quiet exodus
The Church The Witness

A Wilderness Wandering After the “Quiet Exodus”

Jemar Tisby

In a revealing article in the New York Times, journalist Campbell Robertson, details the impact of the 2016 election on black Christians in white churches. Observing the overwhelming political support that white evangelicals exhibited for the current president, many African Americans felt a sense of betrayal and frustration. For some, the election, coupled with a general lack of racial sensitivity in other areas, finally compelled them to look elsewhere for a worship community. In his article, Robertson called this a “quiet exodus.” But what happens next? After the quiet exodus of black Christians out of white churches comes a wilderness wandering.

A Divide

Black people have always had a precarious relationship with the white church in America. Adopting the religion of one’s oppressors tends to be a fraught endeavor, and the dissonance of believing in the same God and reading the same Bible as those who enslave your kinspeople could not be stronger. Yet through it all, black people have not only seen the truth of Christianity apart from the perversions of white supremacy, but they have formed their own spiritual sanctuaries apart from the gaze of white overseers.

In 1794, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones led a decisive break with the predominantly white Methodist church they had been attending in Philadelphia. They started “Mother” Bethel Church and Allen soon went on to be the first leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. It is the oldest continually functioning black denomination in the United States. After the Civil War, when black slaves no longer had to remain under the paternalistic eye of their white overseers, they left en masse to form new churches and denominations.

The National Baptist Convention merged with three other predominantly black Baptist fellowships in 1895 and remains the largest historically black denomination in the country. Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, the black church developed its own distinctive theology, preaching, music, history, and identity. The singular power of the black church for uplift and progress was fully displayed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Led by preachers like Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth as well as women of God like Fannie Lou Hamer and Coretta Scott King, the black church provided spiritual ballast and organizational cohesion to the push for civil rights.

The gains secured by the Civil Rights Movement led to the downfall of Jim Crow. No longer did black people have to endure explicit legal censure barring them from the political and economic benefits of full citizenship. In the church, black people also found a greater level of acceptance among their white co-religionists than had ever been true in the history of the nation.

The last thirty years have witnessed a mushrooming of efforts to bridge the racial divide. The Promise Keepers movement of the 1990s exhorted men to repent of racism and honor the black attendees at their mega-rallies. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), so named because it split with Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, finally acknowledged their racist origins and issued a statement repudiating their prior stance.

More recently in 2016, the Presbyterian Church in America, a descendant of Southern Presbyterianism, approved (after much debate) a resolution acknowledging their inaction or opposition to black civil rights efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2015, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political advocacy arm of the SBC, hosted an entire conference on racial harmony, partly in response to the national upheaval surrounding incidents of police brutality toward unarmed black people.

Power & Loyalty

White evangelicals often exhibit an abundance of goodwill toward black people and have attempted to demonstrate their racial open-mindedness in various ways. But as more black people have gained access and opportunities in traditionally white evangelical spaces, they have had to endure high costs.

Oftentimes, when black people go to white evangelical churches, they can take a seat in the pew but they have to check their culture at the door. White evangelical institutions have extended the right hand of fellowship but kept a tight grip on power in the other hand. Black people have entered white evangelical circles only to often find a whitewashed history that has made easy friends with slaveholders and segregationists yet has decried black activists who proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives of injustice.

The presidential election of 2016 revealed more clearly than ever in the 21st century where the true loyalties of many white evangelicals rest. Eighty-one percent of those who identified as white evangelicals pulled the lever for the current president. Even a superficial glance at the president’s history before and during his time in office reveals a pattern of bigotry and immaturity. Yet a plurality of theologically and politically conservative white Christians have continued to support him.

Many black Christians have finally realized that, at least at an institutional level, white evangelicalism has proven toxic to their God-given sense of dignity. So they have undertaken a “quiet exodus” out of the churches they once thought could be home. But what comes next?


For black Christians who have left predominantly white evangelical spaces, after the “quiet exodus” comes a wilderness wandering.

Many black Christians no longer feel at home in majority white evangelical churches. They are concerned that when they say “Black Lives Matter,” they will be met with the “All Lives Matter” trope. When they express concern over political issues other than abortion, homosexuality, or Supreme Court appointments, they receive confused looks and questions about their theology. When they say “I’m tired,” too often white evangelicals, despite their best attempts to understand, continue to demand that the minorities in their midst serve as interpreters of an entire people group’s experience.

