. Celebration is not anti-intellectual or mere emotionalism. In fact, true gospel celebration is the concert of intellectual understanding, healthy emotions, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God is glorified, the church is strengthened, and unbelievers are shown a clear picture of the spiritual fellowship between a loving God and the redeemed community when these elements come together around the proclaiming and hearing of the gospel. Without celebration we are simply telling news rather than good news.

In order to see that traditional African American preaching— both its style and theological emphases—and exposition complement one another in such a way that both should be thought of positively, lets return to the earlier analogy of the coat and coat hanger. Exposition, because it deals with the biblical text, is the structure that supports biblical preaching. As one explains the words of Scripture within its context, God’s voice speaks with authority, because the preacher is communicating what God has said. The preaching is revealing the will of God and calling people to embrace what He wants for us and requires of us. Exposition is a hanger on which any coat of truth may hang.

The African American preaching tradition is just one coat of many that might rest on the hanger of exposition. African American preaching’s thrust toward justice and hope are not the exposition of a passage itself. They will derive from the exposition of a cache of passages, but they are not necessarily the coat hanger.

Neither should one think of exposition as the coat. Exposition is not a style. Exposition unveils the message of the text. If one equates exposition with a style, then exposition and African American preaching become antitheses. In the same way, if one thinks of the African American tradition as the substance of preaching, then African American preaching wrongly will suffer epithets that relegate it to something that is sub-exposition. It is not an either/or choice with the tradition of African American preaching and expositional preaching.

[1] Lewis V. Baldwin, The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), xv, quoted in Rufus Burrow Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, 1st ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 161. Baldwin is speaking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s identity within the African American preaching tradition.

[2] Kenyatta Gilbert, The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 19.

[3] Robert S. Harvey, “Restoring the Social Justice Identity of the Black Church,” Inquiries Journal 2, no. 2 (2010): 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Expositional preaching is preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached” (Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011], 36).

For Further Reading:

Say It!

by Eric C. Redmond

Say It! A Celebration of Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition argues that Biblical Exposition is most dynamic when coupled...

book cover for Say It!