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In July 2012, I was at the Legacy Conference in Chicago in the middle of an animated debate about the name of then called the Reformed African American Network. It was mostly black folks and we were stereotypically loud. So loud, in fact, that a crowd gathered around the few of us engaged in the dialogue.

At that time, I argued passionately that both “Reformed” and “African American” had to be in the name. I wanted RAAN to be a bright, blinking billboard for African Americans who self-identified as Reformed. This was our core audience. They were people like me who were often the only African Americans in their college or seminary classes, their churches, or their Christian non-profit organizations.

Thankfully, we have largely succeeded in reaching our core constituents. Our website has had literally millions of views, each episode of our podcast gets downloaded thousands of times, and we have had the singular pleasure of meeting many of our readers and listeners in person. So many have expressed their thankfulness for an outlet where they can connect with others who share their same theological and cultural identities.

What many of us came to learn is that the word “Reformed” meant much more than a theological system. As we re-examined our mission and audience, we decided it was time to return to first principles.

Today, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we have a reform of our own to announce. The Reformed African American Network is changing its name to “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective.” Here’s why…

Witness Is Who We Are and What We Do

A name isn’t just a name. A name is about identity.

By including “Reformed” in our name, we indicated that a significant part of our identity was a theological system. An emphasis on clear doctrine is important, but it comes with inherent drawbacks. Identifying primarily with a set of theological standards tends to make faith overly intellectual and theoretical. It becomes less about people and more about ideological precision.

Highlighting theology alone also leans toward polemics as we debate the intricacies of belief and subtly determine whether a person is “Reformed enough” for our standards. Most importantly putting “Reformed” in our name draws sharp lines between “us” and “them.” It makes an organization more concerned with theological accuracy or error rather than faith in Christ and love for people.

While there is always a place for theological clarity, we did not want our work to end there.

Changing our name to The Witness identifies both who we are and what we do. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses” and so we are (Acts 1:8). We are witnesses to what God has done for humanity in and through Jesus Christ. A move away from a theological label is not a move away from historic Christianity. We still boldly preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).

At the same time witnessing is what we do. We bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and what he has done in our lives. In the pattern of our Savior, we proclaim liberty to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed (Luke 4:18). We witness to anyone who will listen of how God has changed our lives and how he can change theirs, too.

We Are a Black Christian Collective

Christianity is not some otherworldly religion that is only concerned with our spiritual lives. True faith acknowledges that our souls inhabit bodies and we experience the world in a physical and material way. So Christianity is also concerned with our reality as a people who have been marginalized due to the racial caste system in America.

We are a “black Christian collective” because we are made in the image of God and part of that image includes our melanated skin along with the culture and experiences that go along with it.

Black history begins long before contact with North America, but black people have had a unique experience in America due to the country’s past and present conception of race and human worth. From race-based chattel slavery, to legally-sanctioned segregation in Jim Crow, to ongoing forms of institutional racism, we have had to assert our lives matter. We have used phrases like “black and proud” and “black is beautiful” to insist on our full humanity. The Witness affirms the embodied experiences of black people as significant and within the scope of Christian dialogue and application.

As a “black Christian collective,” The Witness has returned to its original mission to serve black people. The move from “African American” to “black” acknowledges this endeavor is international scope. The Witness is for the entire African diaspora. We are also a collective in the sense that a variety of black Christians from different denominations, ages, regions, and experiences all contribute their perspectives. The Witness is not the voice of black Christians; it is the microphone that amplifies those who have often gone unheard.

This Will Be Messy

As much as we are attempting to articulate an approach to faith as black Christians in the current context, we have to admit this is a process and it will be messy. Our beliefs are never static. Even when it comes to the eternal truths of the Bible, we are constantly learning the depths of those truths and how to apply them in new situations.

The same is true of The Witness. As we learn what it means to be witnesses and how to witness, we will make mistakes. We will misspeak. We will misstep. And we are doing all of this publicly. Our writings and thoughts will be on display for others to evaluate, dissect, and criticize. We can count on controversy and, at times, the necessity for apologies. Yet as we endeavor to discover what it means to be black and Christian, we pray for the grace, wisdom, and patience of our readers.

This Is an Act of Faith

Whether under the name “Reformed African American Network” or “The Witness”, this ministry has always been an act of faith. From the moment we went live in 2011 to the present day, we have never been able to predict our path. Through personnel changes, the addition of a podcast, confrontations with racists, and the perpetual challenge of maturing as an organization, we have come to understand our mission more clearly.

By changing our name to The Witness, we take another step of faith. We are not certain of the outcome or of the unintended consequences of this act. Very little is clear and it is difficult to see through the fog of the future and our own ignorance. But this much is certain: We are witnesses who bear witness to our Savior.

Will you join us? Or as the preachers say, “Can I get a witness?”

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, and culture. He is the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. Jemar is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (forthcoming Jan ’19 from Zondervan) Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby

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