Some black Christians turn or return to the black church. But finding a new church is a daunting task. Some black people never grew up in church, so they do not have a long history of the black church. Others have been away so long that it no longer seems familiar.

At the same time, no Christian truly feels at home in the world. Although we are called to love everyone, even those who do not call on the name of Jesus, we have a different outlook. Christians put their hope for eternal life in a poor, Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago, died an ignominious death on a cross, and whose disciples say he rose to life three days later. According to the Bible, this looks like “foolishness” to the rest of the world. Yet the cruciform life shapes the entire existence of Christians. It hard to find deep fellowship with people who reject those beliefs.

The reality is that as long as black Christians live in this world, they will experience a sense of wilderness wandering. After all, this world is not our home.

Home is God’s People

We are wandering in search of a Promised Land that we will not reach until Christ returns. This is “the substance of things hoped for.” But too often black Christians think we are doing something wrong if we experience a sense of displacement. We berate ourselves for not being patient enough with our white brothers and sisters who just don’t “get it.” We heap guilt on our shoulders for feeling anger at racism and recognizing traces of white supremacy in the church. We wonder if we are “giving up on the church” if we long for a different community that simply assumes the full humanity of black people.

Instead of interpreting our sadness and frustration about racism in the church as negative, it could be that we are meant to feel a restive sense of homelessness. Perhaps we are meant to sense our incongruity in this world. That feeling forces us to reckon with the fact that we are strangers and sojourners here.

We have to realize that the home we long for is not so much a place but a people. Not so much a location but a community. We find a home alongside those who are wandering like ourselves. What unites us is why we wander. We wander because we are uncomfortable with injustice. We wander because we long for the light of truth instead of the darkness of ignorance. We wander because we see issues of human dignity as central to the gospel and not a departure from it.

The mystery of this wilderness wandering that black Christians endure is that the people who are home to us may, in fact, be very different from us (Ephesians 3:1-13). We may find ourselves wandering side-by-side with those who formerly identified with the oppressor. Some of our white brothers and sisters have felt a similar longing for liberation from white supremacy—an ideology they have been taught and have even enacted themselves. The spiritual dissonance within them has become so overwhelming that they had to leave what they thought was home and become part of the Exodus along with their brothers and sisters of color. As black Christians look around at the companions who have become their eschatological community, they will find that the gospel has torn down the wall of hostility and made former enemies into allies (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Black Christians, your sense of wilderness wandering may signal the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. If you have lost a sense of home because you refuse to yield your image of God-ness for a seat at the back of the white evangelical bus, then you share in the sufferings of your Savior. Jesus paid your fare on the cross so now you can sit wherever you want in the church.

Just know this entire life is a type of wilderness wandering. We are never fully at home until we are at home with the Lord. In the meantime, however, God grants us a people who are called by his name, and these people—this flawed, diverse, stumbling, loving people—are home. Let’s get comfortable with each other.

14 thoughts on “A Wilderness Wandering After the “Quiet Exodus”

  1. stephen matlock

    Sorry for the late comment that I expect won’t be seen, but I’m catching up on the older podcasts, and today I’m listening to this one.

    Sure, I read the original article from the NYT when it came out, and I had my thoughts–but something Jemar said here in response to this Christian woman who was looking for her spiritual home “Why isn’t the black church the default?”

    Yes, I know the context.

    But this struck me in a different way today — that as we think of “church” in America, we generally think of the white church. We hold the black church as different from, rather than also including. When we think of the church in the media or religion or politics and so on–we think of the white church as just “church” and the black church as “exotic” or “flavored” or “not white.”

    It just struck me that I believe this. The real church is the normal, default church. The white church. The extra-special, reservation required, different and unusual church is the black church.

    Were I to suggest to a friend to find a church, my mind says “and it’s a white church.”

    Very, very interesting how I’m socialized over this.

    I don’t have any answers, but it’s something I want to explore further

  2. Thomas W.

    My apologies Tim, I should have said Bush. I can’t find the original chart at this point that I saw otherwise, but Bush had 9 and 11% I believe according to Roper. They had McCain at 4%, Romney at 6%, and Trump at 8%. I expect that number will go up this next go around.

    Also, Hillary lost 5% off of Obama’s 2012 election. And you’re right that many chose to stay home, but that wouldn’t factor into the percentages of voters by comparison really.

  3. Tim H

    Well Frank, since you decided to put your 2¢ in, your miniscule sample hardly equates to “the most since Reagan” wouldn’t you as an educated election official agree?

