Formation

White-Out: Going Deeper, Reading Wider

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It was a Tuesday when I realized I was an uneducated pastor.

Don’t get me wrong, an undergraduate degree in ministry and seminary are all on my resume, but I was missing something, and so are a lot of other people. I was missing a robust understanding of the universal church. As I was scanning my over-filled, buckling bookshelves, I noticed they were populated with the same books, books written by white guys.

The vast majority of my theological reading was penned by white Christian men.

Without a doubt, most of these men were or are thoughtful, faithful followers of Jesus. I don’t doubt that. What I do doubt is their ability to grasp the vast and colossal nature of the universal church.

Why? Because their understanding of scripture, like all understandings, are perspectival and socially located. In short, white theologians, just like African–, South American–, Feminist–, Liberation– (etc.) theologians, understand and interpret scripture from a point of view.

All understandings are perspectival and socially located. Click To Tweet

No one can be blamed for my shallow library except me. My take on scripture largely excluded voices from most of the world. I should have known better.

A Quick(ish) Story:

For over two years, I shopped a book proposal that will finally reach book sellers this fall. I had a great proposal, an agent who had shepherded some of the biggest books in Christianity (and I mean that), and we were hopeful for a good response. Almost every publisher sent back praise…along with their denials.

A few publishers pushed the proposal along to editorial and marketing boards and all of them eventually came back with something that sounded like this, “We don’t think we can sell black authors.”

Did you know there’s a person at some of America’s largest booksellers who is in charge of marketing authors of color? I didn’t. I do now.

That’s when I realized I was part of the problem. Though I read more writers of color and women authors than most people, my book purchasing hadn’t intentionally sought out minority authors. Publishers couldn’t sell me, partly, because I wasn’t buying others. And I bet the same is true for many Christian readers.

Go ahead. Take a look. How much of your library is white?

The Color of Surprise

But this is about more than who gets published.

What’s more important is that white Christians read and understand the gospel message differently than Christians of color. Sunday morning is not the most segregated hour of the week only because of worship or preaching styles. Churches are segregated, to some degree, because of actual content. Take, for instance, the most recent presidential election.

White Christians largely voted for President Trump, but black Christians did not. Both groups say their faith informed their choices.

Nine years ago it was revealed that then presidential candidate Barack Obama was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ which was pastored by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Cable news played a loop of a portion of Dr. Wright’s sermons reflecting on 9/11 called, “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall.” In the message, Wright talked about the dirty facts of American history — slavery, relocation of Indigenous people, and other acts he felt were unjust, finally saying “God damn America.”

Absent of the full context, some media personalities jumped on the chance to criticize Wright’s sermon, and by extension, Obama.

They questioned whether Trinity United was even a Christian church. My response was simple: The people criticizing Wright have never been in a black church. They’ve never read Black, Liberation, South American or Womanist theologians, because those readings of scripture do not venerate the State and governments the same way white Christians do.

And they don’t because of some of the reasons articulated by Dr. Wright. This is not an odd message in that Christian context.  And the lack of reading and listening to the tenor and tone of diverse Christian voices left white Christians disoriented and offended.

I don’t care to defend or attack Dr. Wright. I do hope to highlight the fact that those who were surprised by Wright’s words were surprised via their own ignorance of their fellow brothers and sisters and the various ways the gospel story comes to life in different communities. As a friend of mine says, “The color of surprise is white.”

Take a look. How much of your library is white? Click To Tweet

The White Out

Part of the problem has been that we’ve largely located white, male theology as the central theological lens, and everything else is a bastardized subdivision of the main thing. Nevertheless, priests and pastors of color and in locations such as South America, Australia, and Africa do their own theological work.

Female scholars from around the world, as well as the poor, disenfranchised, and under-resourced Christians, read and reflect on God, scripture, and life too. Women and men across the globe perform the same chore as white Christian men and as they faithfully labor, many arrive at different – and sometimes differing – theological conclusions than their white, male counterparts.

Instead of calling their work “theology,” though, Western Christians gave other people’s endeavors a hyphen: Feminist-theology, Liberation-theology, Missional-theology, African-American-theology, and so on.

