Very few movies deal in a real and knowledgeable way with the black church. The Gospel, however, is set against the backdrop of the historic black church and its role within the black community. The movie does well exploring aspects of the historic black church. For example, the black church has always had a missional component to it, serving a socio-political role as well as a spiritual one (and even an economic one). With issues of poverty and economic and social justice at its forefront, the black church—again, historically—has been socially conscious and remained relevant.

Another tradition of the black church is its incorporation of song, dance, and call-and-response into a worship service. Worship has always been experiential within the tradition of the black church. Some people tend to look at black churches and think that the attenders are in it for the emotional ride. There is an affect, but it is a cognitive affectiveness, where truth is felt and worship is (intuitively) experiential. The emotional ride of worship is done within the narrative of the Gospel. Narrative theology, the emphasis on story-telling, thus has always been a critical part of the preaching tradition.

Which is not to say that the church is without problems.

“There is no perfect church … there is a perfect God.” –Pastor Fred Taylor

The church presented in The Gospel, New Revelations, is indicative of far too many churches, black or otherwise. Aspects of our modern culture have insinuated themelves into the fabric of the church, deterring or outright corrupting its ministry. Values such as corporate policy and philosophy have been bought into by the church. Some people see the main job of the pastor as that of businessman, and the church as a business. The pastor becomes the CEO and the elders the board of directors. Offerings or tithes become income, or worse, profit; and this reduces the Gospel to little more than a product they’re trying to push. The biggest question I was left wondering was “what is the Gospel?”

“You know the Bible backward and forward … but you still have no clue. You need Jesus.” –Charlene (Nona Gaye)

A crisis looms within the church, not just the black church, as it is losing its youth and facing shrinking congregations. How else can we explain our youth seeking a sense of family in gangs rather than in church? The decline of men in church attendance? The continuing break up of families? Somehow, the message is not connecting with a whole generation. Perhaps it starts in the mentality with which we approach church: for instance, measuring a church’s success by its size. Pastor Frank—Pastor Taylor’s hand-picked successor—pursues this “bigger is better” brand of gospel, aiming to be among the gospel “all-stars” with increased radio, tv and magazine-cover presence. Billboards featuring his face, promoting his “new vision” for the church, begin cropping up all over town.

Sunday mornings become about the performance, the show. The pastor and the congregation are equally culpable in lifting him atop a pedestal. Many of these mega-churches have become all about the pastor, his personality, his interpretation of Scripture. It turns people into church consumers, with church members drifting off to the next charismatic preacher or bigger program, because they come together not to form a community but to be entertained or serviced. Ultimately, this mentality ends up producing consumer-Christians content to drive to whoever tickles our ears (with morality as entertainment) and our needs the most—with the church enabling such narcissistic behavior. So churches end up competing for the “found” and forgetting about the “lost.”

“Some might get lost in the hype.” –Pastor Fred Taylor

Pastor Fred Taylor, in effect, becomes a symbol for God. That he serves as a “Christ figure” is most evident in that it’s his death that sets everyone on the often rocky path of redemption. The path of the “lost” son is examined in my first review of The Gospel, but the movie piles subplot on top of subplot, veering dangerously toward a confusing mish-mash. However, the subplot involving the path of the “faithful” son deserves some examination.

Pastor Frank (Idris Elba, a far cry from The Wire), wanting to move the church into the 21st century, falls into the pride trap of equating himself with the church. The church becomes about the building, the legacy of a man, or the cult of personality built up around that man. Meanwhile, the men worry about trying to grow the church, and therein lies the problem. They often “sell their souls” for the sake of growing the church, losing sight of what it means to be a church and what the church should be about. Things like discipleship, learning in community, corporate prayer and worship become ancillary to the mission of growing the church.

The Gospel message, marketed for maximum appeals, transforms into a message of health-and -wealth promises or a kind of “pie in the sky when you die” philosophy rather than starting with how to live your life here and now. Preaching a message of prosperity, but convinced that they have to look the part, for Pastor Frank means pursuing a course of a new facility (and a better car). This leads Pastor Taylor to gently rebuke him that “We should spend a little less time looking good and spend a little more time actually being good.” Ministry gets reduced to a battle of egos between Pastor Frank, David Taylor, and even one of the church elders. All of which brings to mind the Parable of the Two Sons:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ” ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Matthew 21:28-31 (New International Version)

The church has to be about the work of God’s kingdom, without its leaders losing sight of that fact in a rush to build their own personal empire. As a people, we’ve gone from being a church to going to church, forgetting that we who gather together for corporate worship on the weekend do the work of the church through the week. Forgetting that each member contributes to the mission of the church. The Gospel message is that God has Good News (that His Kingdom is at hand) meant for the world, He has chosen to use the church in order to share it, and we are invited to be a part of it. This is the lesson learned, and the reconciliation found, by the end of The Gospel.

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