Theology Christian Living Relationships/Family Identity

The White Messiah Complex

AJ Smith

If you’ve looked at my bio, you may have noticed something about me: I’m white. And I’m not urban white. I’m folk-music-and-chewing-tobacco white. Yet I live in the inner city and pastor at an inner city church.

Lately, there’s been some talk regarding white inner city church planters and pastors like myself. There aren’t many of us, but we are sometimes referred to as colonialists or imperialists. I don’t disagree with this assessment, however. From what I’ve seen, this accusation is often valid. I’d like to help my fellow white people avoid this stigma and serve better by learning from mistakes. First, let me emphasize that I am by no means an expert in the field, and I certainly don’t have it “all figured out.”

As a white person in the inner city, I have faced some unique challenges, and I’ve also had some excellent guidance along the way. If you are white and are interested in living or ministering in the inner city, or simply desire to have cross-cultural relationships, I’d like to share a few lessons that I’ve learned thus far.


There is a sad history of white Christians entering foreign contexts, imposing their culture on the indigenous people, and refusing to hand control over to them. This is often referred to as the “White Messiah Complex.”[1][2] It comes from the belief that, “We have all the answers and it’s our job to save these people.”

This approach to ministry has caused serious damage to missionary efforts throughout the world, including the inner city. And it is no surprise that there is a mistrust of white people in virtually all minority contexts. Therefore, if you are white and you desire lasting relationships and effective ministry in the inner city, please don’t move forward unless you’ve first submitted to minority leadership.

I’ve been blessed to have an African-American pastor as my spiritual father. Additionally, the vast majority of my colleagues, mentors, pastors, and coaches are African-American men who serve in the inner city. The guidance I’ve received from these men has been so valuable, and I’ve learned the importance of submitting to minority leadership time after time. What follows are just three lessons I’ve learned in my experience:

Humility: As I said before, white people have a history of withholding control from minorities. It speaks great volumes when you place yourself under a minority leader and sit and serve in that place for years. This is a rare occurrence. It is an act of humility and healing that shows respect in a way that words never could.

Education: If you want to minister in a non-white context, you must first learn how to be effective in that setting. There are so many incredible books and resources created by minority leaders that are often overlooked by seminaries. Thankfully, my mentors have equipped with me many of these resources, and I’ve been introduced to a number of black theologians. Additionally, my pastors and friends have been a tremendous help as I’ve sought to grow as a white preacher in a mostly black context.

Affirmation: I have already written a piece on discerning your call to ministry, and you can find it here. While you may find that you are in fact called to ministry, you must further discern whether you are called to inner city ministry. This process cannot be done apart from submission to minority leadership. Receiving a stamp of approval from minority leaders who have lived and served in the inner city must be an indispensable part of your affirmation process.


You cannot come into the inner city with a Rick Warren or Bill Hybels book and expect their methods to translate into this context. It doesn’t work that way. Church planting and pastoring in the inner city is unlike any other context. Methods that work in rural, suburban, and even urban contexts probably won’t take you very far in the inner city. Before you can effectively engage the neighborhood, you must first learn about it. Learn about the needs, the challenges, and the greatness that exists there. Ask a lot of questions. Talk to other pastors. Partner with schools and community organizations. You must be humble. You must submit to your context.


If you are in a minority context with minority leadership, racial discussions will occur much more frequently than you are used to. Don’t be surprised by this. Minorities have no choice, but to think and talk about race on a daily basis. Their ethnicity is an inescapable part of their existence that has been the basis of undeniable injustice. White people don’t talk about race as much because we aren’t affected by it. As one of my pastors frequently remind me, “Majority culture doesn’t feel culture.”

You may be confused by some of the anger and sadness you will witness in a largely minority context. As a white person, you literally cannot understand much of this pain. But you can choose how you will respond to it. You should always respond in love, and love often looks like affirming people in their pain without necessarily understanding it. Do not assume that your opinion about a certain racial issue is correct. How can you speak into a situation that you have no firsthand experience with? That type of arrogance will completely stifle your influence and destroy your relationships. You must ask sincere questions and desire to learn. And if hearing about “racial stuff” offends you, then the inner city isn’t the place for you, as racial issues are a daily reality here.


I hope this insight has proven helpful, as I’m just scratching the surface. There is so much to learn about ministry and relationship building in the inner city. For many of us, the inner city is new and exciting territory, so let’s walk humbly, tread gently, and build real friendships. Trust me, it is so worth it. When I walk into a room and hear “white boy!” I’m glad to know that I am in the company of friends who have accepted me as a brother.

In the future, I hope to further expand on this topic and share some personal accounts of the damage caused by whites who desired to be “on mission” and “help the inner city,” yet refused to submit to minority leadership. Until then, I hope you can continue this conversation in your communities and circles of friends.




8 thoughts on “The White Messiah Complex

  1. Will

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, AJ.

  2. AJ Smith


    Let me try to answer you:

    1. “Submit to minority leadership” means submit to minority leadership, not just “blacks friends” who are not your leaders.

    2. The article is written to whites who intend to do inner city ministry. So if you have not yet planted a church, you should spend time serving in a black led church. If you have already planted in the inner city you should find some black pastors to mentor and disciple you.

    3. I said that education was one of the benefits to submitting to minority leadership. While being mentored and pastored by minorities I was able to learn a lot through books, sermons, etc.

