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Where Are All the Black Evangelicals: The Rise of Woke Evangelicalism

John Richards

Been in the ‘burbs for quite some time,

But I still might hit up the gas station for some lemon heads and pork rinds,

And I live in multiple worlds, call me a hybrid because I’m so black,

A young theologian who educated but still be at that Chicken Shack.

Lecrae, Facts

Where Are They?

A Pew Research Religious Landscape survey found only 6% percent of Black Protestant Christians also identified as Evangelicals. On the other hand, 76% of White Protestants identified as Evangelicals. That might make some people feel some kind of way. But as my friend Ed Stetzer says, facts (and stats) don’t care about your feelings.

This leads to the obvious question. Where are all the Black Evangelicals? Are we moving in a direction where Black Evangelical is as oxymoronic as the phrase “true myth”? Are we at a point where the term Evangelical is now synonymous with White? God forbid. I would argue Black Evangelicals exist. They just don’t exist in the box we have created for them.

Let’s take a look at the historical shaping of Black Evangelicalism, where we find ourselves today, and where I believe the future of Black Evangelicalism is headed.

The Shaping of Black Evangelicalism

Historically, Black Evangelicalism has long tried to exist in a country where Black ancestors were treated as property. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation and decades of Civil Rights work and advances, Black Evangelicals have lived in the long shadow of White Evangelical constructs.

Dr. Anthea Butler, a fellow Fuller Seminary graduate, adds some great context to this discussion. In her talk she gave at Fuller, she notes, “the history of American Evangelicalism suffers from the problem of whiteness.”

By that she means, Evangelicalism has historically been associated with our White brothers and sisters in Christ. Black Christians have always lived in the peripheral vision of White Evangelicalism—our stories remaining unearthed and untold.

The battle for many Black Evangelicals has always been the fight against assimilation—losing one’s culture for the sake of “gospel unity.” The problem for many Blacks? White Evangelicals are never asked to assimilate. Their culture is seen as default—an out of the box factory setting that defines what it means to be Christian.

Bebbington and the Black Experience

Many believe the Bebbington quadrilateral best defines what it means to be an Evangelical. It identifies Evangelicals as Christians who share four main qualities:

  • Biblicism, a high regard and obedience to the Bible as ultimate authority;
  • Crucicentrism, a focus on Jesus’ crucifixion;
  • Conversionism, a belief that humans need to be converted; and
  • Activism, the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.

Many Christians who consider themselves evangelicals would render a hearty amen to each one of those identifying markers. Here’s the rub. Evangelicals have diverse opinions on how those identifying qualities are lived out.

I would argue the diversity of opinions have not had an impact on what it means to be an Evangelical.

Why? Because White Christians have historically controlled the Evangelical narrative. After the Civil Rights Movement, there was a move toward evangelicalism that focused primarily on moral issues. For many White evangelicals, there was a concerted effort to focus on issues like abortion, the war on drugs, and other perceived social issues. For them, racial issues ended with Brown vs. Board of Education.

On the other hand, African-American Evangelicals still felt like race was an important (and primary) issue to address. They knew the battle wasn’t over. They knew legislation doesn’t always bring transformation. The water fountains and signs may have been taken down, but our country’s sordid past still required addressing systemic issues that disproportionately impacted Black communities. From the start, White and Black Evangelicals were moving in different directions when it came to what it means to be Evangelical.

In fact, two separate organizations were formed to help “shape evangelicalism.” The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded in 1942. It was meant to serve as an umbrella organization, representing evangelical interests and views on a wide array of spiritual, social, cultural, and political issues. Conspicuously absent from past and current NAE membership are major African-American denominations and churches.

Founded in 1963, The National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA) was formed to represent the interests of African-American Evangelicals. The NBEA exists to promote “unity in diversity without forced conformity.” The NBEA has done great work and I love its President, Dr. Walter McCray. But I would argue there remains a void in defining, convening, and resourcing Woke Evangelicals.

And I think it’s important to continue to stoke the flame of Woke Evangelicalism. Why is this important? I think African-Americans are best positioned to embody all four identifying factors of Bebbington quadrilateral.

Pew Research recently revealed African-Americans have a high view of Scripture. A greater percentage of African-Americans also deemed religion to be important in their daily lives. (Biblicism).

As Dr. Butler notes, quoting Mark Noll, “Black Christians are the ones who have experienced the Cross most traumatically in American history, yet have not been included in the stories of Evangelicalism. (Crucicentrism).

The Historically Black Church has thrived, survived, and been inscribed in American history. This history includes a conversionist heritage little told in White Evangelicalism. For example, AME founder, Richard Allen, was as much a circuit rider as John Wesley. Yet, Allen and other Black evangelism forerunners are largely ignored in most evangelism narratives and models. (Conversionism).