I can’t say what we meant when we did this, but the effect has been to mainline white, male perspectives as “theology” and regard Other theological perspectives as some twisted, agendized off-shoot of actual theology, even though there are various tones of white, male perspectives as well.

So, I decided to spend my dollars and time consuming writing done by Others. I’ve called this my “White-Out.” I don’t mean that pejoratively, but descriptively. I did something similar a few years ago when I exclusively read women. I determined that for an extended period of time I’m not reading white guys (unless they are personal friends). That doesn’t mean I won’t promote their work, host them on my podcast, or endeavor to highlight some of the better works of theology.

Through the process, I’ve discovered the importance of at least 4 things:

1. Being Quick To Listen, Slow To Speak

We are all going to have to deal with the fact that theology is just theology and we cannot marginalize other voices simply because their perspectives aren’t rooted in the white European perspectives that dominated our seminary syllabi and occupy the front shelves at Christian bookstores.

People of color, women, and our sisters and brothers in the global south will see contours and hear emphases in the Biblical text that we sometimes ignore or miss.

2. To Stop Being So Sensitive

As other voices gain traction, some of us will discover that because our readings of scripture were cultured and perspectival, so is our application. That means some of our past actions will be revealed as heartless, cruel, and sinful. We will see that some of the levers we’ve pulled were hurtful to our brothers and sisters and an act for which we should repeat. The proper response to our sin should be solidarity, not defensiveness.

3. Communion

Instead of suggesting that other Biblical interpretations are agendized or “not really Christian,” those steeped in white, male theologies have the opportunity to embrace a touch of humility and to connect with others in community. A mentor of mine used to say, “we should say ‘yes,’ when we can say ‘yes.’” This should be the spirit of more people.

4. Taking A Second Look

If we are willing to freely and openly take a second look at what the Bible says and doesn’t say, does and doesn’t do, and what we take for granted as true, deep, and real but is really cultured, we may discover a richer, deeper and more meaningful engagement with God, the Scriptures, and one another.

Next steps

Maybe you should join me.

Check your shelves and your Amazon.com browsing history and see what that says about who and what you’re missing. I think you’ll be surprised.

Fortunately, expanding our reading and theology is just one-click away*.

 

*Possible books to start with (this list is not exhaustive, just some that I’ve read on my journey)

Stand Your Ground by Kelly Douglas Brown

The Sellout (a novel) by Paul Beatty

The Association of Small Bombs (a novel) by Karan Mahajan

Short Stories By Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

Blue Note Preaching in a Post Soul World by Otis Moss III

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13 responses to “Ed Stetzer and Me … and the Evangelical Leadership Disease. The Ashley Madison Case

  1. Wow, Dr. Fitch. This is excellent; it is revealing; it is spot on. It’s also scary. I have yet to experience this type of vulnerable community. I long for it; I think about it daily; but, it almost seems so utopian. Thanks for writing this. Change has to happen.

  2. Great post, Dave. Well thought out and well said. As one who has lived through a couple of "moral failure" situations, I appreciate being helped to see it through the ecclesiological lens. Of course, as Tara Beth gets at, this type of community seems utopian, but I’m thinking more and more that someone’s got to make the first move. Of course, that "someone" is me – and countless others who long for more than the church community we’ve been given by our predecessors. Moreover, as someone who has – at times – failed greatly, it’s only been the Spirit working through my surrounding community (even if that’s 3-4 friends) that has brought about true restoration into life and renewal. Thanks for pointing the way yet again.

  3. Pastoral teams have been a longing and vision for me for years, so as I read this, I am encouraged and energized! To the point of nuclear families being the sole support group, let’s face it, this is not reasonable as we consider God’s communal design for us. It also doesn’t work for numerous reasons, not least of which is that the family is fractured and is itself suffering from lack of support!

  4. I think the title you’re looking for is, "Ed Stetzer, me, and the Evangelical Leadership Disease."
    Grammar aside, you nailed it. Playing "whack-a-mole" with bad-pastors is never going to move the church toward wholeness.

