Evangelicalism and White-Centered Discipleship Part 1
White-centeredness highlights the actions of the majority culture as normal, authoritative, and foolproof. White supremacy, on the other hand, can be defined as the belief that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society. Lately there has been much conversation, and even scholarly works, around modern day white supremacy.
To ensure there will be no dismissal of very real concerns and problems that ethnic minorities face, it is important to define terms here. The misuse of words often conjures images of skin-heads, and burning crosses, and thus prompts many people to tune out the truth.
Racism no longer mainly rears its ugly head in the explicit, crude language and actions of racial slurs. It has evolved into something much more subtle, revealing itself in implicit biases, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, and systemic policies/practices baked into the very fabric of this country.
White-centeredness has not only had a profound effect within American society, but also on the American evangelical church. A brief historical recap would quickly reveal how predominantly white, evangelical American churches have been complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Most churches have shown such complicity not just by their direct actions, but by their inaction. Their silence only allows racist systems, policies, and people to sin for them.
Many POC love and serve Jesus in predominantly white Reformed churches, or mixed churches with predominantly white leadership. I praise God for that! But much like homogenous groups of whites in the world, the homogenous groups of whites inside the church, especially leaders, are largely blind to their own nuanced elitism and ethno-cultural preferences.
This blindness extends to their application of ethnocentrism into the lives of others through discipleship. POC have long been victims of white cultural norms shrouded in a veneer of biblical manhood and womanhood. This has caused many POC to leave churches feeling hurt and misunderstood, or to assimilate at the expense of what it means to follow Jesus in the context of their own culture and circumstances.
When white church leaders are ignorant or willfully blind to this, they end up thinking they are discipling their members to be more like Jesus when they are really discipling them to be more like middle-class, white men and women.
If these leaders remain blind to their own cultural preferences, then their members of color will become collateral damage—disciples (to some degree) of Jesus, while also disciples of white, middle-class cultural norms passing as biblical Christianity. Discipleship then becomes cultural assimilation for one, and cultural imperialism for the other.
What Do You Mean, Ameen?
Privilege usually blinds those who have it, because it masks itself as normalcy. It’s easy to think your culture’s way of doing things is normal and right when your culture is the most represented and affirmed in society. Of course, what’s normal for your culture is, in fact, abnormal for others. But blindness to this reality causes you to make your “normal” the standard for everyone else. White cultural dominance is perpetuated when white cultural norms are considered “normal” in society, and “biblical” in the church.
This Western version of Christianity makes the white way synonymous with the biblical way. For many white leaders, following Jesus means following the Bible, but unintentionally applying it according to their own cultural norms, particularly in regards to social justice,, appearance, vocation, and family dynamics.
On The Outside
For instance, white leaders may suggest that some POC change their appearance by acquiring a different style of dress. Urban apparel (sneakers, hats, baggy and/or ripped jeans, skinny jeans, extended t-shirts, hoodies, etc.) along with tattoos or piercings, are considered immature, grubby, or reminiscent of illegal lifestyles.
Having hair coloring, braids, dreadlocks, twists, or an afro can be discouraged as looking unprofessional and untamed, associated with unruliness and distraction. I know a black brother who cut off all of his hair because his white pastor told him he would look more professional that way.
A person’s vocabulary or dialect (e.g. Slang/Ebonics) may have to change in order to be perceived as educated and sophisticated, and thus “godly.” A person’s musical tastes may need to be tweaked in order to match the church’s musical taste, a major factor in what’s considered “proper worship.” Drum beating, hand clapping, foot stomping, tambourine shaking, and dancing tend to be associated with possessing poor doctrine. A preference for hip hop music is often perceived as ghetto, troublesome, and deviant. In other words, not conforming to white cultural norms often means you can’t be taken seriously in many white American churches.
Cookie Cutter Callings
White church leaders may even suggest the revision of their members’ vocations to something a bit more “respectable” or “missional.” The most ideal calling a man of God can have, then, is to be a full-time, vocational pastor or an overseas missionary. Another respectable call is to be a corporate professional, so long as he is teaching church history or Sunday school on the side.
Other callings are perhaps viewed as legitimate, but not as honorable as these. A man of color may believe biblical male leadership is limited to being a professor of theology, church planter, or missionary to every country and people group, except those in his own urban neighborhood.
