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There Has To Be A Promised Land: Why Black Christians Should Leave White Evangelicalism

Claude Ball

“Don’t worry about the fighting, worry more when the fighting stops.” – #blackAF

On March 9, 2018, Campbell Robertson beautifully wrote the viral New York Times article: A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. Though at the time, I was on staff at a majority white Presbyterian church and the thought of leaving was not on my mind, I was greatly impacted by that piece. I was youthful and optimistic in my theology and my current experience felt unique enough that I was hopeful in our work. I had a growing biblical grasp on ethnic unity in the church and what it would take to see this hope of the multi-ethnic church realized. I even preached it a few times from the pulpit that I was given great freedom to be myself—a growing Black preacher and theologian.

I was a student of that hope. I consumed different types of media on this topic from articles, Twitter punch-lines, books, and sermons. I had brainstormed ideas around changing worship music, whether to address the “dead air” during song transitions, and whether to sing Fred Hammond or “gospelize” an old hymn, in hopes of getting more Black people to show up. But the more I sat and dreamed, discussed, strategized, I ultimately had to face a tough reality.

White Christianity Clashed with My Black Identity

I was raised in a traditional Black church. The way I approach the ENTIRE church experience is different from my white brothers and sisters. The way I valued the Sunday morning worship gathering was different. How I understood my tangible need for the rest of the church community was different. How I know my voice and body are to engage in the gathering was different. The way I responded to the preaching was different.

Now, these differences were supposed to serve as wisdom in how to help change culture at this church so it would be more attractive to people like me. However, the Black church experience cannot be taught, and from my experience, it couldn’t be imagined to the white Christian mind either. Because when I would try to cultivate conversations around rethinking community, service, corporate worship, and preaching, I was often met with resistance wrapped in a bow of Christian conviction or Christian “explain away-isms.”

Sometime in their lives, many white Christians had learned that moving your body, engaging the preacher, needing the rest of the church, was an unnecessary distraction, that it was unhealthy and therefore prohibited. I asked myself: “Why is something so normal in my Christian upbringing inappropriate and sinful in theirs?” This was the clash.

American Lust Over Black Culture

Another clash I experienced in the multi-ethnic church conversation and pursuit is the typical American lust over Black culture and Black bodies. This is typically seen in the value of hip-hop in pop culture, or the way it’s often our Black bodies that entertains them. This shows up in the multi-ethnic church conversation in the suggestion of changing the worship music.

At this church, I suggested our white worship team play more Gospel songs—and they listened. No fault to them, but I soon realized it was another way of commodifying our Black experience. It was as shallow as an ad agency writing a rap song to reach the Black community. I undervalued our culture and people to think that any musician could just pick up a Fred Hammond bass line, or sing with the soul of Tasha Cobb. When they eventually played the songs, I remember being greatly unimpressed and discouraged because it wasn’t the same. It was offering an off-brand of your favorite cereal.

What I didn’t consider is that it’s not just the song alone, but it’s the heart and soul of the Black folks that embodied it. It was the experience, not just from the stage but also the common suffering of the people singing along with you. It was discouraging because when we would sing the upbeat Gospel song, it was still in the context of the frozen, unseasoned white worship culture of the congregation. This was yet another clash.

The Consideration for Separation

My time doing this work was short, mainly because I realized the tough reality that I was inviting others like myself to face the fact that the white evangelical church merely wanting to be more diverse is and will never be enough. I’d honestly go so far as to plead with them to stop hiring and inviting us to help them pursue it. Here’s why:

White Christian America’s hyper-individualism will always struggle to understand that they belong to a collective known as white evangelicalism. White evangelicalism is built in the second-hand smoke of the burning cross of white supremacy and many of their core values are contrary to our Black identity. Individualism, moralism, false binaries, perfectionism, and so many others all limit their ability to love and serve us well.

And what we can’t get over is the horrible past of white evangelism; that trauma is in our bodies. We feel it every time a Black man is murdered in the streets by a police officer. I felt it acutely after the 2016 election. We carry that trauma in our bodies and we bring it into their churches, hoping they can help us feel sane and whole. And ya’ll, I just don’t think they can provide a home for us. I am arguing that the tradeoffs we put up with for the sake of diversity are not enough anymore.