    The screaming blacks you referenced are most likely the not the 8-10% of all African Americans that voted for Trump.

    Since you’re assuming (gotta watch that ass-u-me thing) that those screaming blacks got some ‘splainin’ to do, I would surmise they voted for what they THOUGHT was the lesser of two evils.

    And since you don’t know me but choose to assume (there it is again) I have a hated for white people I can assure you that I love me some white folks. So much so that I listen to white music (only country though) go to a white church (that won’t\can’t play black music) and (gasp) even gots me some white friends (ok, one white friend).

    As for that votin’ thang, this is ‘merica, son. Last I checked, anybody can votes for whosoever they’s little heart desires.

  4. Frank

    Sorry to disappoint you, Tim H., but I know for a fact that a LOT of blacks voted for Donald Trump.

    Rather than hatred toward white people who also voted for him, you should focus on why so many blacks did.

  5. Frank

    I was an election official during the 2016 Presidential Election. My precinct was/is nearly 100% black. As we counted/reconciled ballots (it’s mandatory), I was shocked to see that probably 1/3 of the ballots had been cast for Donald Trump.

    Let me put it bluntly: Blacks who are screaming at white evangelicals, calling them names and equating them to Hitler’s minions, have got some SERIOUS explaining to do! And probably some serious introspection and soul-searching to do.

  6. Tim H

    “Highest black voter turnout since Reagan” really? Where did you get info? Had blacks turned out in 2016 as the did in 2008/2012 this election would most likely have gone the other way. Your ignorance is clearly evident when you reference Kanye as a reliable source…kinda like relying on Trump for accurate statements.

  7. Thomas W.

    Ms. Annie, I believe you misjudge my heart and mind if you believe I have a disdain for those here. I do not. It is quite the opposite. I have a big heart for those here, for the work they have done and are doing, as I have had a big heart for seeing reconciliation move forward.
    I also comment from fears that we’d rather wander when we don’t have to, because I’ve seen that and I understand the depth, difficulty, and pains that come with it. And, I don’t want to lose what has been forged in fellowship (especially over politics). And, My apologies if my frustrations with a lack of response came through though. The context was an appeal to sitting down with him, valuing him, and the willingness to have my own world view shattered.

    Please see that in my post to Jemar that I didn’t claim an air of superiority, but put myself under the same humanity that the Bible councils us in: we only see in part and are all fallen people. And thus, I attempted to appeal to the possibilities, knowing that both ends and including myself don’t have it all right. The same possibilities he and others have charged when it comes to blindness in others for none of us are immune. But I’m less concerned with this, for even in the who is right/wrong game, it doesn’t matter when it comes to how we should treat others who don’t agree with us.

    So for me, my main contention is that as I applaud and appreciate Jemar’s honesty, openess, the work he does, knowledge of history, love for his brethren, and pacing of these concerns, feelings, pain, etc, I don’t believe that wandering is where we should remain. That it’s entirely possible to step out of the wilderness and cross the Jordan, and there is no better time than right now. It’s because I have a love for you and for him and for others here that I make that appeal. And if we aren’t sure how to do that, amazingly, I think Kanye West just put it on full display this week.

    Remember this week. It’s a pivot point and an enormous opportunity that many are going to underestimate. My Prediction: Kanye will do as much as MLK for African Americans if not more so in the coming decade.

  8. Annie C. Burley

    Absolutly you!
    And others who comment like you with such speciffied Disdain When it comes to writer and specific topics. “Im just not sure you do. “At the end of your first Response here is all Someone needs To read expose where your heart in this matter too. And many other troubling comments you continue to make under think Pieces like this.
    Now i dont normally comment. I just frolic through the articles. some I like and some that are hard for me to digest. but my god! there is no digestion In your comments here in THE slightest . Its like your itching to just go in oh this with out question. You and many various people who comment ain’t even eating the food ?. At least throw it up and not pretend to eat it then throw it in the trash. If I don’t care for an artical I’m not attacking and Undermining somones spiritually there relationship God, with THEIR MANHOOD or WOMANHOOD, THEIR HUMANITY THIER INTELLIGENCE. I’m instead ignorring or friggin praying that they understand. Or im thinking “hmmm maybe I don’t get it bc it’s a tough area for me.”