The pressure is on for women of color as well. Too often has it been explicitly and implicitly suggested the highest calling for a woman of God is to be a wife and a stay-at-home mom who homeschools. She must also be a leader of a cell group or some other ministry at her church. The devotion of all her energy must be toward her husband, children, and home.
Her calling can be only to them, not also to the kingdom of God within society, her neighborhood, and her own passions. Any deviation from these models violates what is considered a truly biblical man or woman in many white church spaces.
These virulent norms bleed into marriage and family roles, creating a paradigm based off of middle-class, white cultural norms that are not everyone’s reality or desire. Men of color are left searching for the quintessential wife they will more easily find in predominantly white, middle-class spaces. This may contribute to the lack of black men marrying black women in their communities who don’t fit this mold of “biblical womanhood.”
These standards could possibly leave women of color expecting their husbands to provide enough for them to stay at home, and thus fulfill the supposed ultimate duty of womanhood. If this is the case, disillusionment is just around the corner when a husband simply can’t make enough money to provide for this lifestyle.
This concludes Part 1 of Evangelicalism and White-Centered Discipleship. Click here for Part 2!
1. Racism Without Racists – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva https://www.amazon.com/Racism-
2. Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars – Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews https://www.amazon.com/
3. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America – Christian Smith and Michael Emersonhttps://www.amazon.com/
4. The Next Evangelicalism – Soong-Chan Rah https://www.amazon.com/Next-
5. “Why The Gospel Doesn’t Oppose Social Justice” Charles Holmes Jr. https://thewitness.wpengine.com/
6. “Pass the Mic: Social Justice” Beau York https://thewitness.wpengine.com/
7. “What is Ebonics (African American English)?” – John R. Rickford http://www.linguisticsociety.
8. “Debatable: Is Christian Hip Hop Ungodly?” Joe Carter https://www.
6 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and White-Centered Discipleship Part 1”
I have to change in order to be perceived as educated and sophisticated, and thus “godly.”
Since the article specifically mentions reformed, pre-dominately white churches, I am curious how the regulative principle of worship comes into play in questions of worship style. If a church is reformed and holds to the regulative principle of worship, it seems that the question of “styles” of worship might (rightly) recede into the background. Are there any thoughts or resources that deal specifically with how the regulative principle would affect some of these questions and issues?
That is interesting Marcelo. I think all 1st generation immigrants will to one degree or another feel like strangers in a foreign land and they will never be able to fully share the feelings of their new homeland. I’m wondering if the 2nd generation Asians feel the same way? Do you see any reason why the 2nd generation should not be fully integrated into their homeland since it is indeed their homeland? Or do you think there are legitimist reasons why they too should feel like strangers?
Ameen, this is a great article and fascinating topic. Are you aware of an approach or model of discipleship that is more fitting for a POC? I’m a student at Capital Seminary & Graduate School, where Kevin Gushiken in our incoming Dean and he has an article called “Spiritual Formation and Multiethnic Congregations.” You can access it at http://www.mydarknight.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Spiritual-Formation-and-Multiethnic-Congregations.pdf. I would like to explore this and related topics more once my tenure as a student is complete. Having spent the last 13 years in three different churches, two, include my current church home being predominately white, I identify with the tug-of-war between the two cultures. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us.
This is interesting. In my church I have a lot of 1st generation Asian immigrants who go “white,” so to speak, at the thought of having to share feelings like white people. It seems there needs to be a discussion in the Kingdom of what it means to have true discipleship where Biblical truth is expressed outside of just one cultural norm.
Very helpful thoughts Ameen! I’m a white man who has attended predominantly white SBC churches my whole life.
The items you mention (style of dress, tattoos/piercings, hair styles, vocabulary/accent, worship styles, etc…) have often been seen by those with different styles, etc… as incompatible with “proper worship” (as defined by the tradition of the dominant culture in the room). Hopefully that’s increasingly a thing of the past.
Having worked for decades towards a culture of discipleship in churches (as a member of the laity) where the top 3 priorities are 1) preaching, 2) preaching, and 3) preaching (with a possible #4: the branding of the senior pastor for success outside of the local body), I share your frustration with anything that stops the authentic multiplication of disciples who make disciples.
In my case, “tradition” (i.e. “we’ve never done it that way” where “never” refers to the previous 30-50 years or so) was a major hurdle but one that could be graciously addressed as long as the senior leadership was open to change.
I look forward to your part 2.