The soul of the Black church is in many of us. And if you hadn’t experienced it, I invite you to explore it. This is why I’m considering a separation from white evangelical churches. Because I need the soul of the Black church.

I need the beauty that comes with common suffering; the communal joy of the Lord when we can shout that we don’t look like what we been through; the unapologetic nature of being Black in America. The absence of code-switching in the ONLY place I have the authority and invitation to bring my whole self to worship a brown-skinned Jesus that I know I love. I need the dignity of the Black church and a place where I don’t have to argue and explain the value of us. I am sure you need this too.

There Has to be a Promised Land

Maybe you’re like me and you have some valid issues with the Black church. Many of us do. But what I realized is that I was far more willing to be a missionary or a culture changer in a majority white denomination than I have been for the Black church.

I’m not romanticizing Black church denominations because of course, there are sin and shortcomings in them all. But I was willing to put up with a white denomination’s sinful baggage for the sake of the Gospel; why can’t I do that for my own? I want to deal with different baggage and problems; helping white folks understand and appreciate us is not a problem I care to solve anymore. I will no longer work hard to defend the humanity of Black people in white Christian spaces.

Imagine the talent and intellect we are wasting arguing for our humanity in white Christian spaces when we could be developing and creating robust theology so we can have more theologians that look like us. Imagine the wonderful worship music we could make if we weren’t trying to make Black but “acceptable” white Christian music? Can you imagine the tapestry of Black people we could reach if we weren’t explaining why the Black Lives Matter movement is worthy of being supported?

My consideration for separation comes from my understanding of design limits. Besides being a pastor and writer, I am also a digital designer. A common quote amongst designers is that the best ideas sometimes come from desperation because sometimes you have to remove certain comforts and ideologies of what can and can’t work to have fresh ideas. Am I encouraging disunity and/or segregation? I don’t know yet. I’m willing to wander in the wilderness a little while, knowing that God is still with us.

And if the promised land doesn’t exist, our next talk might be around creating our own land to call home.

 

18 thoughts on “There Has To Be A Promised Land: Why Black Christians Should Leave White Evangelicalism

  1. Jean Givan

    Just had a mini version of this article/convo with my dad. On point. Thanks

  2. Scott Hill

    I agree with you for the most part. I’ve struggled with the efforts of white churches to “diversify” their audience because every culture has something unique about it and I believe that is one of the things that makes the universal church great. I grew up around Black churches and have a great appreciation for much of what you describe but it’s not my preference for a worship service. and I do think cultural preference should be given serious consideration.

    One particular issue with your article is that your assessment of white evangelicalism breathing the second had smoke of white supremacy is an unfair assessment of the movement as a whole and where it is today. It leaves the white church with nowhere to go and no way to fix that issue. As if it is somehow forever stuck in the Jim Crow era and the Gospel hasn’t progressed the white church in any way.

    The biggest disconnect between the two groups in relation to identity. You bring up the Black experience and Black church and Black identity, which is fine but can be taken too far in my opinion because our identity should be tied more to Christ than culture. Though I am not saying we are disconnected from culture once we become born again Christians. I’m saying that white evangelicals don’t view the world in terms of racial identity. I’m told we should but we don’t and there is no fixing that. That is if it evens needs to be fixed. Even using a capital W in print isn’t going to fix it. I don’t speak or think in terms of my “white” church. I have experiences not white experiences. My church is pretty good ethnic cross-section of our community, which is mostly white. But the other ethnicities, including black people, come there because they fit, not because we are pushing diversity. They fit our church culture because their own experience as a black person doesn’t match your experience. It matches our church and that is also their black experience.

