Over the past few years, I have wrestled with identifying as an evangelical who is Black. The past couple years have made it all the more difficult because of the troubling marriage of evangelicalism (mostly reported by those in the majority people group) and American politics, that often does not reflect the priorities or interests of many black people that I know.
I just finished reading Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney’s book, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. While reading, I was encouraged to know that the debates for evangelicalism—what it means, who belongs in the group and who doesn’t, and how marginalized people are often left out of the conversation—are not new ones.
In fact, uncertainly about the definition of evangelicalism, its mark on the American and global church, and how that has impacted various people groups has been a reality since the beginning of the evangelical movement.
What is Evangelicalism?
Dr. Alister E. McGrath writes that “evangelicalism is grounded on a cluster of six controlling convictions, each of which is regarded as being true, of vital importance and grounded in Scripture,” and they are as follows:
- The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.
- The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the Savior of sinful humanity.
- The lordship of the Holy Spirit.
- The need for personal conversion.
- The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole.
- The importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship and growth.
When rightly understood, I believe that many black Christians would say “Yes” and “Amen” to these statements. Yet we must understand that the challenges of definition, identity and association do not simply consider what we formally communicate about a word. We must also contemplate the acts or practices that are associated with the use of that word.
Sweeney does not shy away from communicating the troubled history between white evangelicalism and the black community and black church. He writes:
The evangelical movement has suffered from the sins of racial prejudice even since it first emerged from the eighteenth-century Great Awakening. While white evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination, or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals have either participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things, distorting their common witness to the gospel.
American evangelicalism has a history, and this history is not always good news for black people. This is why—although many black Christians may agree with the tenets presented by McGrath—they will not associate themselves with evangelicalism. It is not safe for them to do so.We must contemplate the acts or practices associated with a word. Click To Tweet
Being Black and Evangelical
For those black people who are conscious of this American history and still desire to remain true to the scriptural principles of evangelicalism, it costs us something to present ourselves as evangelical. For the most part, we are able to confidently make this claim because we have been trained in evangelical institutions, we love Jesus and the Good Book, and we believe in the gospel as the ministry of reconciliation.
It also means that we often find ourselves leading and ministering in predominately white spaces, churches and institutions.
It means that we are often one of a few ethnic minorities within white evangelicalism challenging the thoughts and actions surrounding diversity (or most often the lack thereof), racial reconciliation and biblical justice. We are often on tap to contribute to conversations but rarely on payroll to make decisions.
We faithfully continue in this ministry work because we believe in the name and redemptive work of Jesus, and we seek to model his leadership in our daily ministry, life and practices.
The direct consequence of this situation, particularly if personal relationships are not intact, is that we are often disconnected from the traditional Black Church, whose leaders may not readily identify as evangelical. And when we do engage with members of the traditional black church or their leadership, we are met with suspicion at best or outright rejection in a worst-case scenario.
The Next Evangelical Movement
Given this reality, either directly or indirectly, Black evangelicals are constantly having diversity conversations through our words and actions with different audiences within the American church. Furthermore, according to Jesus’s prayer in John 17, our actions also witness to a watching world, so we persist.
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece about how easy and irresponsible it is for white people to escape the diversity conversation, and addressed the various ways in which they do so.
For weeks following, I pondered writing a response about how black people or people of color escape the diversity conversation as well. I realize now that piece never came into fruition because we are not so much trying to escape the conversation as we are working to overcome it.
When we consider the history and the urgent needs of our day, we are simply tired of talking.
We are tired of educating or pacifying people to make them feel better about this history in which they continue to benefit. We are tired of asking or waiting for a seat at the table. We are tired of the respectability politics at play when the issue of the lack of diversity in leadership or conferences are raised. We are tired of being called on just to talk about racial issues, as if we don’t have other interests or expertise. We are tired of getting asked to give our wisdom for free, when our white male colleagues get paid to consult.
As a result of this weariness and our desire to move towards a more hopeful future, we are holding fast to the evangelical claim, and we are changing the ways that we pursue our ministry calling.
Watch Black Women Work
I am encouraged by the ways I am seeing black women navigate this period of evangelical history. There are three key ways in particular that I am observing black women work:
I. Black Women are Leaning into a Hybrid Model of Leadership:
Growing up, my mother would always say, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” In other words, don’t depend too strongly on one thing. When there are so many systems that continue to marginalize women and people of color within the church, black women are not putting all of their eggs in one basket.
We are pastoring churches and teaching in seminary classrooms, while publishing resources and cultivating speaking ministries and consulting businesses. We have women like Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes and Dr. Christena Cleveland to thank, and to let us know that this work is possible.
II. Black Women are Building Their Own Tables:
In spite of whatever progress that has been made towards diversity and racial equality, our American churches, denominations, publishing houses, media outlets, parachurch ministries, conferences and for-profit and nonprofit organizations are still by-in-large led by white men. Instead of waiting for that to change to come, we are following the response of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and saying with our actions, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
Our churches and communities have urgent needs, and we are ready to answer the call now. I’m thankful that women like Gail Dudley (Ready Magazine) and Nicola A. Menzie (Faithfully Magazine) have founded and are editing printed magazines that center on the voices of people of color. I’m thankful that people have trusted the vision God gave me to establish the nonprofit organization, Leadership LINKS, Inc., to raise up the next generation of diverse leaders.
III. Black Women are Moving into Uncharted Territory:
For far too long, it was considered normal for white men to lead in areas like publishing, podcasting, mission agencies and apologetics, just to name a few.For far too long it was considered normal for only white men to lead. Click To Tweet
Many of the women listed here are published authors in various topics important for the evangelical church, and the church at large. The podcast scene is quickly being changed by women like Jo Saxton (along with her co-host Steph Williams O’Brien) of Lead Stories, and Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson, and Ekemini Uwan of Truth’s Table.
Through her ministry, the Jude 3 Project, Lisa Fields is changing the face of and conversations around apologetics. Amena Brown is leading “Woman to Woman in Rwanda,” a humanitarian trip and learning exchange this summer. I’m so excited to participate in this trip of all African American women working alongside Rwandan women. It’s the first I know of its kind.
All of these women are taking risks to go against the norm, and to change this troubled narrative.
Do you want to partake in the redemptive work God is doing in this moment of evangelical history? I encourage you to seek out and support these women and their ministry efforts.
Are you already involved in these ministry efforts? What encouragement can you offer to others who desire to take similar faith leaps?