The Witness

After Lemonade: The Future of Black Christians in the Diaspora

Esau McCaulley

“I’m never gonna treat you like I should.” – Jay–Z, “4:44”

The elevator containing Solange, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé will forever be known as the birthplace of three classics: “A Seat at the Table,” “Lemonade,” and “4:44.”

From the moment Beyoncé told everybody to get in formation in “Lemonade,” she made it clear we were in the presence of a radical affirmation of black female strength. She was not to be disrespected. I took notice when she came down the street with that bat in the “Hold Up” video. I couldn’t imagine what her husband must have felt. Family business was in the streets and things wouldn’t be the same.

I wondered how Jay-Z would respond to being (rightly) outed by his wife. It’s not like he could write a diss record and destroy his family. Instead, we got “4:44,” a piercing account of black male vulnerability and confession. The album is startling in its moments of introspection. In the title track, Jay-Z explores the reverberations of his affairs, climaxing with the third verse that considers what it will mean to tell his daughter about his misdeeds.

I have thought about “Lemonade” and “4:44” as it relates to black Christians’ relationship to Evangelicalism for quite some time. I have often felt that we keep writing “Lemonade,” affirming our dignity and strength despite the country’s sins against black Americans. And we wait, hoping for a “4:44” from Evangelicalism that has yet to arrive.

Waiting for 4:44

For many black believers, the police shootings of 2012–2016 strained a previously burgeoning relationship between Evangelicalism and black Americans in white Christian spaces. These black folks were not the first to enter these spaces, but the progressive black tradition in white mainline churches was a foreign thing to them. Therefore, they did not follow their forebearers into white mainline churches. On the other hand, the black church experience was hard to come by on the college campuses where our adult faith decisions were made. To be honest, some of us were arrogant and unappreciative of the traditions that formed us. We left home looking for the promised land only to find ourselves out in the cold.

Nonetheless, a large number of us found ourselves immersed in white Evangelical spaces by conviction or circumstance. These spaces, if not exactly woke, were happy to have us. But the forever present issues of justice strained the fellowship. If the shootings transformed happy conversations at the dinner tables into stilted talk with long pauses and a multitude of side eyes, the election caused us to pack up our stuff and leave. It was our elevator incident. The 81 percent became an immovable point of reference in the black Christian conscience.

If one turns to social media, you will see an unending stream of black Christian hurt and frustration. We haven’t just made a cup of Lemonade; we set up a stand. Underlying many of these critiques was the hope that somehow, someway our white brothers and sisters would understand the depths of the problem. There was a hope for a 4:44, a confession.

But the days have given way to weeks, months, and years. This has increased the frustration. After every fresh controversy, it is almost as if we ask whether white Evangelicals are finally ready to hear us. We are trapped in a co-dependent relationship, but what do you do when a confession never arrives?

It is time to hope for something more.

When 4:44 Never Arrives

Many black Christians, then, find themselves in the diaspora. We left the churches that raised us but no longer fit in the places that we have called home. I am not sure that there is one answer to what will be next, but I do have a few ideas that might prove fruitful. Regardless of whether I am right about all of them, I am convinced that this is where the conversation should be focused. We can lament what was lost while looking to the future.

Re-engage the Black Church. Some of us will return to the churches of our youth. This is a good thing. Black churches, like most American churches, are in need of talented, passionate followers of Christ. But it is also true that our time away has changed us. We will need grace and humility so that we do not sit in judgment on both the Black Church and the Evangelical church. We must be careful lest we set standards so high that no church can meet our expectations. No church is the kingdom, but Christian community matters.

For a variety of reasons, I am not sure that all of us will return to black churches. We have been changed into a third thing that is not culturally fully in line with the historic black church nor fully culturally Evangelical. We might see a rise in churches that share some of the same theological convictions as traditional Black or Evangelical churches, but are independent of these institutions. These churches will have strong affirmations of black culture and they will also have elements of Evangelical praxis and organization. These churches might fit into historic black denominations, but it will require mutual grace and understanding.

Engage the coalition of the willing. There has been extensive discussion about the 81 percent this year. It has led to a wholesale rejection of Evangelicalism, but 81 percent is not 100 percent. We must have a vision of the body of Christ that takes each person as an individual and doesn’t write off all our white brothers and sisters in Christ.

I propose that we partner with the 19 percent (assuming that we can break things down that neatly, which I doubt). The overwhelming majority of Christians of color who care about justice when combined with the 19 percent make up a significant percentage of Christians in this country. Stated differently, the kind of Christianity that we are looking for is already here. Its makeup is multi-ethnic. It is comprised of diverse Christians who are committed to biblical orthodoxy on the one hand and biblical justice on the other.

Build our own spaces, but be open to others. We have to continue to build spaces where we can be ourselves and address issues that matter to us. I’m part of a team organizing the Call and Response Conference because we were tired of fulfilling a diversity quota at other events and only having limited time to engage issues of pressing concern to black Christians.

Continue the work of Reconciliation. I can’t help but remember all the times when people thought that I was a lost cause, but God pursued me. I also can’t forget all my Evangelical brothers and sisters who are struggling in their contexts to bear witness to a holistic gospel at great cost. I do not sit in judgment of people who need space for their own well-being, but I cannot in good conscience abandon my friends. Maybe, just maybe, the transformation of Evangelicalism will bear witness to the world of the power of the whole gospel to change our way of living, thinking, and being. God’s vision of a multi-ethnic kingdom encompasses everybody, including white Christians.

Keep our Theological Bearing in the Midst of Transition. There is something called orthodoxy that is not the mere imposition of Eurocentric theology upon an unwilling people. Across space and time, the majority of black Christians have adhered to traditional Christian beliefs, and their testimony matters. We need not be uniform, but the historic creeds are vital. The Bible must remain central in our work and the Church’s tradition still speaks in our day.