  3. Jason Guidry

    I can appreciate honesty and the culture shock, that often accompanies leaving a place of familiarity and preference like the Black Church. One of the primary challenges I have experienced, is the lack of understanding of the history of the black Church in America, beyond the Civil Rights movement. Social Justice and/or rather the social dynamics and implications of full personhood and respect of, is a Gospel issue. Galatians 3:28,Titus 2:11, show that God has appeared to all. The need to color Jesus as White and/or Black or other misses the central point. Idolatry can be easily had here. We must be mindful that division exists and we (all who call on the name of Christ), must be willing to lay down our hermeneutic of suspicion, or delay our interpretation of it. Yes call out hypocrisy when needed, but let us check or eyes also for beams. Call and response is powerful, but it must be biblical and not just cathartic. Psychological principles and sociological practices, must not prevent us from meeting with the Prince of Peace, in prayer and His preached word. In many predominantly white local church, that are conservative, they must make space for lament, honest conversations about racism and the lingering effects of our sinful divisions, and the mortification and killing of sin we all have to do. Only the Triune God, and the effectual work of the Spirit, can help us, be vulnerable and yet, sensitive to others plights and burdens. This is true Christian work and values. May we cast our burdens on the Lord, and then obediently walk in unity with others, who don’t look like us. The Great Commission calls us forth all as missionaries, in a world collapsing in outself. Grace and Peace to you Brother Claude, May the Lord renew your strength.

  4. Faith Thompson

    Much needed. Thank you!

  5. lfeher

    I am an old white Christian lady. I don’t know if this will make any sense to you, but I think that the white evangelical’s unconditional support for Trump is much the same as the Jews choosing Barabbas over Jesus.

    In fact I found your missive here by doing a google search on why white evangelical christians don’t consider people of color as good a christian as they see themselves.

    I asked this question because I had seen them on TV prophesying a huge Trump victory before the election and after Trump lost how they can’t cannot accept his loss. THEY PRAYED!!! So, how then could he have lost? Why, I asked myself, why can’t they understand that while they were praying for Trump to win that Black Christians and Christians of color were praying for him to lose. My only guess would have to be that they don’t see the faith of blacks and people of color as as good or as genuine or as sincere as their own. It doesn’t even occur to them that maybe Trump lost because other “Christians, black Christians” were also praying but for the outcome that actually happened. They don’t even consider the idea that Trumps loss was the answer to actual Christian prayers because they weren’t “their” Christian prayers.
    They know that Trump is more like Barabbas than Jesus. They know he is not a believer. They know he wantonly sins and feels no need or desire to repent because he is not a believer. They know what he’s like. And yet…
    Today while I was praying about this I really felt how self righteous and arrogant their faith is. I think they have a Jewish complex. Meaning they feel “chosen/special” and that concept has blinded them to the faith of the “other”.

  6. Leon James Hargreaves

    Should Trump win the elections supported by the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christendom, the need for any kind of reconciliation would become null and void. Black people are tired. We are tired of the false declarations of repentance for racism. We are tired of those who revert to old mindsets and failure to understand the 400 years pain of the legacy of white supremacy on our black bodies and souls. The black church is our refuge from the world of white supremacy and racism. For all its faults, the black church is a safe space for us. We don’t feel as though we have to prove a point or measure our worth as human beings against racism’s grading system. We left the white church because we could no longer breathe there. I don’t know if whites coming to black church will solve anything. I don’t want to work anymore for acceptance. The horse has truly bolted.

  7. A White Brother

    Thanks for writing this. I really appreciated reading it, and it’s started me off on some (hopefully) profitable thoughts. For example, there has been a general understanding that desegregation is good, that we should enjoy the diversity that God created in the bride of Christ as we come together to worship Him as a congregation. However, it hit me – as a white man – that the expectation thus far has been that black people would go and diversify white churches. I think the desired end result is worthy of pursuit, but I’m disheartened at how little effort I’ve put into pursuing it. I’ve tried to play the role of welcoming the sojourner (to the best of my ability), but not the sojourner himself.
    Should a church consider how to welcome those outside their majority culture? I would say, “most definitely!” But should I, a lay member of a white church, be so caught up in that idea that I don’t consider meeting my brothers and sisters in their own culture and choosing to be the “outsider” instead? What kind of brother am I, if I’m not willing to do what I’m asking my siblings to do? Of course, taking my family and leaving my church family that I love is no small deal, but is it worth it?
    That said, I guess I’d be interested in any thoughts that my siblings of color here may have on this: how would you feel if your majority black church started to get new white members? Ideally, these white folks would be coming with open minds ready to join a culture, not coming with an agenda to convert it to their own. Of course, it would be a struggle of its own, but would it be worth it? Would you be excited, afraid, uncomfortable, …?
    I’m doing my best to love you all, sibs, and I apologize for when I don’t. Know that my intentions are good!

