Frederick D. Haynes III: We're not having normal church anymore

After the police shootings in Dallas and incidents of police violence against African-Americans, the church can no longer afford to conduct business as usual, a prominent African-American pastor says in this interview. The church must radically return to what it means to be people of faith.

On the Sunday after the July 7, 2016, slaying of five Dallas police officers at a demonstration against police violence, the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III told his congregation at Dallas’ Friendship-West Baptist Church, “We can’t have normal church today.”

He’s repeated that message ever since.

“That was a quote of that day, but I’ve told them every Sunday since, we’re not having normal church anymore,” Haynes said. “We have to have a church that radically goes back to the roots of what it means to be people of faith.”

Jesus didn’t start “a membership” but a movement, Haynes said.

“Everything we’re doing at our church now is around the notion that you’re not joining a membership,” he said. “You’re going to be part of a movement. A movement that affirms that black lives matter. A movement that is going to not only grow you into what God has assigned you to do on this planet, but it will be within the context of addressing the social, economic, political realities that get in the way of you becoming all that God wants you and intends for you to become.”

Haynes, the senior pastor at Friendship-West since 1983, said social activism and church growth are not mutually exclusive. Under his leadership, the church has grown from fewer than 100 members to more than 12,000.

One of the keys, he said, is to have a “bifocal” approach to preaching and ministry.

“We want to minister to individuals, but we want those individuals to be aware of the larger context -- the systems, the structures that may preclude their possibilities if those systems are not addressed,” Haynes said.

Haynes has a B.A. from Bishop College in Dallas, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

While at Duke Divinity School recently to deliver the 2016 Gardner C. Taylor Lecture, he spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: A recent article in The Dallas Morning News described you and the Rev. Dr. William Barber as “ushering morality and virtue back into public life” and declared that the black church, “once the epicenter of black progress, isn’t asleep.” So what is the state of the black church today? Has it been asleep?

Unfortunately, after the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s -- which I liken to a spiritual revival that had civil rights consequences -- the black church took a different route in many instances. Many of the more popular churches -- growing churches and megachurches -- became less concerned with social justice and community transformation than with a more individualized approach to ministry and preaching.

It became “me” centered. You hear it in the gospel music -- “Enlarge my territory” -- and you hear it in people who say, “I want to go to church to get my word, my praise.”

A minority of churches in the black community have always been socially conscious and active. After the ’50s and ’60s, those churches weren’t necessarily silenced. It’s just that the stage was not there for them, for a number of reasons.

On one hand, you had progress -- the illusion of inclusion -- that some felt made social activism no longer necessary. So after the movement, the growing churches were often churches that were less inclined to social activism.

Whereas prior to the movement, they were activist churches, from Abyssinian Baptist in New York with Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sam Proctor and others, to Ebenezer Baptist and Wheat Street Baptist in Atlanta. All across the country, the growing churches -- the megachurches before “mega” was a term -- were social activist churches.

That waned after the movement, but now I see a slow rebirth of that kind of prophetic witness coming about.

Q: When you started at Friendship-West Baptist Church in 1983, it had fewer than 100 members, and it now has more than 12,000 and is a church with a very active focus on social justice. So church growth and social justice are not mutually exclusive?

Not at all.

Ministry and preaching has to be “bifocal.”

My glasses are bifocal. The top part of my lens allows me to see long-distance, and the bottom part allows me to see up close.

In the same way, we have to have a bifocal approach to ministry and preaching. We want our members to see the greater context in which their individual stories operate.

When I’m preaching, when we’re designing our ministries, we do it with both in mind. We want to minister to individuals, but we want those individuals to be aware of the larger context -- the systems, the structures that may preclude their possibilities if those systems are not addressed.

For me, there’s never been a dichotomy. Again, when I go back to the churches in our history that have been the growing churches, they have been activist churches.

