Issues of race and culture both capture my interest and concern. When I’m questioned and write about it, I want to be intentional about taking my time because I’m aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Recently, one of the interesting trends in my life is that God has had me both counseling leaders of predominantly white churches that want to engage their urban core and African-Americans on staff at predominantly white churches. I’ve been engaged in this sort of training and discussion intently for the past seven years.
I want to share some observations and thoughts on the subject with the hopes of encouraging people to pursue and achieve authentic oneness. As Dr. Tony Evans says “blacks and whites don’t need to take sides, but need to be biblical.” My goal isn’t taking sides, but hopefully informing both “sides.” After all, we’re one according to Ephesians 2. My goal is to hopefully assist in understanding some nuances as it relates to race in an ecclesiological context. In the forthcoming series of articles on this topic I know everything will not be covered, but I do hope it will generate healthy, honest, and fruitful dialogue over some of the touchy aspects of this subject.
If we can’t have such dialogue then either we’re operating in fear or we don’t believe that the bible gives us the ability to address these issues with grace; neither of which I affirm. I think we can and should engage in this discussion honestly with the hopes of co-laboring together as practitioners and not Christian idealists who contend that pretending there are no races is the key to unity.
As Dr. Tony Evans says in Oneness Embraced, “White theologians silence and black theology’s victim mentality promote separatism and oneness becomes more difficult to embrace,” I hope this can start a conversation towards genuine oneness, because in order for this to be attained we (blacks, whites, etc.) must aggressively position ourselves as mediators in this with the end goal being glorifying God. Both “sides” will have to give up somethings, but neither should give up everything.
About two years ago an African-American male approached me and apologized for some extremely critical things he’d said about me and my church. He’d only heard about us through others and came to our facility for a concert that we were hosting, our church is in South Raleigh.
He admitted being critical of our building, despite it being clean, the grass is cut and edges trimmed, he found it wanting because it didn’t fit the suburban standard he was used too (his words). After he apologized I said one of the hardest things I think I’ve had to say to another believer. I told him to repent for not wanting to be black. Why would I say something like that?
As he spoke I noticed he gave tons of reasons for his criticism, but I felt like he never got to the root cause of his disdain. Being teased and called “white” for how he spoke, coupled with his membership to a predominately white church (nothing wrong with that) and having both parents and being criticized for that, yielded bitterness over his experience with African-Americans that was, by in large, negative.
He would later admit his disdain for “his own” as he and I continued to converse and this has been a pattern that I’ve notice in my personal experiences with African-Americans that have either distance themselves from African-Americans by choice and totally engulf themselves in majority culture by choice.
My experience with him and others tell me he’s not the only one whose response this type of experience (feeling tormented by other African-Americans and feeling like majority culture will accept them) was to distance himself from almost all things African-American in the ecclesiogoical and cultural context, namely how worship is expressed and sermons are preached.
I explained to him that you can’t affirm the Imago Dei and the sovereignty of God, yet wish you weren’t African-American, criticize most things associated with African-American culture and even distance yourself from African-American people except for settings stereotypically deemed African-American like “the hood” and hip-hop, yet embrace the notion that there’s no theological depth, ecclesiological health nor homiletical prowess.
We talked for a while, he was in tears, I embraced him and challenged him to forgive those that hurt him and to embrace the reality that God wanted him to be African-American and that African-Americans aren’t one-dimensional, contrary to what he’d been presented with by other African-Americans from his past.
I didn’t tell him to change his dress or speech, but I did encourage him to read a little more on “his” history to understand the contributions of African-Americans to theology, science and American history, so that he can appreciate his heritage racially, but not limit himself to that.
This isn’t the only conversation that I’ve had like this with African-Americans and I want to submit one question for African-Americans in this situation that may be a sign that you’re embracing the sin of self-hatred and one question majority culture can ask themselves to help pastor people with this destructive pattern of false identity and self-hatred. I’ll only deal with one question for each group in this post and I’ll continue to add to this discussion with a total of five questions for each group.
If you’re a minority in a majority culture context whether it’s ecclesiological or cultural or both I want to ask you to ask yourself this question.
- Why am I highly critical of minorities in ministry and preaching?
When one essentially embraces the notion that their either inferior or rejected by their “own” it’s not unusual to embrace those that seemingly embrace you, namely majority culture and to be critical of those you feel represent something you now resent.
I’m not talking about heresy as it relates to criticizing African-Americans or anyone for that matter, no one should get a pass for that, but if you find yourself making comments like “the black church lacks the gospel” or “I have to go outside my race to get solid teaching” or even “I need to get trained outside my race to get trained properly and then I’ll return.” These ideas carry the idea of inferiority, bitterness, and delusion.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll help African-Americans by not being around them, no effective missionary has a disdain for the people they’re called to reach, but rather they share a genuine concern, love and appreciation (read Acts 17 on how Paul engaged people in Athens).
In most cases when African-Americans make the aforementioned comments they’re usually speaking from very limited experiences and they don’t have much to back up their claims outside of their personal experiences, which aren’t totally reliable when labelling an entire race. It’s dangerous to ignore and label an entire group of people based on personal experience, that’s actually the recipe for embracing and promoting prejudice, which scripture clearly rejects (Gal. 2:11-21). If you’re frequently complaining to majority culture about “all black” churches you’re not being completely honest because there’s no way you could have attended them all.
I would lovingly ask you to pray the prayer David prayed in Psalm 139:29 when he asked the Lord to “search him.” If you can admit that you struggle with lust, a lack of patience, lying, etc. could it be possible that you struggle with self-hatred? Do you see it as a sin? Are you seeking people to affirm you in your self-hatred? To be clear I’m not talking about loving yourself more in some esoteric way, but loving and knowing that God created you, your personality and your race for His own glory (Gen. 1:26).