  8. Nia

    I am sorry that you, Claude, have had such a difficult time in your church community. The church as a whole has struggled with being real in so many ways, but my hope is that moving forward, we can see more genuineness and grace in the days to come, because people like you have the courage to speak up. There is definitely a lot of work to be done! Individualism, perfectionism, moralism, all these things you mentioned are very real problems that need to be addressed.

    One thing I did notice though, and please don’t take this the wrong way. It worried me when you said, “The absence of code-switching in the ONLY place I have the authority and invitation to bring my whole self to worship a brown-skinned Jesus that I know I love.”

    What if Jesus was white? Would you feel the same way about him? Is his skin color crucial to your faith? If you are seeking salvation from blackness alongside Jesus Christ and not Him alone, this will crush you, because salvation ONLY comes from God. Not worship services, not anything any human could do. Be angry. Lament. Leave the church with too many white people if you have to, but don’t do it to jump from one church to the next, seeking a god that isn’t Jesus.

    Obviously, if this isn’t the case, then no problem. I just don’t want you or anyone else to be hurt by the lies that so many of us are getting caught up in these days. Times are hard. Let us disagree and still hold on to one another as the body of Christ, remembering the undeserved grace he has given to all of us, so that we can, in turn, show that grace to one another.

  9. Toney

    I find it difficult to say that we serve the Triune God with so much cultural, ethnic and racial disparity. As we become a new creation in Christ Jesus, old things should pass away. America has and continue to deal with the ugly issue of racial disparity. It seems that the church should be further along than the World. Our relationship with Christ is BIGGER than our religious and historical traditions.

  10. Leon James Hargreaves

    I can truly relate to your article. I’m a black South African who’s left “Christianity” nine years ago. Growing up under one of the planets most racist systems taught me a lot about religious hypocrisy. On the other hand we’ve had fearless black clergy like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev Alan Boesak to name a few. They kept our ‘faith’ alive at a time when Calvinistic Christianity brutalized and dehumanized us based on the Color of our skins. Biblical verses were used to justify strict racial segregation and the supremacy of the white Boers who ruled with a violent iron fist. All of them were Christians confessing Jesus as the saviour yet treating us like a subhuman species. Many of us joined the “white” church during the reconciliation era of Nelson Mandela. I am still traumatized by the time I spent in the white church. From an initial warm reception things went downhill. Careless words filled with racist innuendo were the norm. I wondered why I always felt drained and exhausted after attending functions at these white led churches. We had to adopt the language of subservience in order not to upset anyone. Talk of racism would cause a severe backlash. The most famous words spoken were ” but I don’t see colour.” No one cared to ask us for forgiveness for the sins of apartheid. No one in the church cared to ask us about our lives under that system. Talk of racism was quickly quashed and one was marked as being a troublemaker. I left, I walked out and I never want to see the inside of a church again. I still believe, pray, read the Bible and share the few resources I have with my fellow human beings. However my white church experience and it’s trauma have soured me forever. I will never go back there. I’ve found succor among my own people and don’t feel the need to seek validation and worth in a Christianity that devalues my humanity based on race.

  11. Lee W.

    Great point! This article and ykur take, might explain, without shame, why (as it’s been often said) Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. It may simply be natural (much ado about nothing).

    The many cultures within the Church of true believers should then, recognizing our familial bond in Christ, be able to come together and fellowship with one another from time to time (worship, community event, special gathering, etc.) from time to time – and, of course, in the world, daily as we reach for the same goal and follow our great commission to make disciples of ALL nations.

    Note, this likely only works when TRUE believers (followers of Christ, obeyers of God, lovers of all) lead the various church bodies (in leadership positions). Otherwise, worldly ideas and attitudes get in the way and the church begins to look and act like the world (as we’ve all seen and experienced).
    True believers have to get comfortable calling out and rebuking wrongdoing and thinking (sin) in the church (as God commands) and not allowing it to take over, lest it to be the new face of the Church and tarnish the name of Christ (and Christianity) (as we are also seeing).

  12. LaDonna

    Absolutely agree with you!