    4. I can’t think of any context (aside from a direct command from God) where “submit” means to “obey everything they say.” I’m not sure why you would assume this extreme definition. Submission never means that.

    5. One of the most common ways we see God call people to specific places for ministry is through other people. I never said anything about getting “permission” as you put it.

    6. If you want to pastor in the inner city then a stamp of approval from minority leaders is indispensable. And to answer your question, yes the black pastors/leaders/professors/church planters/ministers, etc whom I walk with would agree with that language.

    7. “Getting approval” will likely come after a season of submitting to authority.

    Sorry if I sound rushed–I am!


  3. g

    Hi J

    I am sorry I misread your question.

    I can listen and learn from any Christian pastor. But as to hope the reformed faith brings; I am glad I know who’s work saved me and who’s faith holds me. As to suffering in sickness and in poverty I trust the sovereign uses mine to bring glory to his name.

  4. g

    Hello J.

    Thanks for the response. Mostly working out my salvation here. Forgive me if I ramble. To answer your question; I can learn most things from some reformed pastors but not all on everything.

    My understanding of reformed theology makes certain that God is not choosing all white anything, especially elder boards or leadership, that is us. Mostly white is the original history of the reformation as I read it, but by the very nature of it’s message, never intended to remain that. So I ask myself: why dose it?

    My understanding is that God calls effectively, but Like Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor & CEO, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology wrote and explains: “What happened? Reformed theology failed to apply our own theology to this question [of racial equality].”

    Like him, I believe reformed pastors should be the best to learn from, but for some reason a kind of blindness or insensitivity to the scripture on this remains with many.

    I ask: could it be that some don’t want our children to intermarry like John Piper, founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary wrote? ” I think it is right to not simply permit or tolerate, but to celebrate the marriage of a godly, Christ-exalting man and woman who are marrying in the Lord across racial lines. It will not destroy like that quote from the letter says it would. It will not destroy any God-appointed diversity in the world. It will, in fact, feature that diversity and the power of Christ in it.”

    And it seems to me, when I hear reformed pastors praying for God to “raise up more black leaders and elders”, I hear in that that this “reformed” God is partial to whites or at least lax in His calling of blacks. I can’t find that in scripture but as Dr. Duncan says we can find that excuse in American Reformed Christianity

    And so you might imagine one like me would come to the conclusion that if we spent as much energy making up for the sin as we do committing it, we might come up with some solutions.

    Maybe recruit. I have been told that is not biblical though. Yet some of those same elders will recruit an administrator, a worship minister, and their pastor. I can’t find that specific in the Bible ether. I guess it all comes under the heading of wisdom.

    I am sad to report that I have learned from some white and some black reformed pastors, biblical justice for all is a social gospel, or so the argument goes. I am happy to report however, that some have come to understand and admit the ongoing sin of James chapter 2 and are working hard to confront it in themselves and others.

    I would say for myself though it is a bit harder to learn from reformed leaders who uses words like “thug”, “agitator”, “N”. Unfortunately I have heard those words from some of the best reformed teachers.

    In the end It is hard and hurtful sometimes, but I remain. Praying for us now.

  5. Will

    Thanks for the great article, AJ.

    Multiple times you said “submit to minority leadership,” but I’m still not clear on what exactly that means. Which minority leadership? Who? Other pastors? Your black friends? If you’re the only pastor of a new church plant, then what minority leadership is there to submit to?

    Help me understand this. Your sub-points under “submit to minority leadership” are humility, education, affirmation. Humility is good, and necessary for submission, but who are we submitting to exactly? Education: we should read books about urban ministry, perhaps written by minorities. So we’re submitting to the author’s authority? Does “submit” mean we must obey everything they say?
    Affirmation of call: you need both a clear, specific call both for ministry in general AND for urban ministry…is that a biblical notion?Did Paul get permission from Gentiles before bringing the gospel to them? You said that “a stamp of approval from minority leaders” is “indispensable.” Would these leaders appreciate speaking for all black people, which is what the “stamp of approval” language suggests? Is getting approval the same as submitting to their authority?

    Thanks! It’s a great article, but that part is quite unclear to me.

  6. J

    Are you saying that you cannot lean from a pastor who is not reformed?

  7. g

    Hello Pastor Smith,
    I am in agreement with most of what you recommend. As a reformed SBC Christian I have joined an all black church and my wife was baptized in that church. I had a very wise prayer partner who was mentored under J Vernon McGee. But after a while I found some of the doctrines being taught very far away from the reformed faith I had come to understand. So I am willing to do all that you suggest except compromise doctrine. In my area in East Texas the only Reformed Black Pastor was Voddie Baucham and at the time he was vilifying any Christians who sent their children to public schools, teaching church members in all churches to undermining the Sunday school system and youth ministries in their churches and using language like “thug” to define young blacks who commit crimes. I wanted to come under black leadership or come under white leadership that understood like Mark Dever. So I moved to D.C. only to find him installing three more white elders to an all white elder board save one. He said they were praying that God would raise up more black elders. So maybe I know what he means now. Black elders with the same doctrinal standards. So maybe I understand Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor & CEO, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology when he wrote and explains: “What happened? Reformed theology failed to apply our own theology to this question [of racial equality].” It seems we have complex work to do in this mess we have created.

  8. Angela

    Excellent, I wish more people who are white in ministry would listen to this advice…………………….

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