African-Americans and activism has been synonymous in our country for centuries. It was a necessary practice for a community experiencing injustices at every turn. An activism tethered to the gospel needs Black voices to make it authentic (and not black voices who assimilate to White Evangelical ideas of activism). (Activism).

John Perkins, who lived to see the shaping of Evangelicalism, was in attendance at the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973 and signed the declaration. The statement was supposed to be the beginning of the recognition that Evangelicals had been involved in racism. It sought to lead Evangelicals toward recognizing the pains of social injustice as gospel issues.

Even Perkins has recognized that the effort fell short. He recently challenged the term Evangelical in a Wheaton chapel service saying, “I had to define evangelicalism from the Bible…The mission of the mission is to know God and make him known…That to me is an Evangelical.” He spoke of the need for discipleship (which includes tough conversations on race). Perkins went on to say that this isn’t how mainline Evangelicalism presently identifies itself (at least in practice). He lamented that Evangelicalism is now more ideological than it is biblical.

Defining Wokeness

We’ve already discussed what true evangelicalism means, but what does to it mean to be woke?

Amid racial tensions created by national reports of Black men and women killed by police, a new generation of social justice pioneers emerged. These Gospel-centered advocates for change lamented the silence of their White Evangelical brothers and sisters. It was then, in my opinion, that Woke Evangelicalism emerged.

The term “woke” has been tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase “Stay Woke” has accompanied many thought pieces and social media conversations surrounding racial injustice, mass incarceration, and other matters that disproportionately impact minority communities. In fact, there are quizzes out there to test how woke you are.

Some White Evangelicals reject the idea of wokeness as being too aligned with the Black Lives Matter Movement’s founders. Let’s be clear here. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t belong to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, it belonged to a people. In the same way, wokeness doesn’t belong to an organization (or website), it belongs to a people: a culture that has been awakened by the injustices happening around it.

Characteristics of Woke Evangelicalism

At the very least, I’ve seen Woke Evangelicalism defined by these five characteristics:

1. They Possess An Embodied Theology

Woke Evangelicals model the life of the Word made flesh (John 1:14) and work toward true incarnational gospel proclamation.

2. They are Actively Involved in Culture Making and Shaping

Woke Evangelicals blow the lid off of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture taxonomy and redefine what Christ Transforming Culture means.

3. They Live in “Orthodoxy Tension”

Orthodoxy, to most, was shaped by White theologians disconnected from the minority experience. Drawing from the positive qualities of much of that orthodoxy, Woke Evangelicals seek to add their voices and concerns to the conversation on what it means to be orthodox in sharing and living out the Christian faith.

4. They Have a Willingness to Disrupt Harmful Theological Constructs

Woke Evangelicals confront terms long used in Evangelicalism and point out their deficiencies to help move toward a more wholistic understanding.

5. They Possess a Willingness to Critique and Learn from Failures of the Champions of the Faith

Evangelicalism has long held prominent figures as “above reproach” when it came to offering critique and learning from their failures. Woke Evangelicals are not hesitant to analyze and critique perceived champions of the Christian faith.

This list is by no means exhaustive. And I’m still processing the characteristics and DNA of this new, necessary movement. But it’s a start. And I’m hopeful this new movement continues to challenge the status quo.

The Future

I’m excited about the future of Black Evangelicalism. And I’m not ready to give up on the phrase yet. This world very much still needs to gospel. And I’m confident no one has a monopoly on this Good News—the evangelion of Jesus Christ.

I believe Woke Evangelicals will be important to the future of effective gospel witness in North America. I anticipate some very tough conversations in the years to come. The only question that remains: How uncomfortable are White Evangelicals willing to get for the sake of effective gospel witness?

17 thoughts on “Where Are All the Black Evangelicals: The Rise of Woke Evangelicalism

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  10. Jaye Pool

    Good read – I’m glad I found this blog and site!

    Part of this discussion is understanding what these numbers actually mean. I’m intimately familiar with Gallup, Pew, and other national data sets, as I researched American Christianity (especially white evangelicals and black Protestants) before earning my PhD and leaving academia.

    The numbers that we’re seeing here in terms of black people labeled as “evangelical” is more due to how identification is classified than any dearth of black evangelicals. The way Gallup and other polling organizations classify “evangelical” in their data is most often by “belonging” rather than “belief.” Church denominations considered “evangelical” typically exclude historically Black denominations. Even when “belief” is used to define “evangelical,” black Christians are separated from the data and grouped as “black Protestants.”