  13. Igor Pashchuk

    “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
    As an immigrant from Ukraine who was born again after coming to the United States, I can relate. What I have found to be the rule of life for me is to follow where God leads. By God’s grace I have experienced unity in Christ in different churches. But, most of the time, I don’t fit. And, that’s OK. This world is not my home…

  14. once you go black

    I’m not so sure I know what you expected. You paint both white and black churches with a broad brush. But I’m more concerned about the brushes you paint black churches with. Plus, the article doesn’t talk about what’s wrong with “black” churches. Finally, as you are now intimately aware, sin is a human issue and white churches have the same problems black churches do. Really, and this goes for a lot of young black Christians today, you probably should have never undervalued and left the black church. I don’t know where you live, but maybe you need to find another black church, or learn how to use your gifts in black communities and churches. Or, just learn to feel at home in your white church. As you’ve correctly concluded, the vast majority of black Christians are not following you there.

  15. Josh

    Claude,

    I appreciate your thoughtful post and have been wrestling with my concept of Christian unity in the midst of great diversity these last few months. I am white and my wife is Hispanic. We have lived and ministered in predominantly white, rural communities for 17 years with various bumps and bruises along the way. This last year has been particularly difficult. I remain convinced that a church which brings together very different people around a shared commitment to Christ is a powerful witness in a divided world. Do you think this is possible? How are we different from the world around us if we cannot come together as a new community/culture centered on Christ? I am not asking to be argumentative but am genuinely wrestling with this after having the unity and culture I thought we were building in our small church blow up these last six months.

  16. a brother

    You’re not comfortable. I get it. I hear it.

    Black culture is meaningful to you. It’s valuable. It’s something that you cherish and is part of your life. Of course it is – it’s your culture.

    Is there a flip side? Is there a meaningful white culture that can be separated from racism? If so, is that culture valuable to those who live inside it? Should it be celebrated by those who believe it’s their culture? Should it be maintained? Should my nordic ancestors, who cames to the states after slavery was abolished, be able to maintain and celebrate their culture?

    My conclusion is that culture matters. Not matters, as in value (which of course it does). As in, creates natural lines of division. Division that isn’t unhealthy or immoral, or even ungodly. There is unity in the body of Christ even in this division. “Every tongue, tribe, and nation”. The Bible seems to indicate that these “tribes” exist and are not evil. Not forced segregation. Not oppression. Just people that are people who live and act most naturally with their own culture. After all, culture is good, right? This is multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism means many cultures. Cultures, by definition, are different from each other. So these differences must impact how people act and live.

    So is this all much ado about nothing?

  17. Todd

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and expressly them in a loving and sincere tone. I am also wrestling with the pathway forward for the Church in America. It seems that many (95% or more) white evangelical churches want to move to be more multiethnic (because it’s trendy and because demographic changes are making this imperative) without really understanding what’s involved and also what blessings lie on the other side of achieving this biblical reality. Mono-cultural Christians don’t realize how impoverished they are. Their God is small and tribal. Their growth trajectory is limited and so is their outreach potential.

    The Apostle Paul didn’t tell Jews and Greeks to go their own ways and do their own things. He rebuked ethnocentric thinking and actions. In Acts we see the apostles deal with an ethnic injustice by giving the offended group positions of power and leadership. I’m with you brother in wanting to protect and even exalt diverse cultural expressions of faith, worship, and practice, while also fighting for the unity of the body. It does seem to be the case that too many white evangelical leaders aren’t on board with this goal (God’s telus) and thus the disenfranchised members of Christ’s body need to mobilize and come together. I also recognize that the consequences of inaction or slow change will be experienced disproportionately (harm Black Christians more than Whites). So, please keep brainstorming and praying and fighting for this end goal. I’m a fellow sojourner with you on this journey, but a sojourner that hasn’t been as wounded so please hear my heart and acknowledgment that we are in this together but that doesn’t mean I’m equating our positions (since this would be dishonoring to you). Much love and prayers.

  18. Cherise Young

    This was a excellent piece. I’m having more and more of these types of conversations lately. At times it does feel as if we are asking to move backwards. And if we’re honest, it may be a necessary move back to the notion of separate but equal. Even with integration and talk of diversity, we’ve never really experienced the equal part. As my daughter put it, while some talk about diversity, they still regard the “other” as a visitor. I no longer wish to be a visitor in my own church.

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