I come out of that tradition. My father and my grandfather pastored in San Francisco a church that today would be called a megachurch. When my grandfather passed, they had more than 4,000 members. He was the first African-American to run for county supervisor in San Francisco, and he did all that while growing a church.

I just didn’t know, to be honest with you, what church growth experts meant when they said that you cannot grow a church and engage in social justice. I just didn’t know that was the case.

Q: Speak some to the situation in Dallas after the July 7 police shootings, and the broader situation in America now around race and the series of police shootings of African-American men. I read where you were on the phone with your daughter, who was attending the protest march in Dallas when the officers were killed.

That was one of the most traumatic experiences as a parent. I was in Atlanta preaching, and she had texted me and told me, “Daddy, the march is going so beautifully; call me when you get done so I can FaceTime you.”

But I didn’t move fast enough. Before I could even get to the room, she FaceTimed me and showed me everything.

She said, “Daddy, do you see this? Do you see that?” and then pointed the phone back to her face, and the next thing I know, she screams and starts running.

And I said, “What is going on?!” And she can’t answer, until finally she screams, “They’re shooting! They’re shooting!”

I didn’t know what was going on but of course later found out what had happened.

Dallas is a metaphor for the nation. My challenge even that weekend was for us to be bifocal and have a heart big enough to embrace the families of the slain officers, recognizing the immeasurable stress that police officers and their families endure. But at the same time, let’s not forget what brought about the protest to begin with.

That’s been the tension that characterizes Dallas now. Basically, a narrative has given the sympathy, which we understand, to police officers and the families of the slain officers. At a Texas Rangers baseball game they honored the families and the slain -- and they should.

But I’ve waited for someone to honor the slain black bodies and their families at the hands of officers -- and they were unarmed. Down in North Charleston, Walter Scott was killed last year, caught on video. His family has not been honored, to my knowledge.

It was significant when the Democratic convention honored the Mothers of the Movement. More of that needs to go on. That’s a bifocal approach, as opposed to the narrative that always empathizes, sympathizes with the officers.

We cannot underestimate what [the police] do, but at the same time, we must in making America a more perfect union ensure that everyone is protected equally under the law. I don’t see that as problematic, but there are those who want to control the narrative.

But again, that’s where our nation is. When Colin Kaepernick uses his First Amendment right to dissent, he’s attacked. They’re mad at his method, but they’re very mute about his message.

His message has to do with oppression. His message has to do with what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just this weekend with Terence Crutcher. The people who are going off on him about taking a knee or refusing to stand are silent about the suffering of the black masses.

For me, that’s what’s going on in Dallas right now. Our police chief resigned. He received accolades for how he handled things after the crisis, but when he tried to get the police officers a raise, the city council turned him down.

So my thing is, “OK. Something real hypocritical is going on when we call them heroes but we don’t pay them as heroes.”

Q: Same for teachers.

Exactly. We attack and blame teachers, and expect them to be police officers, social workers, counselors, psychologists -- and when they get around to it, educators. But when you pay them, you pay them as paupers.

I said it repeatedly in the aftermath: If police officers in Dallas have to work another job to make ends meet and you call them heroes, then you’re lying.

The American value system needs to be re-evaluated.

Q: What’s the role for the church in all this? At the worship service at your church on the Sunday after the police shootings, you told the congregation, “We can’t have normal church today.”

Yes. That was a quote of that day, but I’ve told them every Sunday since, we’re not having normal church anymore. We have to have a church that radically goes back to the roots of what it means to be people of faith.

I’ve never seen in Scripture where Jesus started a membership. He started a movement.

Everything we’re doing at our church now is around the notion that you’re not joining a membership. You’re going to be part of a movement. A movement that affirms that black lives matter. A movement that is going to not only grow you into what God has assigned you to do on this planet, but it will be within the context of addressing the social, economic, political realities that get in the way of you becoming all that God wants you and intends for you to become.

When we worship, we’re going to worship with our eyes on your personal hurts, concerns and needs, but also with the world in mind.