    I appreciate your critique of the single lead head pastor. At the same time, most churches simply will not move away from this model. Are there any thoughts you might have along the lines of, "If you must have a single lead pastor, then at least adopt these practices…"?

    1. yeah … I changed it. I couldnt’ decided whether I wanted to make myself the object or the subject in the title (since it’s not a complete sentence)

        1. This is a culture change we’re discussing. So I think the problems of the senior pastor ‘model’ can be lessened with the senior pastor shaping a different culture in his or her church. There are many things he or she can do. Include other pastors alongside in the preaching task. Create communities gathering in homes as central to the life of the church. In the end, however, maintaining a senior pastor in the typical icon role works against the culture change.

  5. The issue is not the insular family, but legalism. Every pastor bar one of my father’s seminary class of 1950 left the ministry after an affair… long before James Dobson showed up. Your commentary regarding the inability for a pastor to deal with weakness is spot on… your criticism of Dobson is not. We raised our family learning from focus on the family, but not living as legalists. The fruit was good.

    1. Maybe this: "the insular family can be a contributing factor" … I’ve seen it time and time again not just related to adultery, but the inability/unwillingness/deeply held belief that the insular family is the sole place where community/accountability happens (and on the accountability perhaps doesn’t happen) for the almighty Pastor.

  6. David

    You write…
    “1.) Demythologize the Single Head Lead Pastor and instead develop a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally in mutual submission one to another where they all meet regularly to live life as sinners before one another.”

    But, wouldn’t having “a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally…”
    Also be a myth?

    I mean, in the Bible…
    Can you name one group of believers who had one pastor? Or five pastors? Leading?
    ———–

    And, wouldn’t having someone who called them self, had the “Title,” pastor, and leader…
    Also be a myth?

    I mean, in the Bible…
    Can you name one of His Disciples who called them self pastor? Or shepherd? Or leader?
    Can you name one of His Disciples who took the “Title” pastor? Or shepherd? Or leader?
    Can you name one of His Disciples who called another Disciple pastor/shepherd/leader?
    ———–

    Seems life as one of His Disciples is often a MYTH… 😉

    Sometimes a MYTHtory

    Sometimes a MYTHconception

    Sometimes a MYTHstake

  7. The American love affair for all things celebrity which has taken deep root in evangelicalism in form of the "personality driven church" is a malignancy. The identity of the church becomes so closely linked to the identity of the guy preaching every Sunday that when that guy is gone (for whatever reason) a good portion of the church immediately falls away and others weep or get angry for what they have lost. Without "the personality" in place they don’t know what to make of the church. They simply do not know who they are as the people of God in our part of the story. They’ve somehow been satisfied to live vicariously through the upfront personality.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. But to lead and form a body of people another way is deeply counter-cultural in America. Most simply prefer to be successful in terms of the world or, even more sadly, don’t know there is a difference.

  8. Point #1 doesn’t work for 80% or so of churches that are small and can only afford one hired pastor. The real myth is that there is a benefit to the church for at least one man to never work in the marketplace so he can devote "full time" just to the church. This "full-time" pattern is a myth.
    1. When one man works "full time" for the church, many men will work zero time for the church. This reality is played out in every single church with even one hired man. This is the fault of the system. The men are trained by the system to be lazy. I can elaborate on this.
    2. Paul speaks to his teaching and modeling the opposite of this. Acts 20; 1 Cor 9 (the whole chapter); 2 The. 3; 2 Cor 11; 2 Cor 12. Working in the marketplace is ministry. 1 Cor 15:58; Col 3:23 and others. Paying even one man is what demands many people in one room. What happens in that room is mostly one-way communication. One way communication plus many people are two strikes against "one another" oriented community. The third strike is that church life is divorced from the home where "hospitality" takes place. Hospitality is rare when church is separated to a separate campus. This is very hard for Bible experts to grasp. I have to say they are addicted to church in a separate building with one man lecturing the Bible in perpetual dependency mode and calling it teaching or preaching.

    Additional myth: The man who knows the most Bible, and has been trained in the institutionalized practice of mostly ceremonialized faith will be the most mature man in the fellowship.

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