Ed Stetzer: At Wheaton College, I have the privilege of serving with a wide array of evangelical thinkers and leaders. One of them is Ray Chang, who serves as Ministry Associate for Discipleship in the Chaplain’s Office. Ray and I recently discussed a letter that John Piper wrote, published in Christianity Today, “My Hopeful Response to Lecrae Pulling Away from ‘White Evangelicalism.’” The Federalist gives a bit of the background.
Over the years, I’ve communicated with both John and Lecrae and, in an odd coincidence, I threw out a shout out at John’s Desiring God National Conference in 2012, about Lecrae teaching us about contextualization. (You can download the book from that talk here.) I am thankful for this conversation about race, and thankful for both men, but also hopeful that we can continue the learning, this time discussing not contextualization, but race and justice.
In order to extend that conversation, here is a letter from Ray Chang to John Piper.
Dear John Piper,
Before I do, I’d like to offer up a definition of terms.
Evangelicalism: 1) a movement of gospel centrality, focused on the primacy of scripture and justification by faith that emerged from the reformation, 2) a modern movement within Protestantism marked by Bebbington’s quadrilateral of Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism
White Evangelicalism: a segment of modern evangelicalism that is led and shaped by a cultural agenda defined by whiteness.
The reason people struggle to distinguish between evangelicalism and white evangelicalism is because evangelicalism was historically and consistently shaped by whiteness. It was because of this dominance and exclusion within evangelicalism that non-white populations formed their own evangelical organizations (National Black Evangelical Association, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, etc.). Essentially, blacks and Latinos found that their issues and needs weren’t being addressed by their white counterparts, so they started their own movements. It was because white evangelicals didn’t make room for non-white evangelicals that black evangelicalism and Latino American evangelicalism emerged. If they had, we wouldn’t have the need for adjectives before the term evangelical.
I fear that unless white evangelicalism changes in significant fashion, Lecrae is only going to be the beginning of the exodus, despite not being the first to depart.
A couple decades ago, Asian Americans witnessed something Helen Lee called the “Silent Exodus” where the American raised children of immigrant families left the immigrant church for white, second generation Asian American, or multi-ethnic churches. Most left for white churches (or left the church all together) because there weren’t many second generation or multi-ethnic churches to go to.
One of the primary reasons they left was because they felt as though they weren’t considered in the shaping of the church. Instead, they felt like they were put in a siloed enclave that felt more like a guesthouse instead of an integral part of the main home. Though the children of immigrants kept asking for their cultural realities (as people raised in the U.S.) to be represented from the top down, there was a collective unwillingness to let go of the way things have always been from their parents’ generation. In some ways, this was a larger scale occurrence of the worship wars between contemporary and traditional music styles we saw throughout many white churches in America.
It was only those who either had the ability to endure through the cultural struggles (those with a high level of cultural grit), those who weren’t hindered by the cultural issues (those who assimilated), or those who couldn’t afford to leave that were able to stay. As such, the silent exodus commenced.
It is critical to note that the issues for which they left the immigrant churches weren’t doctrinal or theological, but cultural.
Today, it seems like a “Reverse Exodus” is taking place for very similar reasons. Like Lecrae, people of color are finding that white evangelical churches and institutions fail to truly embrace them. After doing their best to carve out a space for themselves within white evangelicalism, give it a fair shot (or multiple shots), and even endure through the challenges for decades, there is a growing number of people of color who are seeking places where they can finally feel at home, while still yearning for the greater eternal home.
The problem with this reverse exodus is that the watching world seems to view Christianity in America as synonymous with the white evangelicalism that Lecrae “divorced” himself from. This means that the public witness of Christ through the evangelical movement is at stake because people like Lecrae have looked under its hood and found it disappointing. And if someone who has benefited from the platform, participation in the inner circle, and the praise of white evangelicalism found it wanting, imagine what others who weren’t given such a “welcome” might experience.