    But I have seen u frequently and your comments are almost always harassing jamar and writers who write heavy topics regarding race in the church.
    You can’t harass somone into thinking about this the same way you do just bc you think your closest to correctness. that to me is supremacy of knowledge. Thats expressing or alluding that knowledge ( Especially from someone who is different than you) is More tainted and untrustworthy Based on bias.
    BUT if it not that then kudos! Maybe you should say what you need to say more nicely ??‍♀️ shoot I don’t know?!

  9. Thomas W.

    Ms Annie, Who are you referring to, if I may ask?

  10. Annie C. Burley

    Beau York* my bad not “bo”. But I wasn’t joking when I said everyone. The website designer can talk on it ???.

  11. Annie C. Burley

    Jemar and everyone in the pass the Mic crew truths table, bo, everyone!! Can you talk and discus suprmacy of knowlege amongst white Christians with love and wisdom pleeeeaaasssse. Thats all it is In these comments. They can’t see they are crucially blind in this area bc they are trained to be the center of pure “objectivity” of pure reason of pure wisdom. Thats all it is. Thats the danger.

  12. Thomas W.

    Also, watch the responses to Kanye West and Candace Owens this week.

    Maybe you can’t hear from the white evangelical crowd, but it’s interesting that Trump had the highest black voter support since Reagan if not higher. And I am honestly curious how that doesn’t break your own dissonance at least enough to shift your judgmentalism to a more open set of possibilities on the matter.

    Kanye gets it.

  13. Thomas W.

    “The presidential election of 2016 revealed more clearly than ever in the 21st century where the true loyalties of many white evangelicals rest. Eighty-one percent of those who identified as white evangelicals pulled the lever for the current president. Even a superficial glance at the president’s history before and during his time in office reveals a pattern of bigotry and immaturity. Yet a plurality of theologically and politically conservative white Christians have continued to support him. (You can add a link to an article here; there’s quite a few detailing this steady trend).”


    Israel spent 40 years wandering the desert due to their sinfulness. I’m not sure it’s best example, especially when they refused to listen to the 2 men who had a vastly different opinion on the matter at hand. Which do we often think we are, and who are we really?

    If we took a superficial glance at Jemar Tisby’s life, could we find you to be bigoted and immature? In Christ should we hold that against you? Should we then place shame and guilt on those who continue to support Jemar Tisby despite that bigotry and immaturity? I ask myself the same questions. We all should, as we’re all depraved sinners.

    As an example, and I’ll be blunt, the response you discuss in this article displays the immaturity of a child who takes their ball and goes home due to pride. We’ve all done that. We’ve all felt that way. The root of it isn’t color based, but natural to man.

    As another, at the end of the article you clearly value those who are struggling with this, and even white people who agree with you, but this can read to others as bigotry from you for those who don’t agree with you on their voting habits. And worse that the Christian who you perceive as struggling with or blind to their oppressive actions shouldn’t be in the same church with you. This is how churches split and segregate. Person A rejects Person B because of their sinfulness. Person A forgets he’s just as depraved and in need of Jesus. Jesus died for the oppressor.

    I listened to your podcast from post-election, and you resay it here about how you and others felt like no one listened to you. Maybe you are the Joshua or Caleb. Maybe they should have listened. But the odds are against all of us being Joshua or Calebs. The reality is that our own dissonance and biases blocks us from clarity and right judgment, and this includes you too. And you don’t seem to challenge yourself enough in this in these articles and podcasts. We can all find articles, and were all good at pacing those who agree with us.

    But what is worse to me is that the continual dredging up of white evangelical sins from your perspective and others are constantly held against them and never forgiven. True forgiveness does not look at people for their sins anymore. You dont find Joshua and Caleb opining about how the entire rest of Israel created a systemic, cyclic issue for 40 years. They are no longer counted against, and not to be constantly reminded of anymore than you remind your own spouse of how she failed you yesterday, today, or tomorrow (or vice versa). That’s true equality, and true value to others in the foundation of Christ and God’s image. It’s fine to talk about the past and how to move forward to counter issues that have become systemic, but this can be separated from projecting white guilt/shame and sins.

    One main reason they don’t listen to you, is because the value you placed on them is/was contingent on you being right. We all see through that, and you know how that feels when vice versa.

    I would love to sit down face to face with you and talk about these things. I’ve requested that before from you, without reply. Which is disappointing, as I appreciate how well you pace others and would love to have my own worldview challenged to shatter my biases and dissonance, I’m just not sure you do.

  14. Anthony J

    Thanks this echoes my experience

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