Ask God to reveal possible patterns of self-hatred and talk to others as the young brother I mentioned earlier shared his struggles with me. If you pray this prayer and seek authentic accountability from those that are brutally honest with you, you may find that your criticism stems from bitterness and not knowledge or concern and you may even be missing out on a group God wants to use to minister too, but you’re presently blinded by your disdain and ignorance. While you may verbally affirm your contentment with who you are, you could be functionally communicating that you’re black, but don’t want to be by your constant criticism of things pertaining to African-American culture and your subsequent affirmation of everything else.
To be clear I’m not saying that you should only read African-American authors exclusively, that you shouldn’t affirm non-African-Americans in any way, nor am I saying you need to leave your church and join an African-American led one, but I am saying that this (self-hatred) could be in you and it is sinful and we should all repent of sin and run to Jesus.
Begin to examine whom you read, listen too, associate with and affirm and ask God to reveal potentially sinful patterns. After starting with prayer I want to encourage to read books like Oneness Embraced by Tony Evans and you’ll find that all races have rich history or listen to theologians like Dr. Carl Ellis on orthodoxy amongst civil rights leaders and you’ll find out some wonderful things about Christian history.
Dr. Evans points out that church fathers Augustine, Athanasius, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian were all people of color that have contributed richly to Christian/church history. Am I saying to find your identity in your blackness? No, but I am saying that knowing your history gives you an appreciation and the ability to speak from a more informed perspective outside of your negative experiences, if that has been your experience.
Be careful of the source of your criticism, if it’s biblical that’s one thing, but honestly every race has it’s share of heretics, prosperity gospel proponents and detractors from gospel-centrality in ministry. Don’t pigeon hole one sect and remember Christ redeems people and perspectives and yours may need to change in this area. I hope this both challenges and encourages you on your journey of finding a “place to land” as it relates to discerning where you “fit in” and where your gifts can be leveraged for the gospel.
- Am I promoting minorities too fast for my own affirmation?
There’s another side to the perpetuation of African-American inferiority and disdain and it often goes unnoticed. A common thread I’ve seen in the people I’ve engaged is that many of them represent about 1-5% of the racial make-up of their churches.
Again this isn’t necessarily wrong, but how they’re treated can oftentimes be dangerous. When some (emphasis on some I’m not presuming to label all predominately white churches in this way) get an articulate African-American male or female sometimes they’re quickly elevated to leadership because the church is thrilled to have a non-white person on the stage.
This can be dangerous, unloving and “tokenistic”, especially if the standard for your leadership pipeline is lowered simply because they’re a minority. When you do this, this exploits the person and can actually enable their self-hatred because some of the minorities I’ve talked with are only at predominately white churches because they’ve sinfully labelled churches led by African-Americans as lacking the gospel because they couldn’t get promoted quickly within that context.
You may ask how can I know that someone could be struggling with this? Through patience, relationships, engagement and most importantly asking the Holy Spirit to lead you as you lead cross-racially and culturally. I don’t have a formula because people aren’t linear, however, I would say it may be a good idea to reach out to the previous pastor if possible, so that you’re not only hearing one side and forming your ideas from that.
Don’t assume that everything that they’re presenting is accurate and ask God if they’re affirming negative ideas you may have about minority led churches. Don’t quickly elevate a person simply because of their race and don’t think that because they listen to John Piper, can quote John Calvin, read books by Tim Keller and know the Five Solas that their “ready”, I’m sure that you’ve encountered people from your own race that can do the aforementioned and they still needed maturity in crucial areas before they could be elevated to leadership.
In other words don’t make this decision based on perceived epistemological competency at the expense of his or her sanctification, which takes time to examine through relationships (sanctification is the work of the Spirit that produces godly fruit, which can be examined by the family of Christ). Whatever your standard is keep it the same and don’t make one African-American male or female the expert on all things African-American.
Why you ask? This will breed arrogance in them if they’re the source, potentially enable his or her self-hatred and unintentionally affirm the idea that because of the expediency of his or her promotion that churches from their racial make-up were/are “holding them back.” It may help to talk to other pastors about questions to ask to attempt to sort this out and hopefully as this article expands, this can serve as a resource.
Listen to how they talk about others within their race and listen to what they don’t say, namely if there isn’t anything positive or affirming and pastor them before you platform them. Lastly ask yourself the question am I promoting them too fast? This question will demand introspection and reveal maybe even some idolatry of pastoring outside your race for some sort of affirmation that can and should only come from Christ.
I would also suggest if possible and I think it is for you to serve under African-American leadership so that you can be a practitioner of that which you hope to attain (this may or may not be possible depending on your position and season of ministry). An African-American pastor shared this with me. “One of the highest compliments I recieved was from my white associate pastor after about a year of serving together.
He said he was blessed to have an African-American man to lead him and wishes more white males would do the same, not because of my title, but because he learned how to become a better husband, father, and pastor and he learned things that he assumed he knew all along because of his association with black people in the past, but he know acknowledges that he never really had community with African-Americans until now.” I think asking this question and being honest with yourself is a start to something beautiful that God wants to do amongst his people, ALL PEOPLE!
In no way am I insinuating, implying or suggesting that serving in a context where you’re the minority (the church I pastor is predominately black with a 20% white contingent) is sinful or makes you a “sell out”. If you’re there serve well and serve with joy. I just hope to start a dialogue about a conversation that is happening behind the scenes that I think needs to be brought to the forefront. My goal is to serve and listen.
The doors of my blog are now open, let’s talk!