African American Preaching: A Gift to the Whole Church

By Dr. Thurman Williams
Church Planter and Pastor, 
New City Fellowship West End, St. Louis
February 20, 2024

On June 23, 2016, I had the great privilege of preaching for the worship service at the PCA General Assembly in Mobile, Alabama. I preached on Acts 11:1–18 on the theme of “Making Room at the Table.” What was even more significant for me was that in the meeting that followed the service we approved Overture 43 on “Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advance of the Gospel.” The overture states that “this General Assembly praises and recommits itself to the gospel task of racial reconciliation, diligently seeking effective courses of action to further that goal, with humility, sincerity, and zeal, for the glory of God and the furtherance of the gospel.”

Overture 43 was an incredible application of the idea of “making room at the table,” in being intentional in seeking out gospel diversity in our denomination and confessing and repenting of times when we haven’t done so. A blessing for our denomination in making room is the gift to the larger church of African American preaching. Just as the study and theologizing of our Reformed forefathers has been a blessing not only to the Reformed or Presbyterian church but to the whole church, so also the unique contributions of African American preaching can benefit not only the black church but the church at large in our world.

What do I mean by “African American preaching” or “black preaching” (I use these terms interchangeably)? On the one hand, just as in any culture, there is great variety among black culture in the styles and types of preachers. And on the other hand, the qualities that I will share about what makes black preaching are not solely possessed by African Americans. So, with those qualifiers, what is black preaching?

Dr. Cleophus LaRue, an African American scholar, lists nine fundamental characteristics:

  1. The hermeneutic of an all-powerful God;
  2. The importance of wrestling with the biblical text;
  3. A sense of divine encounter throughout the sermon process;
  4. The significance of the waiting congregation;
  5. An astute awareness of the culture;
  6. The importance of a manuscript;
  7. A fitting close;
  8. The sermon as a continuous creation (even while preaching); and
  9. The power of the living voice.[1]


Another African American scholar, Dr. Frank A. Thomas, lists seven characteristics of the African American preaching tradition:

  1. The centrality of the Bible;
  2. The importance of experiential preaching;
  3. Existential exegesis;the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;
  4. Suspense that leads to celebration;
  5. The call-and-response nature of the sermon; and
  6. The performative nature of the sermon.[2]


One can see much overlap between the scholars’ lists of markers of black preaching. I would summarize the different characteristics into three main categories to describe black preaching: (1) Content, (2) Character, and (3) Context. I’ll describe each in turn.

The content of black preaching is the Word of God. Dr. LaRue writes that “black preaching exhibits a high regard for Scripture and has historically been noted for its strong biblical content: in the eyes of the black church a preacher without Scripture is like a doctor without a black bag.”[3] To make the point clearer, black preaching (and really all biblical preaching) seeks to be centered on Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and glorifying to God. Again, this is not unique to African American preaching. All biblical preaching seeks to “proclaim him” (Col. 1:28), and it seeks to know nothing among us except Jesus Christ and him crucified, not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spriit and of power (1 Cor. 2:2, 4). And black preaching, rightly done, does it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Rev. Dr. Francis Grimke, a black Presbyterian, wrote,

The function of the pulpit is not to entertain, to amuse, to satisfy an idle curiosity; it is to instruct, to inspire, to fire the heart and mind, to implant within us noble desires and ambitions; and above all to keep ever before men the one supreme figure in history, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beget within them a passion for him, and for a Christly life.[4]

 The character of black preaching is maybe what it is most known for, the style of most black preachers. The common elements to this style are the call and response between the preacher and the congregation, and the closing of the sermon, often referred to as “the celebration.” Another African American scholar, Dr. Henry H. Mitchell, writes of the celebration that it “is the one aspect of the sermon that most nearly deserves to be called typically black.” He adds that “black celebration has been criticized by some for being too emotional, manipulative of people, and unnecessary to the moves of the sermon. The latter challenge is met when the celebration is relevant to the purpose of the body of the sermon.”[5]

The celebration is supposed to be like the gravy that comes naturally from a good steak—it is reinforcing memorably and powerfully the gospel truths that are the main ideas of the sermon. On the importance of celebration, Mitchell says that “people relate to and remember what they celebrate, and it influences their behavior.” Dr. Robert Smith speaks to this point as well in his book Doctrine that Dances: “preaching is the exegetical escorting of the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation.”[6] To me, these ideas of call and response and celebration are aspects of the preacher himself being a worshiper who is leading the congregation to continue to worship God. This is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Grimke writes that “when the Holy Spirit is upon you, the truth grips you in a way that it doesn’t at other times, and the truth as uttered by you at such times, grips others in a way different from the ordinary preaching of the word. Hence the importance in all our preaching of having the enduement from on high, the unction from the Holy One.”[7]

The context of African American preaching is the final central portion. Dr. Bryan Chapell describes preaching as “bringing truth to struggle.” This is a vital part of preaching in the black experience. Black preaching was birthed in struggle—from slavery to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement to the social justice concerns of today. Preaching both in the midst of suffering among the people and the preacher’s personal suffering is not unique to African American preaching, but the particular pain of the African American story has lent itself to drawing out preaching with great power. Renowned preacher Dr. Gardner C. Taylor writes that “I do not know why the way of humankind’s social redemption must be lined in blood and sorrow. I only know that there is no other way.”[8] Dr. Jared Alcantra’s book Learning from a Legend, on what Dr. Taylor can teach others about preaching, lists several important insights on the connection between pain and preaching. He says:

  1. Pain helps preachers move toward greater authenticity and authority
  2. Pain helps preachers build bridges into other people’s lives
  3. Preachers who’ve gone through pain can still preach with power. [9]

I believe these three central characteristics of African American preaching can be a blessing to preaching in every Christian tradition. The content of preaching is Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, God-glorifying preaching. The character of preaching does not mean that all preachers need to try to be black, but all preachers can learn to engage their people and to celebrate the gospel truths and invite the people to do the same. And the context of preaching is as important a concept as ever in our world today, with the great need to bring the truth to the struggles of our day.

Praise God for what he has done, is doing, and will continue to do through black preaching. May he continue to be glorified through it.

Used with permission from Covenant Theological Seminary and Dr. Thurman Williams from the Seminary’s Theology Blog, originally dated 02/14/2024.


[1] Cleophus J. LaRue, ed., More Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 2–7.

[2] Frank A. Thomas, Introduction to the Practice of African American Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 86–88.

[3] LaRue, More Power in the Pulpit, 2.

[4] Francis J. Grimke, Meditations on Preaching (Madison, MI: Log College Press, 2018), v, vi.

[5] Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 119–21.

[6] Robert Smith Jr., Doctrine That Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 35.

[7] Grimke, Meditations on Preaching, 2–3.

[8] Jared E. Alcantara, Learning from a Legend: What Gardner C. Taylor Can Teach Us About Preaching (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 8.

[9] Alcantra, Learning from a Legend, 19–23.

Thurman serves as the Director of Homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St.
Louis and is the founding pastor of New City Fellowship West End Church, also in St.
Louis. Prior to planting New City West End in 2019, Thurman served for 5 years as
Associate Pastor at Grace & Peace Fellowship in St. Louis. He and his family (wife,
Evie and four children) moved to St. Louis from Baltimore, Maryland, where Thurman
pastored New Song Community Church for 13 years. Thurman served as a youth pastor
and on staff with Young Life in Baltimore prior to the time at New Song. He holds a
Master of Divinity degree from Chesapeake Theological Seminary and a Doctor of
Ministry degree from Covenant. Thurman serves on the Boards of Covenant College,
The Carver Project, and The Freedom School.

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