What you heard Lecrae talk about regarding the constant tension he felt due to his skin color and cultural background in the Truth’s Table interview is what many people of color experience within white evangelicalism as a whole. Their evangelical experience is dramatically different from your evangelical experience. The experiences Lecrae had of feeling like he couldn’t be who he was meant to be, and having that feel like he was hiding a festering infection can be translated broadly into those from non-white backgrounds. What’s unique about Lecrae, however, is that he went one step further than most do by actually leaving.
This should be of grave concern to us all as this represents the exhaustion Christians of color are no longer willing and/or able to endure. For all of evangelicalism’s existence, a disproportionate burden has been placed on communities of color to adapt, adjust, assimilate, and acquiesce to the white expressions of Christianity. This is why evangelicals of color broadly understand the adjective “white” being added to evangelicalism, while white evangelicals have a hard time seeing how their evangelicalism is white.
What Lecrae symbolizes is an unwillingness to continue to no longer do so, not because he seeks disunity, but because he can’t handle the false perception of unity at his expense.
In some ways, this is what Timothy Keller so wonderfully advocated for at the 2017 Gospel Coalition conference when he talked about bearing each other’s burdens. The unfortunate reality is that the burdens have been so disproportionally and heavily laid upon brothers and sisters of black, Native American, Asian, and Latino backgrounds that they cannot go any further. Evangelicals of color are tired, worn down, and burnt out from merely existing within the white evangelical space. We need our white brothers and sisters to see and actively work against this by helping to address the cultural aspects that convert evangelicalism into white evangelicalism.
For better or worse, we are only at the beginnings of this “Reverse Exodus,” since, at the moment, there aren’t many better options to turn to for people who hold the same doctrines as white evangelicals hold. Evangelicals of color are growing up in, getting trained by, and seeking participation in white evangelical spaces because there aren’t many viable options of another sort who hold the same theological convictions – except in the historically black church which emerged out of exclusionary practices by white Christians who held convictions nearly identical to the ones evangelicalism promotes. Despite this, there are many evangelicals of color who still hold onto a genuine hope and willingness to endure in order to see the church demonstrate what Gospel centered unity in diversity can look like. This flickering flame is what I hope we can fan into a blazing fire.
However, the willingness of evangelicals of color to remain will likely change when they begin to realize that they too are the token/mascot/poster child for white evangelical churches or institutions. Unless white evangelicalism wakes up to the realities that it’s unwillingness to sufficiently change keeps it behind the culture, instead of leading prophetically with a clear vision of the Kingdom of God, the exodus will ensue.
My hope is we can work towards an equitable unity where all people mutually submit to and honor each other.
But how do we do this?
Well, the solutions are actually quite simple. This does not mean the solutions aren’t costly or difficult, but they are simple: at every layer of evangelical leadership, allow for a solid concentration of evangelicals of color to occupy culture-shaping positions of authority. Again, the problem wasn’t theology, but culture.
We need to be aware of how we bring unconscious biases to our own litmus tests of whether people of color are theologically correct enough based on their emphasis on justice issues. Often times, people of color are viewed with greater scrutiny simply because of their skin tone. We need to be concerned with the ways our political commitments co-opt our faith commitments. The fact that people equate Christians with a particular political party is problematic, especially if we consider how both parties are deeply flawed. We need to redefine our understanding of organizational fit. This means we need to reconsider what it means to be equipped. For example, is someone equipped for the pastorate if they have racist tendencies or beliefs? And who gets to decide if they do, white people or the people they disparage?