    Why does this happen? Part of it is because black people are typically underrepresented in polling samples. So for statistical purposes, if you split us out, there aren’t enough of us for results involving black protestants to mean anything (low statistical significance / low-N for stats nerds reading this). The other reason is that due to the historical segregation of the American church (and it wasn’t just in the South!), there is some utility / purpose in splitting out black denominations from white ones. I know it definitely helped to have the data structured this way when I did my research for theoretical purposes. It does have the downside of missing the nuances and diversity in black American Christianity, though.

    If we look at specialized data on doctrinal and theological beliefs, there tends to be a great deal in common between black Protestants (as defined by the pollsters) and white evangelicals. So I would agree that there are a lot more black evangelicals than the data would show. It’s just that the 6 percent are likely black evangelicals attending white evangelical churches/denominations.

  11. Padremcfly

    John, I have read this and tried to understand. I have some questions: 1) What are the social justice “ends” ?; 2) I was deployed to Turkey for a year with the military. I toured many areas: Galatia, Colossae, Philippi, Neopolis, Cappadocia, etc. The origin of Orthodoxy was defined there – by people of color. As it moved East and West it did not change (until 1054 over one clause in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed). So how do you claim that “white evangelicals” defined “Orthodoxy?” What does that mean? What elements of the historical Orthodoxy, defined by people of color, as it came West are you saying are incorrect? 3) I don’t think Urban monikers are helpful. Saying one is “woke” is not only broken language (which will diminish its impact), it will become a “trigger” for Caucasian (not white. No one is the color of your computer screen) evangelicals. It will be resisted before its heard. These are sincere questions.

  12. E L

    12-14-2017

    Paul the apostle said in I Corinthians 10:23-11:1, “follow (some translations say imitate) me as I follow (imitate) Christ”. The real problem as I see it: What reliable bible translation do you read that can define what an evangelical is? Or is the case that “evangelicals” are trying to define what a Christian is. I refer you to Matthew 16:13-20, John 3:16 and Romans 10:8-13.

    Perhaps the real reason every “traditional” Christian Church is the USA (and most likely in most Western Christian nations) are shrinking is that we are not heeding the call to “Go” and “Lo” in Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Acts 1-28. I’m referring to “evangelism” not being an “evangelical”. Evangelism is biblical, evangelical is……???? You decide.

    The only way that I know to define who a Christian is to obediently hear the call Jesus the Christ to His first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22: “Follow Me, and I will make you followers of men.”

    Christian Hymn: “They will know that we are Christians by our love (I Corinthians 13)”. I’d say that sounds like a pretty good indicator. Don’t you think?
    If my memory serves me right (I’ll look it up after this brief post),
    one of the five “Solas” is, “Christ and Christ Alone (Martin Luther)”. I guess this is much too complex for today’s evangelical (and some traditional) Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Non-Denominational theologians. Perhaps this is why we have such a high number of None’s within every cultural division in our society today. Lot’s of confusion about who Jesus really is (Matthew 16:13-20).

    As one of my young bright campus ministry students once reminded me, some smart professors and educated administrators at one of the local universities, “Only Jesus Saves (Romans 10:8-13)!” She seems to be doing well living the Christian life in these very tough times.

    How do I spell justice? J-O-Y. Jesus-O-Yes. Thanks for the stimulating read!

    Be blessed during Advent/Christmas!

  13. Blake

    The moment you define orthodoxy as some how the possession of whites you lost me. It is an excellent way to smuggle in heresy through the postmodern use of oppression narratives. Pardon my skepticism about tearing down ideas not because of their truth or falsity but because of the feels.

  14. Toviyah

    We give billions of dollars to Israel while it provides government funded abortions. Pro-Life Hyporcrisy? (p.s. google still works, try it)

    Toviyah

  15. B

    By the numbers and placement of service providers, abortion is absolutely a racial issue that disproportionately affects black babies. May the new black evangelicals challenge liberal orthodoxy where it counts too. I say that because “wokeness” relates to the social justice/critical race theory/neomarxist/liberation theology wave that typically adheres to leftist ideas without always considering their racist underpinnings or unintended consequences.

  16. Steven Douglas

    Mr. Richards,
    First of all I want to thank you for sharing the struggles and the lament of brothers and sisters in Christ; and also for your thorough definitions. I am in agreement with your assessment of the situation.

    As an Evangelical who happens to be white and from the ‘burbs, but who grew up with black friends and intimately familiar with a different viewpoint, I am left with internally competing reactions.