I’ve told our membership that I don’t want you to watch the news or read your social media feed unless you do it in a context of prayer. You’re watching the news, and you’re praying. You’re going through your social media feed, and you’re praying.

And while you’re praying, you’re asking God, “OK, Lord, here I am. Send me. What would you have me to do?”

Because we’ve got to see our responsibility to transform this world. We can’t do business as usual.

Q: Speak some about pastoral leadership and prophetic ministry. In 2012, you spoke out in support of President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality and even preached on that. And when you did, many in your congregation stood up and shouted their disapproval. That was incredibly gutsy. What’s the key to that kind of leadership?

Right, and I did pay a price. Yes.

Maya Angelou was asked about the greatest virtue, and she said “courage,” because without courage you cannot act on the others. So I have asked God for courage. It takes courage to stand on truth even when -- and especially when -- the masses disagree.

I tell my church this often. They say we have 12,000 members. We could have 120,000 if I went the route of being a motivational, inspirational speaker who did not deal with issues that will make me a lightning rod.

I don’t enjoy that, but once I get up off my knees in prayer, once I am done sitting silently before God, as Dr. [Gardner] Taylor would say, I have to be true to what I sense has been revealed to me.

I’ve even told the president, “Man, you’ve cost me members, and you have no idea what I went through to take that stand,” but I had to be true to that. When he came out in support, he had a conference call with us, and I’m on that conference call thinking, “Oh my God, why are you doing this? I know where this is going. I’m in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt. This is not going to go over well.”

But again, it’s about having the courage of your convictions and being true, once you stand, to what you feel God has said while you were on your knees.

Q: You’d also been at the church for many years. What’s your advice for young pastors starting off about how to do prophetic ministry?

For me, it’s going to always go back to, as Dr. Taylor would say, sitting silently before God. That intimate time with God is where a lot of your growth, your sense of what God is doing, your inspiration, comes from.

I’m often asked, “How did your church grow?” It really began to grow when my prayer life began to grow.

Q: Really?

Oh yes, without question.

I had been at Friendship-West six or seven years. We had nice, slow growth, and then I came across two books on prayer. One was “The Meaning of Prayer” by Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the other was “Could You Not Tarry One Hour?” by Larry Lea.

Lea’s charismatic, so I didn’t agree with everything he was saying theologically, but he drew from Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane -- “Could you not hang with me for an hour in prayer?” -- and used that as a model of prayer. That became my personal pattern; I would endeavor to spend as much time as possible with God every day.

And then I decided to teach this to the church, and before I knew it, people came because they wanted to learn how to pray. And the church started growing.

Out of that, we got what we called 20/20 vision for the church. We began to articulate that vision, and it attracted men. In the 1990s, we moved to another facility in the heart of the ’hood in Dallas. What Chicago is today, Dallas was then. One year, we had 500 murders.

One Monday night, we’re in revival, and literally across the street, three young black men had been tied up in a bathtub and shot in the head, killed in a Mafia-style hit. And this is going on across the street from church, where we’re having a good time.

I told the church that was an indictment on us if we don’t respond in a redemptive fashion. So out of that, several things happened. We did a silent march through the community dressed in black. We set up a casket in front of the church with a mirror in it; when people looked in, they would see themselves.

After that, we mobilized. We organized the neighborhood association. Our men went through the Dallas Police Department’s Volunteers in Patrol program, and every weekend, they patrolled the streets of the community unarmed. And the crime rate dipped dramatically.

I brought in every elected representative from city council, county commissioner, state rep, congressional rep, and I took them on a 10 p.m. tour of the neighborhood.

We saw the absence of services and the illegal activity that was going on, and we insisted on funneling resources into that area.

Once the community said, “We’ve had enough,” the crime rate went down, and as the crime rate was going down, you had people in the community saying, “We like him; we like that church. We’re going to that church.”

And then we started to grow. All the while, we were being true to a social justice consciousness and mission. But it began for me when my prayer life changed.