When it comes to race, our discipleship has been defective for some time. Race. Discipleship. How often do these words even appear together? What does race have to do with discipleship, anyway?
These questions really began to haunt me in 2020 when it seemed as though the whole world was aflame with racial reckoning. I, along with many others, began to ask new racial questions. For me, those questions centered on discipleship. I serve an organization as the national leader for discipleship and evangelism. I am passionate about helping people disciple others toward greater love for Jesus, deeper Bible engagement, and more passionate evangelistic witness. But how, exactly, do these discipleship practices directly relate to the racial challenges that we face? Moreover, how is it that racism has thrived in so many so-called “Christian” contexts?
What I’ve come to understand is that, for too long, we’ve had a huge hole in our discipleship when it comes to race. Pick up a classic Discipleship 101 book and you almost certainly won’t find a chapter on race. Many evangelical ministries have discipled people in how to read the Bible or to do a daily quiet time. But discipling people to understand God’s heart for ethnic diversity and racial justice? Not so much, or at best, not until more recently. As a result, too many Jesus-followers have been ineffective when it comes to confronting our current racial challenges.
If we want to dismantle racism in our time, we cannot form disciples the same way we’ve been doing it. To dismantle racism, we need to disrupt our discipleship.
When I look at the history of discipleship and race in our country (in predominantly White-culture evangelical contexts), I see three primary movements. Let’s call them the ABCs of racial discipleship to represent a progressive shift from color-averse, to color-blind, to color-courageous.
Early American discipleship was frequently color-averse. People were discipled, both overtly and subtly, to be prejudiced, separatist, and antagonistic toward other racial groups.
For example, in the nineteenth century, pro-slavery Bible expositors engaged a form of discipleship that enabled them to justify two hundred years of slavery in Christian contexts. Many Christians were explicitly taught that Black people were the cursed descendants of Ham, destined to be perennially subject to others. Pro-slavery theologians discipled people toward a “plain reading” of the Bible, where they pointed out that a form of slavery was practiced and regulated in the Old Testament and that slaves were commanded to obey their masters in the New Testament.
In the twentieth century, even as late as the 1950s in some parts of the country, groups like the pro-segregation Citizens’ Councils produced discipleship resources with teaching such as:
- “Some of you have been told that you are not a Christian if you don’t want to mix with another race. That is not true. The Bible teaches you to keep the races pure.”
- “In Acts 17: 26 you can read God’s plan about the races. It says that God segregated (separated) the races by putting them in different parts of the world.”
- “Segregation is Christian.”
Thankfully, over time color-averse discipleship has been thoroughly disrupted and debunked. Instead, in the mid-twentieth century—and especially as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—American discipleship made the move from color-averse to color-blind.
We have been living in the color-blind generation. The emphasis of color-blindness is, ostensibly, equality. Color-blind disciples refuse to “see” color in a well-intentioned effort to treat everyone equally. They love to quote Martin Luther King Jr. (frequently out of context), sharing the dream that no one would “be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
For the most part, color-blind discipleship is known mostly for what it doesn’t do. Color-blind disciples don’t see race. They don’t differentiate, and they certainly don’t (intentionally) discriminate. In fact, they don’t talk about race much or engage in racial issues. No doubt, this is in no small part because the classic evangelical discipleship resources they were trained with made little to no mention of race either.
In our day, color-blind discipleship is proving itself to be wholly ineffective. Why? Because those who cannot see race also cannot see racism. Those who refuse to countenance racial categories are more prone to miss racial inequities; they are also prone to suppress important conversations about race that we still need to have. The irony of our generation is this: Today few people intentionally embrace racism … yet racial inequity firmly persists in nearly every area of life that can be measured—wealth, education, criminal justice, healthcare, career opportunities, and so much more.
Color-blind discipleship is proving itself to be wholly ineffective, because those who cannot see race also cannot see racism. They are also prone to suppress important conversations about race that we still need to have. Click To Tweet
We are now in the midst of another historic generational discipleship shift. Ours is the generation that can make the move from color-blind discipleship to color-courageous discipleship.
Color-courageous disciples choose to “see” color for the sake of cultivating biblical racial equity. They acknowledge difference in an effort to experience a richer community—a beloved community. Color-courageous disciples choose to “see” color for the sake of cultivating biblical racial equity. They acknowledge difference in an effort to experience a richer community—a beloved community. Click To Tweet
Color-courageous disciples do not ignore ethnic differences, understanding ethnicity to be a unique, God-given component of each person’s identity. They celebrate ethnic diversity, knowing that God designed ethnic diversity as a means to bring glory to himself and enrichment to his kingdom. Yet, at the same time, color-courageous disciples also seek to proactively address difference that is destructive—including differences caused by systemic racism. They seek to dismantle racial inequity wherever it exists in order to build beloved community. And they do all of this courageously, knowing that they will most likely encounter profound resistance in the pursuit of racial equity.
For far too long, we have not made clear connections between following Jesus and dismantling racism. But that’s on us, not the Word of God. When we look at the biblical story with clear eyes—a vision less cluttered with our own cultural detritus—we’ll (re)discover God’s passion for ethnic diversity and justice from beginning to end.
Our generation of disciple-makers has a choice. Will we remain color-blind in our discipleship—or, in some cases, even revert back to a subtly color-averse approach? Or will we courageously embrace God’s biblical vision for color-courageous discipleship? With God’s help and the power of Christ that is in us, we can finally build and become beloved community.
Editorial Note: Michelle recently released the color-courageous discipleship trilogy because she believes that our generation of disciple-makers has an intentional choice to make in confronting systemic racism head-on as a core part of one’s formational journey to maturity in Christ. Missio Alliance shares this conviction and heartily recommends her work.
 See for example Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2019).
 The Editors, “Why Did So Many Christians Support Slavery?,” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, accessed November 8, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-33/why-christians-supported-slavery.html.
 David L. Chappell, “Religious Ideas of the Segregationists,” Journal of American Studies 32, no. 2 (1998): 237–62.
 For an excellent summary of the research on the ineffective of colorblindness, see Philip J Mazzocco, Psychology of Racial Colorblindness: A Critical Review. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Mazzocco concludes: “Although the preference for colorblindness may be well-intentioned for some, the consequences of colorblindness . . . appear to be almost entirely negative both with respect to racial minorities, and society at large” (Mazzocco, p.174).