    On one hand, I can acknowledge that black voices have often not been at the Evangelical table, and white interests (which you have graciously pointed out are not always intended to be white interests) have often carried the conversations. On the other hand, this is deeper than disinclusion by whites. In my experience of the situation I have seen at least as strong of an internal black movement away from Evangelical theology among black brothers and sisters toward charismatic movements and toward prosperity theology. Many who have been interested in racial reconciliation recommended I stay away from the study of theology. They saw something inherently divisive about it. I have to say, given our shared history, that isn’t surprising. But we need to acknowledge there are some fundamental interests that are in competition that prevent many attempts at reconciliation and movement forward together – from both sides.

    Also, as with the critics you mentioned in your article, I am gun-shy about borrowing from Black Lives Matter and other interest groups. They are recognizing a problem, but their solution is not necessarily based in the Bible. When BLM requires reparations and suggests punching white people who are not immediately supportive in the face (because they are white, and because they are not supportive of giving away their resources), we have a racially-motivated, angst-fueling condition that demands others submit. That is as unchrist-like as white people who demand black people submit to their rules. The way we communicate needs to change, but I’m not sure borrowing from Ta-Nahesi Coates and BLM is the answer.

    As I have told my white friends and family members, it will require giving up feelings of white superiority and assumptions about how we need to do things, and a giving up of white culture in favor of Jesus’ new culture (which are not the same), but it will require the same of black people too.

    I’ll admit it is convenient to say that as a white person, and in this case the color of my skin gets in the way. There is so much pain. But my continued hope is that we will remain together and not divided, that we can truly learn from each other, and voices like Le Crae’s, and yours, will be valued among Evangelicals of every color and commitment. May we follow Jesus, not culture. May we not have divisions among us. May we find common brotherhood in the Spirit, beyond blood, recognizing we both are wild olive shoots grafted into a wholly other, cultivated trunk. And may we find a love for each other that basks in the love that Christ has for all of us which makes us so satisfied in Him that we need not hang onto any other identity.

    In sincere love and brotherhood,
    Steve Douglas

  17. Carla

    Black Evangelicals are where we have always been. We are in our homes, communities, and churches spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. We don’t have time to worry about labels (woke, Evangelical, or even “black”). We are at work trying to reach an increasingly lost generation and hopefully the generations that will come after them. We are not concerned with our platform, book deals, or church obligations the way so many white Evangelicals are. This is not to say that white Evangelicals are not at work. However, so many seem to be much more concerned about their title as Evangelical than actually being an Evangelical. When I was in the 7th grade a man I only know to this day as Brother Gary came to our home. He asked my mother, who was a Christian, if he could speak to my older brother. Brother Gary was the friend of my brother’s schoolmate. My brother was having problems at school and his friend thought Brother Gary might help. I sat at the dining room table doing my homework, pretending not to listen to the conversation between my older brother and this mysterious stranger who came out of nowhere seemingly. My mother had five children and a raging alcoholic husband. We were impoverished and abused. My father forbade my mother to attend church or to take us to church. Our mother taught us to read the Bible, pray, and obey God but beyond her influence, we did not know God. God, using a 9th grade girl, sent Brother Gary to our home. Brother Gary got straight to the point with my brother and asked him if he died tonight what would he say to God when he got to heaven. My brother said he did not know. Brother Gary told my brother that he could know and proceeded to share the gospel with him. He prayed with my brother and gave him some Bible materials to read. He then turned his attention to me and went through the same sharing with me. I can’t say I became saved that day. But the seed my mother planted was helped along quite a bit by Brother Gary that day. Somehow this man with the serious face and wonderful message drove my mother’s words about the love and faithfulness of Christ deeper into my heart and spirit. Over the years I saw Brother Gary all over town with the same tattered Bible that he’d read to me from in his hand. The Bible tracts and handouts were still hanging out of his Bible and his worn briefcase. I saw him at city hall, the hospital, or and at the bus station. This man spent his life walking the streets of my small, impoverished, midwestern town reaching into the minds and hearts of young black kids just like me. He was not eloquent, very educated, well-known, or rich. But he was an Evangelical yet never called himself anything other than ‘Brother Gary.’ He literally went out every day to feed Jesus’ flock. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ‘Brother Garys’ all over the black community. They are hard at work without resources, college degrees, or titles to make themselves appear a certain way to others. As an African American woman I wear many labels, none of my choosing, to be honest. I refuse to worry about if white people (or any people) think I or my brothers or sisters out here working to get spread the Good News are woke or evangelical. There are more black Evangelicals out here than you’d think. They’re usually not the types that the Gallup poll or Christian polling outfits call but they are there. God bless you for what you do. Please don’t get sidetracked by labels, titles, or foolish musings about these things. Sadly the title of Evangelical has been usurped by a powerful and divisive political organization that has far, far, more damage than good.

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