We also need to be mindful of how networks and credibility is established. Consider who is promoted within evangelicalism through publishing deals. If a Christian publisher looks through their catalogues and white people overwhelmingly occupy the authorial space, it is likely because the people they have come across were developed through their white evangelical network. Consider who speaks at conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel and you’ll see how people who had local or regional platforms, now have national or international ones. Whether you are aware of it or not, we normalize whiteness in evangelicalism by having an overwhelming majority of white speakers and only one or two plenary speakers of color. Consider the ways in which people get mentored. There are tremendous barriers to mentorship felt by Christians of color who would say they hold the same faith commitments and convictions as evangelicals do, but don’t either know or have an entry point into these networks (I fortunately, had people who helped me navigate in, but I am a part of the exception, not the rule). Consider who is appointed the most senior level leadership roles and how they are found and determined upon. It cannot be true that only white people are “called” to these positions of authority and influence and people of color are not.
If white evangelicalism is serious about representing the unity Christ calls us to in this world, this means you cannot find successors who preach like you do, see the world like you do, and share the same skin tone as you. This means Thabiti Anyabwile or Bryan Lorritts (or any of the small handful of others) cannot be the only black preachers in your conferences (despite their wonderful gifts). This means that conferences need to provide substantial opportunities for Asians and Latinos and Native Americans to speak as well. This means that senior leadership at churches cannot be satisfied with a disproportionate percentage of white pastors/elders to non-white pastors/elders.
Further, we need to look deeply into the reasons why leaders of color who occupy the top spots in Christian (evangelical) organizations and churches do not last. This means we need to have the humility to listen, but not just listen, and act upon the problems we see. This also means evangelicalism needs to allow people of color to speak for themselves and on their own terms. We also need to create pipelines for evangelicals of color to grow in leadership opportunities (see what Intervarsity did with the Daniel Project) because we know that leadership matters and that leadership shapes organizations.
What Lecrae’s departure symbolizes is the beginnings of what could be another great schism in the church, but this time, it will not be for doctrinal issues. Instead, it will be for cultural reasons that have long benefited one group, while burdening another. What I see Lecrae doing today is a considerable move for evangelicals of color in deciding if its worth fighting to stay in, when those on the inside aren’t willing to make room. What Lecrae did in his “divorce from evangelicalism” is post his 95 theses on the door to say, enough is enough, except the enough is not about the theological, but the cultural.
This should serve as a wake up call for (white) evangelicalism, which you are a part of and lead. It is a wake up call for white evangelicals to consider the ways they have wielded the power, the platform, the positions, and the preferences that have perpetuated this immense difficulty for people of color to simply be with their own family in Christ. It is a wake up call for white evangelicals to decide whether it will be willing to change dramatically enough, and quickly enough, in order to prevent Lecrae’s decision from becoming a memorial for the great neglect white evangelicals have committed against their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a wake up call for white evangelicals to determine whether the unity of the church is worth the obedience required to put on the mind of Christ as Philippians 2 suggests.
But there is hope. I have to believe there is hope. And I, as a person of color, stay because of this hope. I also stay because, quite frankly, it is easier for me to stay as and Asian American male than it might be for others (at least for now, though I have an increasing concern that Asians will divide along “conservative” and “progressive” lines based on the litmus tests white evangelicalism places on us too). Most importantly, I stay because of evangelicalism’s stated commitments to the Gospel and to its core tenants of Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Sadly, those who leave will hold to these same commitments as well, they will simply hold to these apart from the evangelical identification.
My hope is that the work we do will give reason for Lecrae to look back into evangelicalism in the future and find that we are a people who carry each other’s burdens and have made room for all believers by the power of the Gospel. Pastor, let us work together to be a unified evangelical community that doesn’t need to be marked by the adjectives of white or black, not because we are colorblind, but because we live so deeply by ethics of the Kingdom. Let us work together to show the world how Christ gives us every compelling reason to make room for all who call upon His name. Let us work together to demonstrate to the world the unity Christ prayed for in John 17.
With hope in God and faith in my brothers and sisters in Christ,
P.S. I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for the ways in which you helped people think in theological categories. Your preaching has impacted me in ways that helped me to crisply and clearly think about God and His glory. I will never forget the first time I heard, “God is most glorified, when you are most satisfied in Him.” Like many others, this single phrase changed the direction of my life.
Read “Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relations” on Christianity Today here.