by Jemar Tisby

Since the inception of RAAN, we have seen God use this ministry to encourage all kinds of people.  Many supporters are grateful for a site that offers trustworthy, biblical teaching.  Others have enjoyed reading content from new voices, and still others simply appreciate having a place on the web to dialogue and connect with other like-minded Christians.  Though RAAN has many strengths not everyone sees the benefit of having a Christian organization specifically focused on one ethnic group.

Brothers and sisters of various races question the use of “African American” in the title “Reformed African American Network”.  They ask, “Why do you have to include race at all?” Or, “Doesn’t an organization like RAAN build up the walls the Gospel tears down?” And, “What about other people?  Is every race or ethnicity going to have its own group?”

I can understand the concerns behind these questions.  Ethnic-specific forums are venues that make a point of focusing on the issues, concerns, and viewpoints of a particular ethnic group.  (And it’s worth noting RAAN includes contributors of different races, genders, and ages.) Although these groups can and should always be open to participation from people of other ethnicities, there are dangers.

The Dangers of Ethnic-Specific Groups

One danger of ethnic-specific groups is they may become exclusive.  What might begin as a meeting designed to encourage one another devolves into a “members only” club driving a wedge between members and outsiders of different ethnicities.

Another danger of ethnic-specific groups is they may lead to ethnic pride.  The Bible leaves no room for boasting in one’s ethnicity. “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me [the Lord]” (Jer. 9:23). Or if anyone boasts, it should be about others and their faith (2 Cor. 1:14). When people get together and talk about their own race or ethnicity they run the risk of succumbing to an unhealthy arrogance about this single aspect of their identity.

Despite the possibility of abuse, ethnic-specific groups can prove beneficial for people from all kinds of backgrounds.  Here are four reasons why groups concerned with with a particular ethnicity (like RAAN) are helpful.

  1. Ethnic-Specific Groups Provide a Sense of Solidarity

A person can often feel isolated when he or she is the only representative of particular racial or ethnic group.  This is frequently the case for African Americans who make up about 14% of the U.S. population.  If you add “Reformed” to that category the numbers are growing but still minuscule. So, most Christians who are Black and Reformed at some point wonder, “Is there anyone else out there like me?”

When I discovered Anthony Carter’s book, On Being Black and Reformed, I couldn’t believe it.  Not only did the book turn out to be a great read, but just knowing that there were other Black people who believed Reformed theology gave me a sense of community.  A network like RAAN provides that same gratification for many who are looking for others who are looking for a connection with those who share their theological convictions and ethnic or cultural background.

2. Ethnic-Specific Groups Can Address a Different Set of Core Concerns

Every society and organization has majority and minority groups.  By sheer numbers or predominant influence, the majority group tends to set the agenda.  Apart from an intentional effort by those in the majority, it is likely the concerns of minorities get only passing attention, if they get addressed at all.  Currently nearly all Reformed settings–websites, seminaries, conferences, networks–are majority White. So the concerns relevant to people in those communities get highlighted.

Ethnic-specific groups like RAAN allow a minority group–Reformed African Americans–space to determine the issues, questions, and needs that get “air time”.   Public education, abortion, incarceration rates, poverty, manhood, and other subjects affect African American communities differently than other communities. Making provisions for a specific racial or ethnic group helps ensure their unique core concerns are being addressed.

3. Ethnic-Specific Groups Encourage Engagement with the Majority Culture

As an African American I face the nearly constant pressure of being misunderstood, having to speak on behalf my entire race, and playing the role of “expert” on all things Black.  Add to this the fact that most of the stereotypes about Black males in this country are negative and you have some very tired individuals.  (See Anthony Bradley’s book, Black and Tired for more on this.)

Amidst constant questions about one’s identity and the vigilance needed to maneuver as a minority in a majority culture, ethnic-specific groups provide a moment to relax. It’s refreshing and affirming to be in a place where a certain level of cultural familiarity can be assumed.  After spending time in such a setting you feel empowered to go back to the majority group or culture and interact more confidently.

4. Ethnic-Specific Groups Can Expose Others to Different Perspectives

Specificity does not mean exclusivity.  A gathering place that is specifically focused on one ethnic group need not be exclusively for that ethnic group only. Many times people of other backgrounds want to learn more about a particular people’s experience.  I have personally been surprised and encouraged by countless White brothers and sisters who have expressed a humble and sincere desire to learn more about my social, cultural, and theological perspective as a Black person.

Many in the majority would welcome ethnic-specific groups simply because they can gain insight into another culture.  These groups should invite such involvement from others because it provides an opportunity to share their unique experiences in a positive way.

Ethnic-Specific Groups and the Gospel

The only way an ethnic-specific group can avoid the dangers and capitalize on the benefits of such fellowships is through the Gospel.  People who decide to gather around the concerns of a particular race or ethnicity must first gather around Christ.

Faith in Christ means that a person’s primary identity is as an adopted son or daughter of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  This identity as a child of God transcends all others.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Gal. 3:28).

As children of God we are free to acknowledge our differences and even celebrate them.  We can come together and discuss the unique benefits and struggles associated with being a certain ethnicity and not fear division.  We know that no matter our differences we are united in Christ.

All Christians, therefore, should feel free to participate and support ethnic-specific groups that root themselves in the Gospel of Jesus Christ who gathers His disciples from all nations (Mt. 28:19).