I am not sure what the future holds in its details, but I know that the Resurrected One who has defeated death is still with us and for that reason, I have hope.

19 thoughts on “After Lemonade: The Future of Black Christians in the Diaspora

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  11. Jay

    Imagine devoting yourself to petty ethnic and political advocacy, when you could actually be doing genuine gospel ministry that changes lives. This is just alienated, resentful, and faux-woke cant. A minister that explicitly says he won’t work with someone based on their ethnicity or political affiliation. You are clearly lost, brother. You need Jesus, asap.

  12. Kara

    Thank you, Dr McCaulley, for a thoughtful and moving post. I am touched that you would recognize the 19 percenters and honor us with the title of ‘coalition of the willing.’ I hear your struggle among hard choices, and my heart beats with yours. Lord, let there be a coalescing of the willing, for the encouragement of the saints and for your Name to be glorified.

  13. Thomas W.

    “We must have a vision of the body of Christ that takes each person as an individual and doesn’t write off all our white brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I propose that we partner with the 19 percent (assuming that we can break things down that neatly, which I doubt). ”

    In the span of two sentences you go from an excellent approach in treating people as individuals to then not treating people as individuals. Is this a red flag that perhaps this proposal is entirely misguided?

    Imagine if after Obama won, the shoe fell on the other foot, and white evangelicals decided they were only going to work with the 5% of African Americans that agree with them? The other 95%* can’t shop at their lemonade stand. Would you think that that reeks a bit of self righteousness and prejudice?

    So I have a proposal. I recommend no longer defining yourselves as a response to a percentage of a demographic that regardless of accuracy in your judgment leads to a poor and unChristlike attempt at reconciliation. Forget the 81%. Let go of the 19%. This framework/world view limits and binds you to placing your value of others and yourself according to your beliefs, and not in Christ in the first place. (We all do this, as one of the hardest things is being able to separate our value as human beings from what we believe). Love the people (yes even that 81%) even if you disagree with them. Pursue them, even if it hurts. There is no Jew or Greek. There is no 80% of any racial group that we get the privilege to ignore and reject their fellowship.

    And if you need an example of what this looks like, it looks like Kanye’s efforts over the last couple of weeks. Validating and loving people whether he agrees with them or not. Pursuing relationships and partnerships that aren’t bound by what the narrative, media, world or other projects he should only pursue. Step past 2016. Don’t let it be a stumbling block. Don’t let it be the excuse.

    There isn’t a better time than now. Don’t miss the golden opportunity there is. I’m pleading this and begging for it from the Witness, because it should be Christians who more than any others can do this. You can entirely shift the culture, systems, etc within the next 10 years if instead of polarizing and excluding a demographic, you embrace them. This is how walls break down. This is how real change can occur.

  14. Jocelyn

    “Often, I have no idea what RAAN contributors are getting at or are tying to accomplish.”

    If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

    I often wonder why people who make comments like yours even read this blog. Your understanding is not necessary to validate the author’s or anyone else’s point of view. Try building up something you believe in rather than tearing down something that your life experiences don’t allow you to understand.

  15. David Edwards

    As a young white Christian male searching for a church that my wife and I believe in, this speaks to me so much.

    While searching, we attended a comfortable, well-organized, virtually all white church one week, and then attended a black church with maybe 10 people, with us being the only white people, the next week. The tension between the cultures and trying to find where we belong is quite palpable to me in this season of our lives.

    How can we, proudly part of the 19%, help pave the way for racial reconciliation in such a heavily segregated church culture?

  16. John Shelton

    Thank you so much for this.

  17. Lpadron13

    I am 51.
    First generation Cuban American.
    My great grandfather was black.
    Relatives back in Cuba are black.
    I was raised a spanish speaker in a predominantly southern-white area of South Florida.
    The churches I’ve been in have all been predominantly white evangelical ones.

    Often, I have no idea what RAAN contributors are getting at or are tying to accomplish.

    This is one such piece.

    The sense of alienation is palpable as is the desire to be in fellowship with white evanglical bretheren.

    I suggest the sense of alienation is out of whack; out of proportion.

    As one who travels in “white christian spaces” as something of a 3rd party observer between black and white believers and seeing the latter bend over backwards to atone for sins they didn’t commit I wonder exactly what is being sought here. What will satisfy?

  18. Jim schaubroeck

    Esau – Thank you for your insightful post. I am of the 19 percent. As a 58yo white guy raised in a largely racist or ambivalent context, I have a deep burden for my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Please count me among the coalition of the willing. I’m reading, learning, praying, and networking. Keep fighting the good fight, and please know that there are many of us who desire to see biblical justice prevail, and God glorified by our love and unity.

  19. h l munsey

    i think you black preachers need to talk to tony evans. i’m black and i have been attending a ‘reformed protestant’ church for the the past 6 years. and i have been a distant member of ‘john macarthur’ and his radio ministry. and i’ve learned a lot. as i like the preaching of my 2 churches, there are a lot of social issues that i totally disagree with. and they will always preach that ‘certain garbage’. but JESUS CHRIST has ‘never’ given ANY RACE superiority over another. JESUS said ‘COME AND LEARN (OF) ME. when i first got saved, i was taught lies from both sides, blacks and whites. i compared everything to THE SOURCE, the TRIUNE GOD. i don’t live my life to please white people. i live my life to please my GOD&SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST.. and may i add, if any issues come up in my life, that are racial or whatever, i will got through ‘every legal’ avenue to respond to such issues. that is not a sin. but it is a SIN for black people to live to try to make white people ‘accept’ us. THAT IS IDOLATRY, and that is a SIN. GOD SAID ‘YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GOD’S BEFORE ME’.

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