The Witness

The Journey from RAAN to “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective”

Jemar Tisby

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?”

24 thoughts on “The Journey from RAAN to “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective”

  1. Ashley

    No brother, this is VERY MUCH needed. I’m tired of people trying to erase “color” and pretend it doesn’t exist. It DOES exist. We are a people that have been through A LOT. Wherever we go there is hate against us. We’ve been at the bottom of everything. Our women are targeted stereotyped and told lies about their worth. Our little girls grow up hating their skin or trying to lighten their complexion (in America, the Caribbean, and Africa). We have to fight the feeling of inadequacy, we have to struggle with the fact that as a whole something is wrong with us, no matter where we are we are looked down on and have to face challenges that the average “lighter” man does not. In the back of our minds we wonder if God was ever for us, we wonder if this Christianity is ours or just given to us by our “lighter” brothers.

    Our struggle is unique to any other people in the entire world. Every “melanated” brother or sister knows this. We’ve learned to live life. Some of us ignore those questions in the back of our minds. Some of us just fit in with the rest and block it out. Some of us don’t even realize.

    But my point is, we NEED this. We really really need this. And I LOVE the name change because now it is more inclusive. Now Caribbeans don’t need to feel left out! And those who haven’t got a taste of the reformed life yet don’t have to feel intimidated. AND now it feels like WE are bringing something to the table. We aren’t just a bunch of converts following the “lighter” brother. We ALL have something to offer. God created us with a special purpose, a special gift, and a special cross to bear. And now understanding that, I can really love myself and I want to have the opportunity to be in touch with other black reformed (or not) believers who know the Word and know about God’s sovereignty. I want to have a network of believers that look like me so my little girl won’t grow up thinking that she is an outsider when it comes to the things of the Lord. Yes, we of course are one of the few melanin believers in our beautiful reformed church too; my daughter needs to see and be in connection with people that look like her. It is SO important. She needs to see black men leading, teaching, spreading truth, and being the strong men they were specially created to be. She needs to see loving gentle beautiful wise BLACK women that she can look up to. She needs to know that she is not an outcast, an extra, someone who does not belong. She needs to know, I need to know that WE DO bring something to the table and it IS needed and it IS beautiful and God designed us for this very purpose.

    And everyone is welcome! Lighter brothers, tan-ish brothers, yellow-ish brothers, red-ish brothers– all brothers and sisters! Right now Reformed–forgive my unpolitical wording– means white. So in order to make a change we need to change the narrative. When things even out we can stop making “black” groups, but until then we welcome the rainbow of brothers and sisters to join us in celebrating who we are and making a new face of Reformed Christianity (and welcoming others too). We welcome the rainbow of brothers to support us, understand our struggle, understand our gifts, and understand why we as a people need this to be done.

    God bless you all! God is faithful! His ways are not our ways, but He definitely knows what He is doing and knows why He created all of us the way He did. He loves us, and we all need to know that we have a really big role to play in HIS mission for us and the world.

  2. Dr. Robert Penny

    A thousand Amens, from a concerned white brother who teaches part time at a Bible College in Uganda! My students there are very open to the Biblical, reformed theology but would have a hard time wrapping their minds around the ethnic emphasis of a black “diaspora.” Many would almost give an arm to have the opportunity to be “marginalized” (Jenmar Tisby’s term) in America. I count myself “marginalized” in Uganda but I count all things but loss to serve the saved and the lost there. I don’t want to waste my time there worrying about it. There’s to much to do there and I’m hardly making a jot or tittle.

    I love your wonderful emphasis on the unity that we NOW have as brothers. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 3:28). If Paul were writing that sentence today, I believe he would add nor “white nor black.” Why be obsessed with past wrongs? It won’t do anything for the future.

  3. Tecoby Hines

    Beautiful written articles ( expected).
    looking forward to reading the content.

  4. Terry Spearman

    I found this site when looking for Reformed theology forums, and am quite intrigued . I am a graduate of RTS (1982, 1983) in Jackson, MS and taught second year Greek at Belhaven college upon graduation. What about people like me, who cannot identify as black Xns (far from it, having been raised white, with much privilege, in MS? And you’re right about the “whiteness” of most Reformed churches and many of them having racist backgrounds. I am in search of a racially diverse, integrated church, and have been for 20 years. When and where might such a creature exist? My world is so white.

  5. George Luke

    As one brown-skinned brother to other brown-skinned siblings, I’m discouraged by this, because I think it’s capitulating to a schema-mistake that we minority Christians often make in positioning our ethnic identity relative to our identity “in Christ.” Whereas for gender where the glory of diverse parts in being created male and female is united in marriage as Christ’s Bride, it seems that different ethnicities comes about in their cultural divisions as a consequence of rebellion at Babel and God’s victory over that rebellion through Jesus ending hostility between different cultures and uniting them into one new “Israel of God” which simultaneously is a crowd of people “from every tribe, tongue, and nation.” That is, cultural difference underneath the spread of all the families descended from Noah seem to be a consequence of our striving for equality with the God of heaven, and being reprimanded. Which makes Pentecost, and the reunification of our tongues to a common revealed object of worship, so beautiful and such a beautiful anticipation of the unity of the age to come!

