“We’re taking Jesus back to the city,” was the rallying cry which ignited my passion for ministry.
I was 15, a lifelong, Bible-loving church kid, and the idea that my predominantly-white, rich, overly-educated suburban church was taking seriously the plight of Black and Brown women and men struggling with the racial, judicial, and systematic inequalities visited on them in downtown Atlanta was just the vision I needed to make the Jesus talked about in Sunday School a real and useful force. I loved that my church cared about people who looked like me.
“Taking Jesus back to the city” was code for our church’s new interest in what we then called “inner-city ministry,” what many people now call “urban ministry.” We wanted to work in poor, minority communities for the glory of God and to reach people with “the gospel,” to “love our neighbor,” and to be the people we felt led by God to be and become.
And we took it seriously as we knew how. Each summer we hosted daily worship, teaching, and craft-making gatherings for under-resourced children living in urban areas. We hosted homeless and abused women in our church building each Wednesday for connection, Bible teaching and job-skill training. Our church partnered with other local churches to launch and fund clothing and food distribution centers. We even started a church where I worked as a summer intern while I was in college, giving me my first exposure to what it meant to pastor. That church still exists, 30 years after we decided to “take Jesus back to the city.”
What I admire about those people during that time is that none of us knew what we were doing. We just felt led to do something. Even over the objections of concerned, suburban moms who didn’t care to have their private school daughters and sons traipsing into downtown Atlanta among the unwashed and homeless, the call to do something for the other, the least of these, won the day with my church’s leadership. We even started a church...that still exists, 30 years after we decided to “take Jesus back to the city.” What I admire about those people during that time is that none of us knew what we were doing. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot to be proud of there.
Sharing a White-Normed Gospel
Yet, for all the good it did, I remember the day I began to ask questions about our motivations.
As a college intern, riding in a van filled to overflowing with white, suburban Christian youth groupers heading to teach and “love on” Black kids for a few hours, I noticed something I hadn’t before as we entered “the projects.” I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. It had clearly been there for longer than I’d been alive. What was it? A church.
And it wasn’t the only church. Once my eyes were opened, they couldn’t be closed. All around downtown Atlanta, right in the middle of these under-resourced and suffering communities there was church after church after church. I then began asking the kids we were working with about faith life in their communities. Guess what? They almost all were part of a church. So were their parents. And their grandparents. I hardly talked to anyone for whom the gospel was foreign.
I was 20 years old and couldn’t escape the question: if all these folks know the gospel, if they are all part of a church, if they all have faith commitments, how on earth could we possibly “taking the gospel to the city”?
Turns out, we weren’t. We weren’t taking the gospel to the city. We thought we were. We hoped we were. That was our intention. But the gospel was already there. In truth, we were taking “our” gospel to the city. We were taking The Gospel According to Whiteness. How Complete Is Your Gospel? Click To Tweet
What do I mean by “whiteness”? In this case, I mean the cultural, denominational, and economic expectations and norms of white, suburban, educated, and mostly-wealthy Christians. What we were taking to the city were white norms and an inherited view that the gestures, priorities, and desires of white Christians is what made someone good, worthy, and respectable.
The lives of the women and men living in downtown Atlanta didn’t look like those of us living in Lithonia, Alpharetta, and even my neighborhood, Stone Mountain. We thought on some, perhaps even unconscious, level that they should.
It should be mentioned, my suburban church wasn’t the only one suffering from this. Those local, predominantly-Black, inner-city churches it took me so long to notice were unexpectedly resistant to our efforts. They reasoned the folks in the projects we were reaching out to were a different “class” of people than the men and women in their pews. Was it fear of being overrun by outside forces? Internalized racism? Classism? Who knows? At either rate, “those people” were not “our people” and it affected the sharing of the gospel in these Black churches. This was not only a white problem; but, in my experience, it’s been a predominantly-white problem. What we were taking to the city were white norms and an inherited view that the gestures, priorities, and desires of white Christians is what made someone good, worthy, and respectable. Click To Tweet
The Unspoken Gospel
This is not shocking. Every person in the world believes—to some degree—that he or she is the center of it. The folks at the church of my youth had an imagination of what made “the good life.” It was the life they were striving for: a nice, large home in a safe neighborhood and ever-increasing wealth and prosperity. They craved a life of unregulated personal freedoms, of increased purchasing power, and expanding opportunities. They chased the “American Dream.”
Somewhere along the way, the men and women at my suburban church decided that their desires were God’s desires, and their own economic and cultural cravings became inextricably intertwined with the will of God for all people, a kind of gospel.
Having spent my life among white Christians I know that 0.5 percent of them consider themselves racists. Most white Christians are what Ibram X. Kendi calls “assimilationists.” They believe the problems, difficulties, tensions, or causes regarding racial discrepancies and injustices exist because minority populations refuse to behave like they behave.
Assimilationists believe in a kind of temporary inferiority that can be taught (or beaten out of) minorities. “Act white,” becomes the unspoken gospel they’re embracing.
Noticing all the churches scattered across poorer Atlanta communities, I realized these churches weren’t concerned only with spreading the gospel. They were concerned about spreading white hegemony, perhaps unintentionally. The gospel provided a good reasoning for both. But I wasn’t white. And I didn’t care about helping Black and Brown people assimilate into whiteness. Noticing all the churches scattered across poorer Atlanta communities, I realized these churches weren’t concerned only with spreading the gospel. They were concerned about spreading white hegemony, perhaps unintentionally. Click To Tweet
We cannot escape the reality that the presentation of the gospel is now—and has always been—enculturated. Typically, those who refuse to accept this fact have so deeply intertwined and syncretized their culture with the gospel that to disentangle one from the other risks losing them both. Their encultured gospel has become their gospel.
Our task is to disentangle our reading, understanding, and presentation of the gospel from the particulars of those cultures and embrace a more robust community. We must acknowledge how we have trapped the gospel. So what should we do? Here are three suggestions:
Christians, receiving Paul’s command to treat others as “better than ourselves” and serve the world as “ministers of reconciliation” are compelled to love to listen to the voice of the other, to prioritize their experiences, and to hear their concerns with the seriousness and import they deserve. We are called to heed from brothers and sisters on the margins the places where they see us sidestepping the Scriptures in order to maintain cultural position and privilege.
Embracing the whole gospel means embracing all the ways Jesus has been welcomed and all the ways worship of God is expressed as equally valued and people are equally valuable—as they are, not as you are. The whole gospel means rejecting cultural imperialism which fools us into believing that if others don’t live as we do, desire what our culture desires, or share our ethnic expectations, then there is something needed or deficient in them. The whole gospel means rejecting cultural imperialism which fools us into believing that if others don’t live as we do, desire what our culture desires, or share our ethnic expectations, then there is something...deficient in them. Click To Tweet
No person, community, ethnic group, or subculture can escape its cultural privileges, and prejudices. The gospel cannot be rightly understood in ethnic, racial, or cultural isolation or segregation. A predominantly-white church (or Black, Brown, rich, poor, and so on) cannot adequately understand or present the gospel without myriad voices to reflect upon, appreciate, grow from, check, and push back against enculturated and imprisoned understandings of how their particulars and expectations has straight-jacketed their view of the gospel. Churches which are not actively working to diversify their pews and pulpits risk missing crucial aspects of the gospel.
Know the Gospel.
My church in Atlanta was concerned about the gospel, but the actual gospel—the life, teachings, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus—became obscured by other concerns and values we equated with being saved. American Christians often ascribe to a de facto “health and wealth” gospel that offer addendums to the core gospel but are not the gospel themselves. This has always been the case, which is why people of faith must guard against it so fiercely by immersing ourselves in understanding the essence and the substance of what the gospel really is about. American Christians often ascribe to a de facto “health and wealth” gospel that offer addendums to the core gospel but are not the gospel themselves. Click To Tweet
As our nations and congregations continue to diversify, the church needs leaders who can culturally exegete their own understandings of the gospel and that of the people in their churches. What we shall discover when we do so is that none of us can grasp the gospel in all of its God-glorifying fullness in our own limited understanding. And this is why we need to be in community and leadership together, across every and all cultural lines and barriers, so that the church can truly be the body of Christ in pursuing the least, the last, and the lost, with Christ’s whole and complete gospel.