    More succinctly, while gender is essential to our Image-bearing-ness, I’m uncertain of how to defend ethnic identity (“Black,” “White,” “Brown”) as more than a construct being overcome by God’s glory to make us one new “ethne” that forever bears the marks of rebellion and God’s mercy through our distinctiveness being conquered by uniting love. I find that often, the conception of race in America tends to have a retroactive effect on coloring our definitions for valuing ethnic distinctiveness, and that American Christians of every color are often guilty of ethnic idolatry that feeds into the very problem we’re trying to destroy: ethnic discrimination.

    But I’m willing to learn and aware that this is a difficult topic for our culture especially; would listening to the episode of the podcast corresponding to this day help in understanding the motives in dropping “Reformed”? Is it primarily because “Reformed” has been historically associated with white brothers and sisters in Christ, and you think it’ll be a stumbling block to more black brothers and sisters growing in grace? Do you have resources that would help me understand why dropping that label will help your mission to serve black Christians with the Gospel, especially when the Gospel (the body of doctrine communicating the Person and work of the Triune God) isn’t clear among white or black evangelicals right now?

    Thanks so much for charity and patience in reading the above. I do not at all mean to bruise any reeds, and I really do appreciate the work you have done through this ministry, in making the Reformed Gospel accessible to so many who have historically discarded it because of so many different variables, personal and systemic. Regardless of your choice in re-naming, I’m grateful for the Day that’s coming as we labor for the Gospel’s advance to every tribe, tongue, and nation, that we may all be one, as He is.

  6. Vuyi

    Love the mission! Where can I get info on having a piece considered for submission?

  7. Everett Thomas

    I only recently discovered your podcast, and only listened to it for the second time today, when you were announcing the name change. I chuckled when one of you (Tyler?) joked that he wondered how many listeners you would lose by dropping the “reformed” tag. I happen to be a white brother who cares very deeply about my black brothers and sisters. I was interested in the podcast in order to gain more insight into issues that you would hopefully discuss. Ironically, the “reformed” tag put me off a little. Although I’ve been reformed myself, I’ve changed some of my views as a consequence of my interaction with the larger Body of Christ. So, in an odd twist for me at least, the fact that you’re dropping “reformed” in recognition that there are other credible streams of orthodox Christianity makes me even more likely to look to you as a valuable resource. So, Amen brothers!

  8. William Douglas

    !) I appreciate the thoughts and understand — I believe — the point being made.

    2) I consider us both brothers and servants of the one true Savior. I hear in this announcement — and hope I am correct — that such is reciprocated.

    3) I would not seek to minimize your experience or unique perspective and appreciate that you are trying to say that Christ and salvation is THE reality out of which we speak and live — other things are smaller.

    4) is there to be a message for the non-black audience other than “Here is who we are and what life on our side of the wall is like?”

    5) Some affirmation/re-affirmation of gospel ID points is probably going to help the rest of us if we are still welcome.

    (My best to Otis Pickett)

  9. Bill Emanon

    Wass the haps Jemar? You need to get Ron Burns aka Thabiti Anyabwile on board this ship. When you start talking about the need for reformation of the black culture you’ll have some credibility , at least on “social” issues.

    But if you keep telling “blacks folks” (your phrase, not mine) that the problem is on the other side of the cultural divide, and their culture is just as valid as anyone else’s, then you and Ron-aka-Thabiti will continue to perpetuate minority politics and the non-gospel of “reverse racism”.

  10. Elodie Quetant

    Sending now!

  11. Sandy

    How can I be apart and contribute? Someone please email me.
    Thank you!!

  12. Edward Royster

    Yes! Great name change. A witness is someone who has seen a event and can speak to it. When we identify with Christ it has a command attached to it. Be a “Witness”. I find that the black Christian experience has moved too far from sharing our faith to just learning about our faith.

    Be blessed as you endeavor to enlighten the masses.

  13. Hans Rees

    Hi, been reading and following you since 2012 from Africa. Make you tent larger. Invite reformed christins in Africa to be part of this as well.

  14. Jonathan Newman

    May the Lord bless you and your ministry, using it to give sight to the blind and freedom to the captives!

  15. Jelani Greenidge

    I’m loving this change. I feel more directly that you’re speaking to me now, and I’m more likely to share what I read here, because I don’t have to deal with the baggage of what “reformed” means.

  16. Timothy Thomas

    Love the look. Love the mission. Love the Witness. Thank you.

  17. Carlos

    I came at first because I found out that there were other African Americans who were reformed and I needed to hear your voice even as I live overseas. You’ve got me hooked now and I’ll stay even with a name change.

  18. Kim

    I also thought the same about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  19. Conrad Deitrick

    Love it!

  20. Hansoo Jin

    Awesome! Thankful for your wisdom and payig for you all.

  21. Vaughn

    Thank you for the clarity around the name change. As soon as I saw The Witness I immediately thought about Jehovah Witness. Do you think there will be some confusion?

  22. Jenean Truesdell

    Beautiful! This is encouraging and a bold reminder that theology helps us understand God but isn’t our God. Praying for you all in this!

  23. Daniel Kleven

    I love it! This shift in a name captures perfectly the complex dynamics within Christianity in the 21st century. I came on board in part because of the “R” in RAAN — I’m gladly staying on board without it.

  24. Art Denney

    Press on!

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